Syrah may be the most easy-going wine on the planet. And it’s fast becoming one of the most popular. According to Wine Business Monthly, sales of Syrah rose a whopping 63% in 2001 in the U.S. Plantings have been up, up, up for the past five years, not only in California, where the amount of Syrah harvested has grown exponentially every year since 1997, but also in Washington state and even Oregon. Plantings in France saw a similar surge beginning in the 1970s, and in Australia, where the grape is called “Shiraz,” plantings have tripled since 1980. That means lots of Syrah coming our way!

<strong>WHAT IS SYRAH, ANYWAY?</strong>

Syrah is a red grape variety known for its spicy, peppery black fruit aromas, as well as a tell-tale smokiness; even scents of leather or tar.

The oldest of the “noble” wine varieties, Syrah dates back to Roman times, when it was grown in France’s Rhône Valley. A few famous Northern Rhône wines made from Syrah are Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Saint-Joseph and Cornas. In the southern Rhône, Syrah is blended with other varieties such as Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault to make Châteauneuf-de-Pape. It is also used in many wines labeled Côtes-du-Rhône. In the past couple of decades, Syrahs from the Languedoc region have become very hot.

In Australia, Shiraz is the most popular red grape, used for making inexpensive, casual wines, as well as Penfolds Grange, the country’s most famous wine—and one of its most expensive. South Africa also produces very good Shiraz.

<strong>WHO LOVES SYRAH?</strong>

Grape growers love the variety, because it grows well in just about every wine-growing region and climate. It’s much less demanding than fussier varieties such as Pinot Noir, so it’s not too difficult to produce high-quality fruit.

Winemakers love Syrah because it lends itself to many styles of wine, from the big, muscular versions that were first made popular forty years ago in Australia to the more elegant, yet complex and full-bodied traditional styles from the Northern Rhône—even to sparkling versions. Wines made from Syrah have the potential for serious aging (as in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie), but they can also be made in a more accessible, easy-to-drink style, as in California Syrahs. It’s also a terrific blending wine, since it has great depth of color and structure—so great, that in the 18th century Bordeaux wine merchants were caught adding Syrah from the Rhône to their red Bordeaux to give them deeper color.

American diners love Syrah because it goes so well with such a wide variety of the foods we love—especially casual dishes, such as hamburgers, pizza, pastas, barbecue ribs and chicken, and grilled steaks. In fact, easy-to-drink and easy-to-match Syrah, with its often gentle tannins, works well with grilled and roasted foods of all kinds, since its smoky character picks up their flavors nicely.