Notes from the Cellar: Qué Syrah! (What Syrah?)

by Jeff Cox, Wine and Beer Merchandiser

This article was originally published in July 2007

The aromas deliver on the alluring, purple promise that fills the glass: sun-baked, deliciously rustic, with a telltale waft of smoky bacon that says syrah.

Syrah is hot. Long regarded as a solid but uninspiring member of the “Rhône Ranger” posse — grenache, mourvèdre, carignane (love is coming to us all) — syrah has been reinvented. It is quickly supplanting merlot as a marketing darling and varietal brand du jour. Hell, it’s almost as hip as pinot.

I pour another glass of my humble Côtes Catalanes. Wow. What a difference 15 minutes of breathing makes. White pepper and raspberry notes of grenache are unleashed and the foundation of syrah begins to flex its violet, earth and black fruit-laced muscles.

It packs plenty of pure satisfaction, this humble, $11 dollar bottle of “country wine,” with its exuberant flavors of sun, earth and vine on a Bacchanalian rampage. That sauvage thang. It literally reeks of syrah. Oh yeah.

But the wild thang in my glass is a completely different animal than the “new, improved” syrah whose fruit-bomb hosannas are sung by choirs of teeming demographics.

Why? What’s the difference? What is this ascendant Syrah? An extreme makeover with a whole new lease on life? The American Idol of varietals? A purple phoenix?

All I can tell you is that this tastes like syrah, while that (let’s call it Qué Syrah!*) doesn’t. And that’s just the point. Syrah is distinctive, earthy, even animal, the sort of flavor that’s not for everyone.

Qué Syrah! transcends that earthy, take-it-or-leave-it character. It’s Über-Fruit, a juicy candy store with something for everyone and nothing not to like. Unless you love syrah.

Qué Syrah! is pure ego, strutting its full-throttle berry flavors as it panders and preens. Like a baby-kissing politico, it is always accessible, pleasant, never elusive and rarely profound. But syrah is a different story, a brooding, earthy id with one foot planted on the dark side, its heady aromas of violets and fruit essence riding a primal, almost carnal undercurrent.

But baby-kissing politicos come with a price. Top-ranked titillation means big-ticket prices, even for first-release mediocrity. Of course, many renowned northern Rhône crus also command significant tariffs, but the cost gets you a depth of character that only generations of tradition and experience provide.

Meanwhile, my Côtes Catalanes continues to evolve in the glass, telling a tale of a year in the vineyard. It’s a pleasure to drink, with an implied walk on the wild side that its dark purple, earthy fruit barely conceals. This is the sort of wine I can drink on a daily basis — and I’ll take a walk on the wild side over a stroll to the candy store any day.

* Not to be confused with K Syrah, Charles Smith’s delicious Walla Walla syrah.

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