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‘Syrah has struggled to attain the lustre of its French peers in fine wine circles’

While it doesn't command the prices of wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux, cool-climate Syrah and the grape's use in unexpected international blends could soon change all that, says Sarah Heller MW

Words by Sarah Heller MW

trinity hill gimblett gravels vineyard in new zealand
The Collection
Cool-climate Syrah is 'shining brightly' at Trinity Hill in New Zealand, says Sarah Heller

As a keen observer of global wine trends, I’ve always been fascinated by what makes some wines impossible to source and others impossible to sell. For all of our fixation on terroir, grape variety – a much simpler factor to comprehend and communicate – seems to play the larger role here. Some varieties can command serious cash even when rendered with relative mediocrity, while others seem to doom even the most exquisite wines to dusty irrelevance.

The long-standing challenges of Syrah (NB: not Shiraz) as a commercial juggernaut are well known, but even in fine wine circles, where it is a solid member of the ‘cool grapes club’, it has struggled to attain quite the lustre of its French peers. Though it experienced comparative success in 2021, the Rhône Valley still appears in most wine investment guides principally as home to some of the world’s greatest ‘value collectables’, a title I imagine it would gladly shed (Guigal’s La-La wines and Chave’s ultralimited Cuvée Cathelin being obvious Syrah-based exceptions). It’s telling that outside of Australia (or California’s culty Sine Qua Non), the would-be producer of a new £100+ prestige project rarely picks Syrah as the vehicle for their vinous ambitions. Yet Syrah’s quality potential across a broad spectrum of environments at least matches that of the golden child Cabernet and, I’d argue, far surpasses that of Pinot Noir.

jean louis chave ermitage bottle
Jean-Louis Chave makes some of the Rhône Valley's most expensive wines, with bottles of its Syrah-based Cuvée Cathelin selling for thousands of pounds

I see two bright spots on the horizon for lovers of fine, graceful Syrah who would like to see greater uptake of their favourite grape. One is the incursion of Syrah and its intriguing twinge of exotica into a greater number of unexpected blends; the other is growing confidence among cool-climate Syrah producers that their wine deserves fine wine levels of adulation.

The unorthodox (some would say heretical) blending of Syrah and Bordeaux varieties was once limited to adulterated 19th-century Bordeaux or Australian efforts to curb Shiraz’s exuberance with some minty Cabernet freshness. Now the pairing is having a moment in China, where wines as lofty as Ao Yun – the prestige cuvée grown some 2,500m above sea level in the Himalayas – feature a characterful dash of Syrah in their otherwise Bordeaux-influenced blends.

To date, Syrah has barely played any role in the fine wines of a country evidently bent on competing with the world’s greatest

This is especially notable because, to date, Syrah has barely played any role in the fine wines of a country evidently bent on competing with the world’s greatest. Syrah has been harnessed in Bordeaux-style blends from coastal Tuscany to Napa to Stellenbosch, but usually just to replace Merlot as a contributor of mid-palate flesh to Cabernet’s notoriously skeletal frame. Ao Yun winemaker Maxence Dulou, while inspired by Aussie Cab/Shiraz, told me that in his terroir, the Syrah helps lift the blend, adding some verticality and a sparkle of floral and spicy aromatics. In other words, it adds some genuine Syrah class rather than simply filling out the middle.

Meili mountain in Yunnan in china
Yunnan in China, where Ao Yun is making Syrah blends that showcase 'a sparkle of floral and spicy aromatics' courtesy of the grape variety

The second major exception to the fine wine world’s indifference to Syrah (again, not Shiraz) is the growing contingent of fine cool-climate Syrahs, covered extensively in the latest issue of the Club Oenologique magazine by Natasha Hughes MW. Personally, I feel that New Zealand has an especially strong hand to play here, though perhaps I’m biased, having spent a great deal more time in New Zealand lately than in any other major contender. (Examples from lands as disparate as Valais in Switzerland [Germanier’s] and Nagano in Japan [Mercian’s] have also left me much heartened.) Until now, New Zealand producers’ tall-poppy anxiety may have helped keep prices moderate, which has potentially further embedded the sense that Syrah (unlike Shiraz) is simply not ready for serious price tags.

Fortunately, these lights may be about to be uncovered from their bushels, with marquee names such as Trinity Hill and Craggy Range shining brightly with their radiant Homage and Le Sol respectively, while the quieter handiwork of Kusuda, Bilancia and Sam Harrop bowls over the few lucky enough to lay hands on bottles. Nobody is saying that Syrah is going to be the new Pinot Noir – and I wouldn’t wish that fate on my fellow Syrah-philes – but I can certainly see a growing respect for the wine lover who brings to dinner not a Vosne-Romanée or Russian River Pinot but a svelte Syrah of immense character and soul.

Sarah Heller illustration
By Sarah Heller MW

Club Oenologique columnist and Italophile MW Sarah Heller was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she covers wine for Asia Tatler, disseminating her sometimes idiosyncratic wine recommendations across the continent