Evidently, the most recent burning question among wine geeks and producers has been: if American syrahs are so good these days, why aren’t they “selling?”
Whatever the reason, despite the fact that it’s been over twenty years since Randall Grahm started posing on magazine covers as the Masked Man to stir up enthusiasm for the movement that became known as the Rhône Rangers, the surge of numerous, world class quality American syrahs is still a very recent development. Most of today’s consumers just haven’t had the chance to catch on to them. Heck, a lot of wine professionals are still unaware of recent breakthroughs, and are just beginning to grasp the stylistic and terroir related variations.
Not long ago, after all, it was commonly thought that interest in red zinfandels would die soon after the White Zinfandel phase, and that American pinot noirs would never amount to anything serious. Shows you what “experts” know. Simple observation of recent history tells you that even the best things usually take time, and that positive consumer response does indeed follow proliferation of styles and quality (so much for the industry adage that consumers are confused by variety).
Recently, during a three-day sommelier tour of Santa Barbara that I organized, the topic of how to turn guests on to syrah came up during a meeting with some of the region’s top syrah producers. During the exchange one simple, sensible thought precipitated: restaurant guests need to find relevance in American syrahs, and the most effective way restaurateurs can show that is by highlighting them with compatible foods people love to eat.
Sounds simple enough; and in fact, when it comes to syrah, it really isn’t that difficult a thing at all: since by the very nature of the grape’s perfumed, fruit forward qualities, it’s an extremely food-friendly wine. From mesclun salads in winey vinaigrettes and roasted game birds in fruit reductions, to barbecue spiced meats and chocolates laced with raw cacao, framboise or berries, syrah stretches the boundaries of food and wine matching as far as any wine can (including pinot noir and riesling). Mediterranean influenced food flexibility, if you recall, was a major part of the Rhône Rangers’ original battle cry, although the new American syrahs have evolved even beyond that.
Withal, when cooking for syrah, some basic guidelines to follow:
• Syrah is a quintessential “big red” calling for red fleshed foods – from beef and lamb to tuna, goose and game, or else fattier cuts of pork.
• It pays to play up to syrah’s spice (suggestive of black pepper and smoky incense), a complexity that is more subtle that often assumed; and this can be done with use of aromatics like garlic and alliums, peppercorns and peppers (bells as well as chiles), cinnamon and clove, all mushrooms, mustards, ginger, bay, basil, mints, parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, and thyme.
• The violet and floral qualities of syrah can be highlighted with the use of plum, berries and cherries (fresh or dried).
• Grilling and roasting are always good ideas, but bringing out the sweetly scented berry or plum qualities of syrah by first marinating any number of ways is also good. We’ve had luck with soy sauces infused with ginger, garlic, scallions, star anise, lemon grass, and even chili pastes, balanced by sweeteners like palm sugar (i.e. the Chinese or Asian-Fusion friendly elements of syrah).
• Any variation of American barbecue marinades -- especially meatier beef ribs or chewy tips in vinegar (as in the Carolinas) or mustard laced sauces -- will play off the flowery fruit, peppery spice (connects with restrained chili spices, often with electrical results), and underlying acidity of classically composed syrahs.
• There is enough of a sweetly fruit forward quality in top drawer syrah to be successful with stews and braises; classically in seasoned natural stocks (especially with quatre-epices), and innovatingly in Japanese, Chinese or Korean inspired stocks
Finally, some more syrah-and-food for thought – a few matches (involving syrah based reds from around the world) that I have recently known and loved:
• Chinese red spiced Kurabuto pork belly with a napa cabbage fondue, matched with a black, meaty, violet and smoked bacon scented Samsara Los Alamos (Santa Barbara) Syrah.
• Twice cooked duck and mesclun salad with confit of garlic in a syrah reduced balsamic vinaigrette with Chave’s sprightly, smoky, slightly gamey and smoothly rounded Saint-Joseph Offerus.
• Cracked peppercorn crusted tuna in a garlic thyme syrah infused syrup with a moderately tannic, fragrant, black pepper and sandalwood scented Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah.
• Grilled quail and wild mushroom terrine in a spicy roasted red bell pepper sauce with a round, friendly, fruit driven Qupe Central Coast Syrah.
• Cassoulet of lamb, oxtail and pig’s ear with a classically huge, muscular, stony textured Cornas by Thierry Allemand.
• Australian free-range lamb chop in a wild cherry shiraz reduction with a brothy bouqueted, sinewy, sculpted ten year old Penfolds Grange-Hermitage.
• Hoisin marinated tenderloin of lamb in a tamarind plum ginger glaze with wasabi mash, matched by a massive yet plump, nimble, sweetly concentrated Justin Focus Paso Robles Syrah
• A roasted ribeye of veal with hedgehog mushrooms and rosemary/oregano tinged mornay with a lush yet muscular, resiny herb spiced Shenandoah Valley Syrah by C.G. Di Arie.