Many grapes seem to have a stylistic destiny. For merlot, it's plummy smoothness. For cabernet sauvignon, it's blackcurrant and a tug of tannic astringency. For sangiovese, it's cherries and earth. That's a simplification, of course, but no matter where you go, winemakers – and consumers – tend to measure success or failure based on those benchmarks. Then there are the chameleon varieties, grapes that afford winemakers greater latitude to craft a variety of compelling styles. Chardonnay and pinot gris fall into this camp. So does syrah. In fact, I think of syrah as two grapes, not one.
In its spiritual homeland of France's Rhône Valley, the syrah region closest to my heart, it sings with savoury overtones that can suggest white pepper, licorice, bacon, flowers, even iron or blood. These are consummate food wines that beg for braised red meats or roast game. At the other extreme – and other side of the planet – Australian syrah tends to deliver a festival of jammy fruitiness. Shiraz, as it's mainly known there, can seem like a meal in itself, though it pairs nicely with the charred, smoky flavours of the barbecue.
Weather is the main reason for the great divide. Sunshine in the warm southern Australian regions of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale boosts sugars and fruity intensity, while the relatively brisk climate of such northern Rhône appellations as Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph dial up the grape's bracing, savoury side.
Elsewhere in the world, notably California, syrah suffers from something of an identity problem, leaning this way or that depending on the specific microclimate and even on winemaking style. Heavy reliance on small oak barrels for aging, for example, as opposed to the larger casks generally employed in the Rhône Valley, can play against syrah's sweaty ruggedness. It's like lipstick on Sylvester Stallone. Many California producers also like to hold off until late in the season to pick their grapes, which yields jammier flavours and higher alcohol content.
But, in general, the California way, at least where expensive, premium offerings are concerned, leans more toward the French model. It's syrah, not shiraz, even if it rides more like an SUV than a Citroën.
Domaine De Bonserine La Sarrasine Côte-Rôtie 2008 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $49.95
There's no such thing as an inexpensive Côte-Rôtie, so this qualifies as a good buy. Lots of plummy fruit here, but the joy is in the non-fruit elements, notably mineral, cracked pepper, herbs and a hint of roast pork. There's great acidity on the juicy finish.
Mitolo G.A.M. Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $43.95
This tastes so much like sweet berry jam, you may be tempted to serve it with ice cream and waffles. But it finishes dry, with a hint of licorice on the crisp finish.
Beckett's Flat Margaret River Shiraz 2005 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
From Western Australia's relatively cool Margaret River region, here's a Down Under shiraz that stops short of the buxom, fruit-bomb style of Barossa and McLaren Vale. Six years old, it offers up attractively evolved flavours hinting at tobacco, cola and dried herbs.
Fess Parker The Big Easy Syrah 2007 (California)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $34.95
Before he started this Santa Barbara County winery, Fess Parker was known to TV viewers as Davy Crockett and, later, Daniel Boone during a pair of series that ran in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a velvety, dark-chocolate bar of a wine, weighing in at 14.9-per-cent alcohol, with lots of dark-roast coffee and voluptuous oak in the mix, plus an attractive bitter flavour on the finish.
E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2007 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $24.95
The dark colour suggests greater concentration than you'll find on the palate, and there's a touch of lean greenness in it, but it's an admirable offering from the hit-or-miss Crozes-Hermitage appellation, with invigorating white pepper and black olive flavours.
Perez Cruz Limited Edition Syrah 2009 (Chile)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $19.95
Closer to Australian shiraz than French syrah, it shows chewy blueberry and a light dusting of herbs along with a tug of astringent, fine-grained tannins.
Domaine Les Yeuses Les Épices Syrah 2008 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.95
This is a compelling bargain-priced example of the French style, a humble country wine from the southern Languedoc-Roussillon region. Expect chewy dark-skinned fruit, a savoury underpinning and pleasant nuance of rubber.
Feudo Principi di Butera Syrah 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 84 PRICE: $16.95
Sicily is a small but growing presence in the world of premium syrah, a grape that shares similarities with the island's signature nero d'Avola grape. I like the price here and the juicy liveliness, but it's a tad stalky and should offer up better concentration given the warm climate.