A lot of what people who sell wine prattle on about is this: “Why don’t people drink more _?” Fill in the blank with Albarino, Chenin Blanc, Mencia, Carmenere, Refosco, Sherry or, the topic for today, Syrah. We all want to turn you on to the things we’re turned on to, so that we can move to the next thing and continue lording over you our intelligence and authority.

Like Riesling, though, there’s a special poignancy to Syrah’s ignominy, because the grape is not from some obscure subregion hiding in the faraway hills of a yet-to-be-discovered second-tier wine country. It’s France, for goodness’ sake! It’s the Rhone Valley!

And in this country, thanks to the wise “Rhone Rangers” of the 1980s including Randall Grahm, Steve Edmunds and Bob Lindquist (among others), it’s California! The grape does so many exciting things in these regions; the wines are available everywhere.

But the by-now-old joke goes: “What’s the difference between a case of pneumonia and a case of Syrah? At least you can get rid of a case of pneumonia.”

After writing an article recently in the New York Times on Cote Rotie (one of several appellations in Syrah’s spiritual home, France’s northern Rhone Valley), Eric Asimov wrote a blog post titled: “Why Syrah Hasn’t Caught On in America?” That came a couple of years after asking in that same paper: “Is There Still Hope for Syrah?”

He’s not the only one inquiring. There are blogs and other platforms dedicated solely to Syrah, to cool-climate California Syrah and Hermitage to Auguste Clape. The over-arching sense is of (eloquent) voices shouting in the wilderness.

Well, here’s one answer to all the hand-wringing queries: It’s too expensive. The prices are “correct” (i.e., not out of line with the work required), because the nature of the grape – its skin thickness, its sugar content and acidity levels – dictates that it can be developed into the most interesting wine only when grown in cool climates. There, it is left to hang longer into the season, and the terrain is such that caring for the vines and harvesting the grapes must be done by hand and with an extremity of care. This makes the wines cost more.

So my Syrah question is slightly different from: “Why can’t folks see the light?”

I ask: How does it compare, in people’s minds, to other wines that cost $12 or so?

Part two of that question, of course, is: Are $12 Syrahs any good? Are they worth it?

Part three is: Do they taste like Syrah should taste?

Summary answer: Yes, but choose wisely.

Syrah should taste like violets, bacon, iron, wood smoke, black olives, dried herbs and tar. It should be savory, with its fruit aspects mostly dried rather than gushing or juicy. It should speak of stones, because it’s best suited to stony soil. It should be big-boned but somewhat austere, opening up only over time and if gently seduced by the drinker.

And Syrah is not Shiraz. I mean, it is; they’re the same grape, Shiraz is what they call it in Australia. Before the bottom fell out of the Australian wine market, Shiraz was all the rage. And “bottom fell out” is relative: Australian Shiraz still is very popular.

But there’s no escaping the fact that that style, as well as that of Syrah from Washington state and Argentina, is often so high in alcohol that the wines are best kept away from a meal and left to the point competitions – or to an occasional barbecue-sauce-laden rack of ribs if you won’t mind being massively hung over the next day.

Less expensive Syrah is generally grown farther south than its pricier brethren – Languedoc rather than Cornas; Paso Robles instead of Sonoma. The true Syrah flavors translate pretty well; the minerality and elegance, as one would expect, less so.

Ironically, hope for a better sales future for Syrah might come from where these everyday-priced wines fail to behave like their more complex Rhone and northern California brethren. They’re much friendlier, and the fruit attracts Shiraz-style. A first date with one of these wines will get you further into the relationship than a first date with a Cote Rotie.

Maybe after a few dates, though, you’ll consider trying what we snobs keep telling you are the “real” Syrahs. Even if it’s just to get us off your back for a short while.

Cave Saint Desirat 2007, VdP L’Ardeche, $11 (Crush): This is cool, because the estate-bottled grapes are actually grown in the famed Saint Joseph. It’s an undeniably graphitic, taut wine, with all the expressiveness on the dry-dirt-and-rocks end of the spectrum. It’s got the animal aromas, the violets, the push and the low (12 percent!) alcohol of Rhone Syrah. It finishes abruptly, but so it goes.

Domaine La Bastide Les Genets 2009, VdP D’Hauterive, $12 (Wicked): An unfiltered gem from old vines. It has some of the oomph of a hotter style, with 14 percent alcohol and blackberries making an appearance, but it has the pepper and spicy brightness of classic French Syrah. Above all, it has there-ness; it’s very real wine.

Clayhouse Vineyard 2008, Paso Robles, California, $13 (Nappi): This is not mineral-driven Syrah. Dense, even fibrous, it’s luxurious in a Shiraz style – much more of the fruit, by the fruit and for the fruit, with 14.1 percent alcohol. There’s a sensation of syrup, but the wine is so balanced that that’s not a bad thing.

It’s also much more interesting than the price would suggest. The nose translates eucalyptus and tarragon along with black cherries. First-taste sensations are of rich blueberry pie, candied red fruits, milk chocolate, carob and cola, but then a cayenne-spicy finish takes hold to ensure liveliness. But it’s satisfying liveliness (take that, France).

 

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]