As we near the relaxation of pandemic restrictions in Alberta, my thoughts turn to in-person meetups with my regular tippling crowd, instead of the weekly Zoom call from the seclusion of the windowless wine cellar that has been my hermitage for so long.
I must confess that I have grown fond of the weekly Zoom wine nights, pulling out forgotten gems nestled among the dusty bottles to show off for the camera. This week’s special find was an old bottle of Syrah, that I had been saving for International Syrah Day on February 16.
The Syrah grape has its origins in Roman times, first lauded by none other than Pliny the Elder in 77CE, in the area of the Roman Empire now known as the Rhône Valley of modern-day France. The grape is thought to be crossing of the Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza grape varietals, both of which are native to the region.
The Rhône Valley runs roughly north-south for 200km, with the vineyards of the northern Rhône dominated by Syrah, while the southern Rhône is dominated by Grenache. The premier vineyards of the Northern Rhône planted on steep slopes that make mechanization infeasible, so the grapes are picked by hand and hauled up the hillsides on trolleys, driving up the labour costs. Fortunately, the just-slightly-below-premier vineyards are very reasonably priced, with many options available at your friendly neighbourhood bottle shop in the $17-$22 range.
Patriotic tipplers may be surprised to hear that we grow a fair bit of Syrah right here in Canada, despite the grape’s reputation as a sun worshipper. Our first domestic plantings of Syrah are barely two decades, old, first planted in the Niagara wine region in 1997.
The Syrah grape does best in hot and dry climates, with Australia and California leading the pack in world production, but the desertlike microclimate in the southern portion of the Okanagan Valley of BC has been producing excellent domestic offerings since the turn of the millennium.
Syrah can be quite expressive of terroir, with grapes grown in cool climates like Canada or northern France having a more complex and elegant bouquet due to the longer hang time on the vine providing more opportunity to absorb nutrients and mineral notes from the soil.
Hotter climates like California or Australia produce a much more fruit-forward and youthful jam-like flavours from the accelerated growing and ripening cycle.
Our beloved Canadian Syrah tends to display notes of violets and plums, which marries well with leather and vanilla aromas from barrel aging.
Syrah is commonly blended with small amounts of a distant relative called Viognier, which provides a fuller body and more balanced wine, with notes of peach and jasmine that complement the wine.
This marriage of Syrah and Viognier is an open secret in the winemaking world, with most bottlings of Syrah containing 3-5% of Viognier. This tiny fraction still allows the wine to be labeled as a Syrah instead of a blend, while providing just enough Viognier to round out and balance the flavours in the Syrah.
My favourite domestic option is the Blasted Church Syrah, located a bit south of Penticton in the Okanagan Valley, a location I visited many times in those carefree pre-pandemic days. Typical of the varietal, it pours a dark and inky into the glass, with complex aromas on the nose, and rich notes of blueberry and plum on the palate.
I can still recall visiting Blasted Church way back in 2002, the year they threw open their doors and were still a new and unknown winery selling their wares directly from the winery door. A full two decades later, Blasted Church has grown their annual harvest to 28 thousand cases, and have wide retail distribution throughout BC and Alberta, where you can find their wares in the $25-$35 range at your local bottle shop.
Another long-time favourite of mine is the Sandhill Syrah, a bargain daily drinker at only $25, and widely available in Alberta. The Sandhill winery is located in the heart of downtown Kelowna, where they vinify the grapes from their six different vineyards across the Okanagan Valley, allowing them to select the perfect terroir for each grape varietal. Extended oak aging gives this wine notes of leather and spice, making it pair well with braised meats or robust cheeses.
Look for these and other Canadian Syrah varietals on the shelf of your local booze merchant, and see how we stack up on the world stage!