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Brandon Lapides is winemaker at Armida Winery in the Russian River Valley wine region.
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Ask the Winemaker
What is ML Fermentation, Malolactic Fermentation, Secondary Fermentation?
Why do wines get better with age?
How do you pair wines with dessert?
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 1-2
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 3-4
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 – Weeks 5-7
Winemaker B Interview - Harvest 2008 - Finale
What’s so special about Syrah?
Harvest 2009, First Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Second Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Third Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Fourth Interview with Winemaker B
Harvest 2009, Final Interview with Winemaker B
What’s so special about Syrah?
Note: This column was inspired by a Syrah tasting -- 14 different wineries all using the same grapes -- at Kick Ranch Vineyards in Sonoma County. The photos are from Kick Ranch.

So, what is so special about Syrah and why does it command cult status? Syrah is special to those who drink it in much the same way that some people enjoy “stout” ales such as Guinness; the grapes produce a dark, heavy dry red wine that appeals to a certain palate. Winemakers love to make Syrah because there are so many different ways to make it. So as we dig into Syrah, prepare to wine-geek out because here comes the onslaught of different ways to produce the magic that is Syrah.

But first, some history. Syrah originated in the Rhone Valley of France. Here it was made famous in the northern, colder portion of the valley. Syrah, the grape, is a notoriously late ripener, sometimes even forcing warm-blooded Californians to pick after Halloween. Vintners in the Rhone are sometimes lucky to even get their Syrah to a palatable ripeness. Syrah has very thick skins and loose clusters, allowing the grapes to be able to withstand inclement weather, such as cold and rain. The wine produced is very dark in color, and is more aggressive in the mouth than most other varietals.

New World Syrah began back before the 1850’s when immigrants to Australia began bringing Syrah vines. Many people believe that it was the Californians with their great Chardonnay and Cabernet that first started to scare the French on what the New World could do, but it was the Australians and their Shiraz (Shiraz is Australian for Syrah). Penfolds first made their “Grange” blend in 1951, this comprised of old vine, dry farmed Syrah being made into a deliciously rustic, heavy, dry red wine with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine competed with the great Hermitage wines of the Northern Rhone.

To Viognier or not to Viognier: The first decision to be made by the winemaker. This is where the myth/legend begins of the magical grape co-fermenter Viognier, the “u” to Syrah’s “q.” Viognier is a white grape grown also in the Rhone Valley that ripens a bit quicker than Syrah. Legend has it that the white grape Viognier will actually make Syrahs darker when they are fermented together, called co-fermentation. White wines are normally pressed and the juice is separated from the skins, but when co-fermented the white grapes are fermented skin on, with red grapes. The percentage of Viognier blended with Syrah can vary from as little as 3% to as high as 15%. And how long have these Frenchmen known about the color stability improvement with co-fermentation? They weren’t trying to get better color, but only to add more sugar to their Syrahs. With the Syrahs having trouble ripening in the Rhone Valley, vintners would throw in the Viognier to basically add some sugar to the Syrah to make it seem riper and give it a bit of extra alcohol at the end. Historically, these blended wines are from Côte-Rôtie and 100% Syrah wines are from Hermitage; both these being part of the northern Rhone Valley. If you’re interested in 100% Syrah or blended with Viognier, from any part of the world, as your local wine proprietor.
Pumpovers versus punch downs: The second decision to be made by the winemaker. Pumping over uses a pump and physically will pump the juice from the bottom of the tank over the top. This process is used to break up the cap formed during fermentation (the beautiful, flavorful red skins that float to the top due to carbon dioxide being released by yeast as a byproduct of fermentation). Pumping over causes the wine to soften their tannins while extracting more from the skins than you could by punching down. Punching down uses some sort of device – this varies from winery to winery, and can be done manually or automated – to push down the skins and is a much gentler process than a pump over, but is it better? Winemaker B’s opinion is that a precise mix of both can produce the best Syrahs. If you only punched down the grapes then your wine could be overly tannic (astringency on the tongue) and out of balance. If you only pump over the grapes then the wine could turn out bitter and too soft. I believe that when making Syrah one has to manage the fermentation very carefully, tasting the development of tannins as the fermentation progresses.

American oak versus French oak versus Hungarian oak, and new versus old oak barrels: The third decision to be made by the winemaker. There are so many differences that I could write another article about it, and probably will. My two word descriptors goes like this: American oak, sweet vanilla; French oak, smooth almond; Hungarian oak; smoky toast. These flavors diminish as each barrel gets older, so the winemaker has a decision to make about the amount of new oak to use. This varies greatly within the winemaking community, but a good average is 1/3 new, 1/3 1-year and 1/3 2-year old barrels. Stylistically the winemaker has many choices, but choices that will have a huge impact on the finished wine.

The specialness of Syrah is that it is an extremely malleable wine that can showcase the true personality of the winemaker. You have your “score-chasing” winemakers, who may pick the Syrah later for maximum ripeness and sugars, add Viognier , pump over the wine 3 times a day and then use 100% new oak. Winemaker B believes that a Syrah made in that style will taste the same regardless of origin…boring. Then you have your “French” winemakers, who will go for more of a restrained, more subtle/complex full wine. Harvest with good acid, punch downs, and mostly old French oak. This wine will likely be very good with food, but may not be the style that you are used to from California Syrahs. These are the two extremes of Syrah winemaking. Most winemakers are somewhere in the middle of these two, causing for much variation between wines made by different winemakers with the same grapes.

Please, I urge you go out and buy a bottle of Syrah, heck buy three. Try to really pay attention to flavors and mouth sensations between different Syrahs from different areas. Pair with any Southern French cooking; cassoulet would be my number one choice, but when in California eat California, so a Humboldt grass fed porterhouse steak with some French fries is just as good.

The more we can drink in these troubled times, the less we will remember how bad it was.
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