“Working the Land” (Viticulture)

Viticulture: Syrah At-A-Glance
Vigor (low/high)
Relatively easy to grow. Moderately to highly vigorous and managed by rootstock selection, crop thinning, spacing and clone matching as well as, where legal, managed irrigation
Performs at its best in poor soils and especially well in granite soils Thrives in moderately dry climates; neither too hot,nor too cold
Yield (potential)
Variable, depending on vigor and winemaker intent; green harvesting for concentration of flavor is a common practice
Growth cycle
Late-budding – Mid-season ripening (short window between veraison and harvest)
Susceptible to chlorosis, mites and other issues, including Pierce’s Disease, botrytis, mildew and oidium. Syrah Decline is a disorder specific to Syrah grapes and characterized by deep grooving and pitting just above the graft union, resulting in poor nutrient translocation, early red leaves beginning in late-summer, stunted cane growth and, in some cases, death of the vine.

Growing and Making Syrah (in California)

Consumer confusion has, in this author’s point of view, been Syrah’s greatest conundrum and challenge in California. Once deemed the “next great red grape,” globally, Syrah has never taken off the way many thought and hoped that it would, instead remaining more niche to its devoted fans. And there are many. This uphill battle is in large part due to the reality that unlike Australia (where it’s always known as Shiraz) and France (where it’s forever Syrah), producers in the United States can call their wine either Syrah or Shiraz. In a perfect world, all Rhône-style leaner and spicier examples would be called Syrah, and those whose gorgeous ripe fruit and fuller body are hallmark would be labeled Shiraz. But that is in a perfect world and we do not live in a perfect world. Instead we are left to “guess” (usually by provenance) or intuit, and hope we get the wine we are looking for when making our selection. Sadly, hope is not a strategy, so a little study can go a long way in helping to connect the right wine with the right palate.

Working the Land

Does soil influence the flavor of the final wine?

Traditionalists answer unequivocally “Yes!” Soil is a key element of “terroir” -- the natural environment where vines grow -- along with climate (temperature, rainfall), topography (altitude, drainage, slope, aspect) and sunlight.

A more unorthodox view holds that the influence of soil on what you taste in the glass is a myth. Maynard Amerine and Ann Noble, two famous names at the University of California, Davis, California’s premier wine school and wine research facility, conducted a study on the topic. Though the study is based on Chardonnay grapes, they concluded that the following holds true for all winegrapes: “no outstanding sensory differences were observed in wines produced from different soil type locations.” The key word is “sensory” (sight, smell, taste): They are not saying that the soil doesn’t affect vine behavior (yield, growth cycle, etc.). 

The subject is most certainly up for further debate. That said, here is a brief review of how Syrah, according to the classic view, expresses itself in the glass based on the type of soil in which it is grown.

Granitic Soils

This soil warms quickly and retains heat well. The soil's high level of acidity and elevated PH work to minimize acid levels in the grapes, while its low fertility means that the roots will grow deep and strong. Granitic rock is porous enough to create deep-rooted vines, producing layered, subtle, blossoming aromas, lifted aromatics and precision-driven flavors that can develop for years. With Syrah, this is most noteworthy in France’s Northern Rhône, for example in Cornas.

California locations: Sierra Foothills.

Loam Soils

Loam is most often accompanied by clay which, when blended with other soils in the right amounts, offers an ideal soil type for muscular wines with high extract and color. For example, the great Shiraz vineyards of Australia’s Barossa region are mostly found on clay-loam soils -- and we all know how impactful and impressive Barossa Shiraz can be.

California locations: Clay-based soils exist in many locations. 

In California, Syrah grows well in both warm and cool climates. Most Syrah plantings in California occurred before 2009. Small plantings (most of which were under 100 acres/40 ha) followed between 2010 and 2016, with little Syrah planted in the years since. While there are a great number of pure 100% Syrahs made in the Golden State, the grape plays a significant role in many red cuvées, Rhône-style or “proprietary” blends (as the red wine blend category continues to grow in popularity). The most widely distributed clones in California came originally from Australia. They have proven to be virus-resistant and offer many sub-clones (Shiraz FPS 01 through 07) which differ based on heat treatments. In 1999, Dr. Carole Meredith reported that she compared all seven FPS Shiraz selections, as well as selections called Syrah-01 and Sirah-01, with four Syrah clones from the French national variety collection in Montpellier. All the FPS vines had the same DNA profile as the French Syrah. Other registered clones, of which there are 27, come from various sources, including France’s celebrated ENTAV nursery. Several massal selections have California origins, including some from Alban and Tablas Creek wineries. 

For a deep dive into Syrah clones, visit the Syrah and Shiraz chapters of Winegrape Varieties in California by University of California, Davis’ Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The lion’s share of premium Syrah is planted with bilateral cordon training. While vertical shoot position (VSP) systems are effective with Syrah in cooler districts or low-vigor sites, they are not well-suited to high-vigor sites where downward shoot growth tends to moderate the balanced growth of the overall plant.

Yes, there is such a thing as sparkling Shiraz, which almost any visitor to (or fan of) examples from Australia can animatedly discuss. That said, it is a localized interpretation of the grape, although one that goes exceptionally well with the Thanksgiving Day table, offering a playful and tasty alternative. 

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Sustainability and California:

The California wine community has a long history of adapting to change and demonstrating its commitment to sound environmental practices and social responsibility. Building on these efforts are the educational and certification programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA). Established by Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the CSWA is the most comprehensive and widely adopted wine sustainability program in the world in terms of acreage and cases, and – together with other important sustainability programs in regions throughout the state – has made California wine a leader in addressing climate change.