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RHONE, SWEET HOME: The hot, sunny Côte Rotie appellation in France's Rhone Valley is where the syrah grape finds what many agree is its best expression.

The Other Red Grape

Ripe, supple, and loaded with inky spice, syrah just gets better and better

By Christina Waters

ONE OF the wine world's top blending grapes, as well as the stand-alone star of such fabled creations as France's Hermitage and Côte Rotie, syrah is an alluring subject. This noble varietal gives complexity without requiring the sort of oeno-retentive analysis usually reserved for pinot noir or riesling. Whether or not you suspect it of being the grape consumed at the Last Supper, as I do, if you're old enough to hold a glass with a stem, you have doubtless encountered syrah.

Widely planted in France, California and Australia, the grape's mysterious origins lead back to Roman France and possibly all the way to the Holy Land. Some oenologists, including UC-Davis' renowned Carole Meredith, trace syrah back to France, where it appeared as the random offspring of dureza and mondeuse. But since the Rhône river, on whose banks the syrah finds its fullest expression, empties into the Mediterranean at Marseilles, and since Marseilles was founded in the first millennium BCE by fearless Phoenician sailors, and since Phoenicians were originally from Syria, my money is on syrah being in fact a native grape of the Middle East. In some rustic form or other it would have been the vin ordinaire of Roman-era Antioch and Jerusalem, and might have found its way into some very important biblical bowls, cups and yes, even grails.

Whatever its origin, syrah is a growing favorite of winemakers in California and in Australia, where its powerful style is distinguished by the name shiraz. In France the grape provides tannic backbone in blends with grenache, mourvedre and rousanne such as the incomparable Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In California, where more and more acres are being planted to syrah—primarily in the Central Coast and San Luis Obispo winegrowing areas—the grape can ripen quickly and produce high-alcohol fruit bombs that require taming by blending. Where days are warm but evenings cool off nicely, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, syrah can grow to great depth, with alluring perfumes of black pepper, bay leaf, cassis and smoky bacon. Friendly to consumers, syrah is drinkable early on and yet is capable of great aging potential. This is a good thing.

Almost any tasting room in the Central Coast will offer a better-than-average, affordable syrah, but here are a few places to start getting acquainted with your new best vintage friend.

Gatos Locos 2006 Santa Cruz Mountain Syrah Starts with pepper and tamarind, then unfolds into a harmonic resonance of black cherry, rhubarb and eucalyptus. Complex middle tones, too, for only $15.

Bonny Doon Vineyard's purple-black "Le Pousseur" It is 90 percent syrah and rippling with licoricey muscle for $18, but my favorite glass of syrah-intensive BDV wine is the 2004 Le Cigare Volant, adorned with multiple layers of meatiness, spice and violets—a steal for $30.

Qupé Syrah Almost any vintage from this reliable syrah producer will give big fun. Qupé's 2007 Central Coast is loaded with 98 percent syrah and delivers a very pleasant, very complex bouquet of flavor notes—blackberry, licorice, pepper, leather and earth. That's a lot to like for $17.

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