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Syrah vs. Cabernet: no comparison


A few days ago, I blogged on how Cabernet is more forgiving of slight problems than Pinot Noir, because it’s more tannic and fuller-bodied, whereas Pinot’s transparency reveals the slightest flaw.

Adam Lee, the co-proprietor (with his wife, Dianna) of Siduri and Novy, wrote in to ask if I think Syrah also covers its flaws, since it’s a full-bodied, somewhat heavy wine, like Cabernet. I replied, “my sense is that Syrah has more faults to begin with than Cabernet and doesn’t do a good job at all of hiding them.”

A tasting yesterday of coastal California Syrahs confirmed that impression. Although all the wines had good fruit, each displayed problems significant enough to keep the scores well below 90 points. In some cases, particularly along the Central Coast, acidity was too high, making the wines sour. In several cases, I detected the unmistakable smell of brettanomyces–that funky, disagreeable odor of stinky armpits. Now, a touch of brett doesn’t bother me, but on some of yesterday’s wines, it was so strong that, on the wine with the most powerful brett smell, my head actually recoiled as soon as I inhaled from the glass, and I had the fleeting sensation of whiplash. (That would be an interesting lawsuit: Wine critic sues winery over neck injury caused by ‘stinky’ wine”)

Even the best Syrah from yesterday’s tasting couldn’t rise above a certain simplicity. All jammy fruit and oak, no depth or complexity.

I went and looked at my Syrah scores since early summer, and, while there were a handful in the 92-95 point range, most suffered from one or more of the defects I mentioned above. It needs to be said that many of these Syrahs were not expensive: let’s say, they fell into the $20-$40 range. Yes, that’s not exactly an everyday price for most consumers, but it’s nowhere near what the best Cabernet costs these days, so I guess you get what you pay for.

It’s always a chicken-and-egg question with Syrah, whether it would be better if vintners could charge more for it, or whether they could charge more if it were better. Certainly, if you know the most you can wholesale your Syrah for is $12-$15, you’re going to cut a few corners. You’ll want to maximize yield, not invest in new barrels, and maybe be less discerning during the sorting process. When you can charge a lot of money for your wine–say you’re Jayson Woodbridge, at Hundred Acre ($300 a bottle for Cabernet)–you do whatever it takes to make the wine great.

Syrah’s easy to grow almost anywhere, just like Cabernet. It’s not a particularly fussy grape, like Pinot Noir or even Zinfandel, which ripens notoriously unevenly. Stick Syrah in the ground and you’ll usually get some pretty good grapes. In some ways it’s even more versatile than Cabernet, because it will grow in cool climates (Carneros, Sta. Rita Hills) or warm ones (Napa Valley, Paso Robles), and you can produce good wines from both regions.

The problem seems to be that price point. Syrah is stuck. Winemakers can’t raise the price, which means they can’t raise quality. That’s an awful place to be, for any product. It’s almost as if consumers intuit Syrah’s problems and shy away from it. Certainly, all the Syrah jokes (comparisons with pneumonia and V.D.) are tragicomedies with real world consequences. Syrah is a noble variety and can do astounding things. But it’s not going to in California as long as those price and quality wheels are stuck in the muddy ditch. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’ll also say this: I do not think that Rhône red blends are the next big thing. If anything is harder to get right in California than Syrah, it’s Grenache and Mourvedre!

  1. Clearly I don’t taste nearly as much wine as you. However, as an engaged consumer, I’ve found that producers with a solid vision syrah, as well as clarity of how it fits into their over all offering, often make great syrahs at prices that don’t send me running. Peay, Copain, Wind Gap, come to mind. There are many other, otherwise high quality producers, for whom it seems like an afterthought. So even if they are capable, it * seems * that there is a lack of focus on intent. As though they are growing/producing based on knowledge of their core varieties.
    Clearly speculation, but I can’t help getting the sense that this is the case more than pure economics

  2. raley roger says:

    How do these winemakers find time to comment on blogs during harvest? Sorry, I just don’t get that. My winemaker friends barely have time to see their kids and wives, much less surf wine blogs and then comment.

  3. Roger, maybe they do it while they’re visiting the bathroom!

  4. dr, there are indeed some great, consistent Syrah producers in California. But not very many, especially compared with Cabernet.

  5. Kurt Burris says:

    I’m in the marketing end of things so it’s easier for me, but with September being a key month in the sales calender, winemakers are still paying attention to sales. And press is a part of the package. You can usually power up your laptop while waiting for fruit or for the press cycle to finish.

    Steve: I’m sure Bill Easton is going to chime in on Syrah’s price point and quality. I think it is a chicken and egg issue. I ws lucky enough to go to school with Jean Louis Chave and got to try some of his families Syrah dominated wines and they were pretty fabulous. And last time I had a bottle of Grange…Well, suffice to say it was damn fine. Syrah really only has a 25 year history in this state. Grapes that have been grown here a lot longer still get planted in unsuitable locations and still make mediocre wines. I think people like Nick Peay (bias alert: another classmate) have the potential to make great wines from cool climate plantings.

    Now that I’ve defended Syrah, what do I have more of in my wine cellar? Cabernet. But I probably drink more Syrah.

  6. I agree. My only point is, I wonder if it has to do with broad lack of vision for the grape, rather than purely economic considerations. Clearly, it will always, ultimately, boil down to economics. However, the sense I get, often, is that for many otherwise good producers, syrah is an afterthought.
    That producers can make really great syrah at relatively reasonable price points, suggests it’s possible with the right focus and if the dedication to a vision for the grape (or any grape) isn’t going be dedicated to, the drop it from the portfolio and focus on your core vision

  7. I believe Syrah is best when supported by a little of the Southern Rhone trio of Grenache, Cinsaut and Mourvèdre, it adds to the complexity, the Northern Rhone they like to co-ferment a little Viognier. It’s only the great terrior of the central Rhone that produce excellent single variety Syrah, even the great Penfolds Grange often has a shot of Cabernet Sauvignon in it.

    For cheap and cheerful I stick to Aussie Shiraz, big peppery with lots of jam.

  8. The issue with Syrah in CA coastal areas is nature, not nurture.
    Syrah is a medium cycle variety that buds late but doesn’t ripen too late. Therefore, its natural cycle is not finely adjusted to California’s long, sunny growing seasons; and wines tend to show opulence but limited complexity and/or structure.
    Although it is indeed adapted to a wide range of temperatures, it has “a tendency to lose aroma and acidity rapidly if left for too long on the vine” (Robinson, J.); and organoleptic qualities might be virtually erased when yields are allowed to rise too much.
    I don’t think prices are a problem either: Washington State, with a climate that is nearly ideal for Syrah, can produce consistent/balanced wines at competitive prices points.

  9. Felip Holbrook says:

    You need to spend more time with Syrahs from Washington state. There are many outstanding examples from large wineries (any Ste Michelle/Columbia Crest bottling) to boutique offerrings (try Lost River Winery, Gamache Vintners or any of Charles Smith’s many efforts). And as always, the quality/value ratio is very high with Washington wines.


  10. Winemaking faults like too-high acid and excessive Brett are not cost issues – they are either deliberate choices or inattentive winemaking. It is no more expensive to make clean, well-balanced wines than it is to make dirty, unbalanced ones, so I don’t see how these flaws can be attributed to the economics of the variety. I think it is true that there is not yet the clarity of vision, lets say, that there is for Cabernet, and so there are probably some wines still trying to find their way stylistically. Maybe Steve should try some $15 Syrahs – it haas been my experience that consumers at that price point are less tolerant of flaws than those at higher prices, who tend to write them off, or even embrace them as ‘complexity’.

  11. I like the passion for Syrah in the comments and although I agree with Steve concerning the quality % via Cab vs Syrah, I hope to work hard the rest of my life to bring rhone and spanish blends to the forefront.

    The next big thing no… but in a millineum world looking for something new that is really well made in a $40 price point, I plan to nail it.

    Virginie seems to think we are on the right track…

  12. Steve,

    I believe I taste at least as much wine as you do (averaging over 7,000 wines a year). I find your assertion that California Syrahs are disproportionately faulty, based apparently on your tasting of some coastal Syrahs, to be bizarre. And yes, heavy brett is a major fault. But you also found the acidity too high in a California Syrah, thus making it “sour”? That’s peculiar and sounds like it may be an idiosyncratic reaction to high acidity (a trait that others like, and rarely find in California Syrahs).

    At any rate, the part of your post that claims that California Syrahs have a high degree of faults based, apparently, on the limited sample of the previous day’s tasting reads as an extreme and unwarranted over generalization.

  13. Heck with the Cab comparison. Regarding quality and price point, say $20 to $40 and domestic Syrah versus domestic Pinot Noir? I’ll put my money on the Pinot.

  14. Morton: for the most part I agree with you. But you know, when it comes to good wine, it’s always caveat emptor.

  15. Richard Jennings, my post was not based on a limited sample of the previous day’s tasting. It was based on 20 years of tasting many thousands of California Syrahs.

  16. Leave Syrah in the N. Rhone where it belongs and reveals its truest, best expression. CA should stick to disgusting Zins and give up pretending to make wines of distinction. Ridge, Calera, Sandhi and a tiny handful defy this but let’s be real. California wines suck. Grape juice for children.

  17. Ah Tim, it always entertains me to read the angry and bitter throw out gross, negative, generalizations to make themselves feel better. You’ll forgive me for taking just a wee bit of schadenfreude in your misery.
    Perhaps some time at a TeaBrain rally will show you some companionship and ease your anger.
    Good luck!

  18. raley roger says:

    Your post says far more about the quality of you as a person than the quality of wines coming from California. Once you get that stick out of your ass, you’ll find they’re much more enjoyable than you previously realized.

  19. Tim, for the most part I agree with you except about the part where we Californian’s pretend to make wines of distinction. Everyone, everywhere pretends, that’s our business model.

    Despite the fact that Syrah belonds in the Northern Rhone and that we make disgusting Zins, if I buy a mixed case of Pinots from Russian River and Oregon and a mixed case from Burgundy, I’m pretty happy with the domestic wines and fairly disappointed in my foreign purchase. Regarding Cabs, I find less difference between Napa and Bordeaux each year, they are both pursuing false idols.

  20. Morton speaks truth!

  21. Hello Roger Raley, you are welcome to remove that stick from my ass and enlighten me.

  22. daniel roberts says:

    I disagree that Syrah has less issues in the vineyard. I grow Syrah throughout California and have found Syrah to have nutritional issues that neither Pinot noir nor Cabernet have. Syrah accumulates potassium which can influence juice pH so rootstock choice is very important. Syrah can develop phosphorous deficiency regardless of rootstock in the same soil where Pinot noir will have no issues. Syrah decline is poorly understood but a real issue when vineyards 7 to 8 years old begin to decline.

    In terms of great california Syrahs, I suggest you try Radio Coteau Cherry Camp from the Sonoma Coast.

  23. Hmmmmmmm….I’ve tried Calif Syrah ever now & then and I guess I’ve very seldom found the flaws you describe, Steve. Maybe I should try more of them??? I can only recall a (very) few over the last few yrs where I found detectable brett…and then only in older ones. High acidity and sourness??? Wow….something else I seldom find in Calif Syrah…even from the very coldest Syrah vnyds, like StoloFamily, QueSyrah, Failla Estate, Peay, Ventana, CardiacHill, ClaryRanch, OldLakeville, Hudson, LasMadres, Bassetti, Presidio.
    I look forward to your next Syrah review to find which ones of them are “flawed”. ‘Tain’t the few I’ve been trying, though.
    As far as Cabernet vs. Syrah in Calif…to my mind it’s a now brainer. You can buy Calif Syrah in the $20-$60 price range that is ever bit the quality….nay…better quality…than most/any NapaVlly Cabs in the $100-$750 price range. Least to my simple tastes, anyway. Maybe I should be trying more Calif Syrahs, though.

  24. raley roger says:

    Steve, That comment was meant for Tim, who indeed needs it.

  25. Steve,

    Another interesting blog post, but it certainly begs the question – which syrahs were you tasting and from what vintage?!?!?

    I love syrah – drinking it and working with it – and know many of the players down in my neck of the woods. Now when you say ‘Central Coast’ it’s impossible for me to know who you are referring to as this region stretches from Monterrey down to our neck of the woods . . .

    But the ‘high acid’ syrahs you’re talking of seem to be ‘few and far between’ along the Central Coast in most vintages. I feel the variety generally lacks acid in our area rather than the opposite being the case. That is unless it’s a cooler than expected vintage and things never really ‘ripened up’, such as 2010 and perhaps 2011.

    As far as brettanomyces goes, as others have pointed out, this is simply a fault that exists across all wines and is not any more prevalent in syrah than it is in other varieties. It is a spoilage yeast and one that certainly is prevented by good cleanliness in all aspects of the winemaking process.

    I guess we’ll find out which wines were reviewed and from where to see what exactly the issues are at hand, but for now, we can only ponder . . .


  26. So Steve,
    What do you think is the explanation for the high fault rates you perceive in California Syrah (and that I and others in this thread have not found)? You’re not saying the variety has more propensity to brett are you? As Larry pointed out, brett can affect any wine and is not variety specific. Many Syrah makers also make Cabernets. Are you saying their Syrahs are affected by brett and their Cabs aren’t?

  27. Richard Jennings, I don’t know why California Syrah is so erratic. Probably many reasons. All I know is that it is.

  28. Hi Steve,
    I find it a little disappointing to read of your disdain for Syrah. Do you feel the same about Cote Roties or are you specifically disliking the California versions you taste of this variety? You don’t reference Syrah from anywhere else so I’m assuming you mean CA. I have to agree with those that have pointed out that flaws, Brett and acids out of balance, are a shame in any wine, any variety. It’s sad to dismiss the variety without pointing out that, old school Cote Rotie-style Syrah, which sets the benchmark for me as a producer of Sierra Foothill Syrahs, are as some say, lean (I’d say elegant), aromatic (no doubt Viognier’s influence) and often finish with a touch of lemon peel, (some could hate that kind of acid, bitter or ‘sour’ finish). Some Ca producers are making robust, oak and fruit driven Syrahs, even from cool climate areas, (think Syrah from Wrath in SLH). Those kinds of CA Syrahs are becoming what is expected of CA Syrahs now… It seems the new world influence is far-reaching with winemakers trying for the holy Grail, 100 pt score. In my last visit to Ampuis, I tasted a few vintages of Syrahs all barreled down in 100% brand new French Oak, making massive, tannic, and fruit bomb Cote Roties. It made me a bit disappointed.
    I do believe Syrah grown in our granite-bouldered soils of the Sierra Foothill mountain range, can handle the CA sunshine and still develop perfumed aromatics and minerality-driven complexity. It’s a grape that deserves respect here, but it takes winemaking not focused on fruit or oak simplicity.

    Anna Marie dos Remedios
    Winemaker, Idle Hour Winery

  29. Austin Hope Syrah is unmatched by most California Cabs

  30. I would like to point out that Australia’s most famous wine, the Penfold’s Grange, has alway been a “Syrah” ( in Australia we call it Shiraz ), and the most recent vintage 2008 has recently scored 100 by the Wine Advocate ( a USA publication ), and the 1990 vintage was named by Robert Parker as “the best red wine in the world”.
    Currently bottles sell for over $600, and a Chinese company offered to buy the entire 2008 vintage from Penfolds ( thankfully they declined ).
    So anyone who says that Shiraz or “Syrah” is a poor man’s wine is a
    FOOL !

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