The genetic origin of Syrah was something of a mystery until renowned grape geneticist Carole Meredith, of the University of California at Davis, helped prove that its humble beginnings were actually French: Long ago, two uninspiring grapes, the white Mondeuse blanche and the red Dureza, likely cross-pollinated to create this “new” grape. Now, how long Syrah grapes have been in existence is not known with any degree of accuracy. It is quite possible that the ancient Romans planted the fruit in Vienne, today’s Côte Rôtie. At the time, according to the writings of Pliny the Elder, the vines were called Allobrogica (likely after a Gallic tribe of that name). But it’s also possible that Syrah is even older. Some historians believe that Syrah was cultivated by the ancient Greeks 500 years earlier than the Romans! While we do not know how long the grape has been used for wine, today Syrah continues to gain in popularity.
California Syrah Timeline
First plantings of Syrah in California took place in the Napa Valley in 1878. At the time, some growers mistakenly called the grape Petite Sirah, due to the size of the small berries. Real Petite Sirah (also known as Durif), however, was not imported into California until 1884.
Majority of early Syrah plantings were destroyed by phylloxera
Joseph Phelps produced California’s first varietally labeled Syrah, a wine fashioned after the Côte Rôtie and Hermitage wines he admired and collected.
Gary Eberle planted Syrah (Chapoutier clones) for Estrella River Winery in the Central Coast’s eastern Paso Robles, making him responsible for the largest number of plantings in the state at the time.
McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County isolated a block of what were later identified as Syrah vines dating back to 1919. McDowell winemaker George Bursick bottled the winery’s first varietally labeled wine a few years later from the oldest producing Syrah vines in the state (a finding confirmed by viticulturist and ampelographer Dr. Lucy Morton).
The “Rhône Rangers” were formed -- an informal group of California winemakers who began experimenting with grapes popular in France’s Rhône Valley. In addition to Syrah, other Rhône Valley red grapes that made their way to the United States included Grenache, Mourvedre (aka Monastrell), and Cinsault. The "Rhône Ranger" trend slowly gained popularity in the 1980s.
Syrah became the 24th most planted grape in California, with just 1,331 total acres (539 ha).
California had 50% more Syrah than in 2000, and 14 times as much as in 1995. Syrah had become the seventh most planted grape in California.
A generation of winemakers and wineries takes Syrah from niche to more successful sales, led by a combination of pioneers, notably Eberle, Jephson Phelps, Alban, Bonny Doon, Edmunds St. John, Qupé, Sine Qua Non, followed by a new guard led by wineries such as Failla, Donelan, Jolie Laide, Enfield, Cruse, Stolpman, Piedrasassi, Bedrock, Peay, Drew, Arnot-Roberts, Radio-Coteau, Big Basin, Sandlands, and Copain.
In the United States, home of the most significant plantings of Syrah outside France and Australia, Syrah shouldn't be confused with Petite Sirah, which is in fact made from an ancient Rhône grape called Durif and usually field-blended with several other grapes. California-style Syrah resembles a cross between Australian interpretations and some Rhône classics, and can be scrumptious. Once thought of as an amusing change from other grapes, Syrah is now the leading grape in the Paso Robles area of the southern Central Coast region, where it seems to have found a real niche. Look for Syrah wines produced from older vines and smaller crop yields from that area, as well as those from the Sierra Foothills. While confusion persists (“…is California Syrah more like Aussie Shiraz or Northern Rhône?”), which one can argue has hampered sales, Syrah nevertheless ranks as California’s fifth most planted red winegrape after Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Merlot.
For a deep dive into the history and evolution of the grape in Pinot Noir please see Wine Searcher’s article Whatever Happened to California Syrah