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Rock Block Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah 1999
Home to some of America’s most celebrated Pinot Noir, Oregon benefits from a marginal climate where grapes must struggle to achieve full ripeness—a challenge that results in high-quality fruit. By far the most important region is the Willamette Valley, which is further subdivided into six smaller AVAs. Surrounded on three sides by mountain ranges, the Willamette Valley is characterized by warm to hot dry summers and cool, rainy winters during which cloud cover is a near-constant. Along with the warmer AVAs to the south, including Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley, it benefits from cool Pacific breezes during the growing season. Further inland, Columbia Valley to the north and Snake River Valley to the east experience cooler, wetter conditions. Post-prohibition viticulture is a relatively new addition to the state, which had been previously deemed unsuitable for the planting of Vitis vinifera grape varieties. That all changed in the mid-1960s, when Pinot Noir was first grown successfully along with other Alsatian varieties. Over the next two decades or so, Oregon continued its ascent to become to Pinot Noir powerhouse we know it as today.
The obvious success story of Oregon is Pinot Noir, which here takes on a personality that could be described in general terms as somewhere in between the wines of California and Burgundy, and is often more affordable than either one. The combination of elegant balance, high acidity, and rustic earth plus bright red fruit places it solidly in the middle of the spectrum for this versatile variety. Other successful varieties here include Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Marked by unmistakable aromatics, a savory palate, and an elegant texture, Syrah is capable of producing fascinatingly complex and long-lived wines with a stunning purple hue. Native to the Northern Rhône, Syrah’s best examples are found in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. It is also an important component of the GSM blends of the Southern Rhône and beyond, alongside Grenache and Mourvèdre. Both varietal Syrah and GSM blends are common in Australia and California and are gaining popularity in Washington State. In Australia, Syrah is known by the synonym Shiraz, which tends to indicate a bolder, fruit-driven style of wine, and is occasionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon for added depth and structure.
In the Glass
At its best, Syrah shows aromas and flavors of purple fruits, fragrant violets, baking spice, white pepper, smoke, and even bacon fat. Many examples from California aim to recreate this savory style, while others focus more on concentrated fruit flavors. In Australia, under the name Shiraz, it shines as that country’s unofficial signature red grape, producing deep, dark, intense, and often jammy reds.
Cool-climate Syrah, with its peppery spices, is a natural match with flavorful Moroccan-spiced lamb dishes, where the spice is more about flavor than heat. With Australian Shiraz, grown in warmer regions, heavy meat dishes with abundant protein and fat are a necessity to match the intensity of the wine.
Due to the success of Australian “Shiraz,” this synonym for Syrah has been adopted by winemakers throughout the world. If the label says “Shiraz,” you can typically expect a plush, fruity, and potent wine made in the Australian style. New World "Syrah" will generally more closely resemble the French style.