In Praise of Syrah


Midway in style between the charm of Pinot Noir and the rugged intensity of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah unquestionably deserves its place among the world’s triumvirate of great red wine grapes.  Surprised?  Syrah is no less capable of expressing terroir, improving with age, or dazzling your palate with a multiplicity of aromas and flavors.  There was even a time when its most magisterial incarnation, Hermitage from the Rhône Valley, commanded a price in excess of the first growths of Bordeaux.  So why is Syrah relegated to virtual invisibility on wine lists and in retail stores today?  Blame Australia, or more specifically the runaway success that some cut-rate wine brands from Down Under enjoyed a decade ago, which ended up wrecking the country’s reputation as a provider of superior quality wine, and ultimately tarnished the image of the grape with which it’s most closely associated.  In other words, the meteoric rise and success of Shiraz (Syrah’s alias in Australia) ended up backfiring.  The irony of this unintended consequence is that there are plenty of generic-tasting, mass marketed Pinots and Cabernets that never seem to diminish the star power of those grape varieties. 

The upside to Syrah’s public shunning is that you can find excellent bottles at a ridiculously advantageous price.  This is one area where we constantly strive to add value at Legal Sea Foods: ferreting out delicious below market value wines, and offering them for what we believe is a fair price. That Syrah happens to work seamlessly with so many of our heartier more richly textured seafood preparations is unquestionable.  We are big believers, as evidenced by the fact that during the worst days of Syrah’s ignominy we crafted a wine specifically for the restaurant along with biodynamic producer Beckmen Vineyards from California’s Santa Ynez Valley.  It caught on.  Perhaps it’s an early warning sign of some looming turnaround in Syrah’s fortunes that for the last two vintages Beckmen has not been able to supply us with enough juice to make our exclusive Syrah any longer.  But the grape’s excellence transcends borders and wherever I travel (the Rhône Valley, California, Washington, Chile, South Africa, Israel, Spain, Argentina) I’m impressed by how much character the local Syrah has. 

Late autumn is Syrah time par excellence, as the grape’s spicy, smoky, dark raspberry flavors are especially complementary to dishes we gravitate towards this time of year.  Following are a conglomerate of blind tasting winners and other discoveries from a range of geographic origins that you can enjoy, or will be able to soon, at various Legal restaurants as we head into cooler weather:

Lucky Country Shiraz, McLaren Vale, 2015: From the cooler climate marine-influenced McLaren Vale district, lush and layered with juicy red berries; smoky in style with a core of bright fruit acidity, complementary to grilled swordfish.   

Mitolo “Jester” Shiraz, McLaren Vale, 2015: Originating in the same region, Mitolo’s style is darker and more intense, with cocoa and black raspberry notes.  Intense and concentrated enough to work with the Everything Tuna.

Tulip “Reserve” Syrah, Upper Galilee, 2013: Produced at Israel’s Kfar Tikvah (or “village of hope,” where all of the workers are developmentally challenged adults).  This is a bold, chewy Syrah with brilliant plum and dark berry fruit accented, à la the Rhône Valley, with black pepper and meaty, gamey notes. Delightful with salmon or white meat preparations.  For those interested, we are conducting an Israeli wine dinner showcasing the Tulip and other fine selections on January 17, 2018 at our Park Square Wine Cellar in Boston. Reach out at if you’d like to receive an invitation.

Tenet “The Pundit” Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2015:  There may come a day when Syrah is the grape acknowledged to excel most in eastern Washington’s dry, high desert conditions.  This one is ripe and leafy, with a velvety texture and aromas of mocha, bacon and tobacco.  Great with any hearty, grilled fish.

Neyers “Gary’s Vineyard” Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands, 2014: It’s amazing how fine and how diverse California Syrah is, from cool climate zones in the Central Coast and coastal Sonoma, as well as warmer sites in Paso Robles, and further inland on the North Coast.  Because it’s so difficult to sell, growing Syrah is definitely an act of faith and producing it is a labor of love.  This one, sourced by Bruce Neyers from a famous cool vineyard in the mountains of Monterey, is the most tannic and savory of our collection, with jammy blueberry fruit accented with sage, thyme and clove. 

Keep an open mind to Syrah this season, you won’t be disappointed.

Sandy Block, Master of Wine