10 pointer for Syrah

Syrah or Shiraz is one the most examined varieties of the Master of Wine Paper 2 practical exam. Twenty-two Syrahs have featured in 11 of the previous 14 Paper 2 exams, from 2004 to 2017. Only Cabernet Sauvignon has featured more (with 30 wines in 11 of previous 14 exams). The message here is, if you’re sitting the MW exam know your Syrah inside out – there’s at least a 78% chance one will feature. Below are some general pointers that might help identify Syrah or Shiraz in a blind tasting. Not all 10 pointers will necessarily be found in every Syrah. This is by no means an exhaustive list–10 is just a nice number.

  1. Cracked pepper and spice
    This is a classic hallmark of Syrah/Shiraz. And is thanks to the impact aroma known as rotundone. Cooler and less ripe sites tend to have higher levels of rotundone. However, an unfortunate 20% of the population are unable to smell this hallmark aroma. But, don’t worry, there’s plenty of other things that helps make Syrah distinctive
  2. The Rhone Benjamin Lewin MWBlack olive, truffle, and undergrowth
    Frequent descriptors used for Syrah, especially those from the Rhone. A 2004 study by Segurel et al. found these aromas to be linked to the level of Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) found in Syrah. DMS is a volatile sulfur compound that doesn’t always create a nice smell (and Syrah is a notoriously reductive variety). Its believed that DMS plays a synergistic role with other compounds in Syrah to create the pleasant and distinctive characters
  3. Highly concentrated and jammy with prune, licorice, and dark chocolate notes
    Not all are like this, But, Shiraz tends to have small berries that shrivel quickly once ripe. Hence, examples from hot sunny climates, like the Barossa Valley, can develop the characteristics noted above. They can even get port-like overtones when extreme levels of ripeness are achieved
  4. Round, gentle, approachable tannins
    That’s not to say Syrah can’t be structured, and firm. It sure can be. But, typically, the tannins are more supple, rounded and friendly than those of say Cabernet Sauvignon
  5. Deep inky colour
    A thick skinned, highly pigmented variety with small berries, Shiraz has the potential to make inky, opaque full bodied wines. Cooler climate and lighter bodied styles tend not to be as dark. But, if you come across an opaque wine, Shiraz should be on your radar
  6. Dense, weighty mid palate
    A classic indicator of Syrah. Unlike the classic hollow mid-palate of Cabernet Sauvignon
  7. Wine making influence 
    The variety has an affinity for oak, that’s for sure. But so do many other varieties. However, whole bunch and stem inclusion is something seen more in Syrah than other thick skinned varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. In his book, Essential Winetasting, Michael Schuster suggests this is because Syrah, like Pinot Noir, has the potential to make delicate and transparent wines. Another reason is that the stems are more likely to get fully ripe in Syrah than in Cabernet or Merlot.
  8. Notes of leather, cured meats, and earthiness
    Characteristics sometimes attributed to brettanomyces. Anthony Moss MW commented in Drinks Business Syrah Masters 2015 that Syrah and brett often go together. In his MW dissertation, Sam Harrop MW, found a striking number of the world’s leading 25 Syrahs had above threshold levels of brett. An interesting article on the palatepress.com considers the influence of brett on varietal typicity
  9. Works well as part of a blend
    Traditionally blended with Grenache and Mourvedre in the Southern Rhone. And also commonly done is South Australia. Syrah can and structure, backbone, and dark fruit to the fleshier, red fruited Grenache. In Australia, often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as well
  10. Global spread
    Possibly due to the huge success of Australian Shiraz, the variety can now be found in commercially significant quantities in most countries producing full bodied red wines. If ever faced with a flight of wines from a single variety but from 3 or 4 different countries, Syrah/Shiraz should be on your radar

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