How to Make Great Syrah: Winemaking Tips for the Micro Winery

Syrah has long been the king of the Rhone Valley, in South East France. Historically, Syrah has been a ‘secret’ blending component in red Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. Today, Syrah is grown all over the world. In Sicily and South Africa, Australia and the United States, Syrah’s potential is well known as a single variety and as a component in blends. For the micro-winery, Syrah can be an indispensable part of your wine program.

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Syrah is a black grape that makes red wines with intensity. Aromas of blueberry and black pepper carry to the palate rich with fruit and soft, lush tannins. When grown in a warm climate, with moderate yields, Syrah’s flavors can show their very best. In cooler climates, or when harvested early, Syrah’s more mineral and austere profile can be delightful – featuring an elevated acidity, firm tannins, and a distinctive stony quality. 

Because Syrah is a black grape that makes red wine, it is safe to assume that it is made in a red wine style. Syrah grapes are harvested and fermented with their juice. When the fermentation is complete, the wine is drawn off from the grapes and the skins are pressed. The wine should go through malo-lactic conversion and age for several months before being bottled or blended with another wine. Every wine has its obstacles. As winemakers, we are dealing with an agricultural product that is sensitive to its surroundings and treatments. Syrah is no different. There are a few pitfalls and obstacles with Syrah, but Syrah is also a versatile grape that can be made in myriad ways.

In The Vineyard

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

In the vineyard, it is important to be involved with the management of the Syrah crop and canopy. When I make Syrah, I look for vineyards in warmer areas – with the greatest number of ‘degree days’. Whether your preference is to harvest the Syrah grapes early or to let them develop, a warmer climate gives you that option. Canopy management is especially important after véraison. Some leaf pulling can expose the grapes to the sun, elevating the potential for the grapes to ripen fully. Exposing the grapes to sunlight and air also increases the potential for drying when it rains or is foggy.

My preference is to aim for a sugar level of between 23-25º Brix at harvest. Below 23 Brix, the acids have not begun to break and the acidity can dominate the profile of the wine. Similarly, the aroma and flavor precursors have not fully developed until around 23º Brix. Above 25º Brix, the alcohol could potentially be very high, elevating the potential for a ‘stuck’ fermentation or a wine that seems out of balance.

If you are able to work with the same Syrah vineyard for multiple vintages, you will certainly get a feel for the type of wine you can make.

In The Winery

As I stated, Syrah is made in much the same way any red wine would be. There are, however, variations in processing and fermentation techniques. For example, during processing, destemming the Syrah grapes and sending them to the fermenter will result in a classic red wine. Destemming half of the Syrah grapes and fermenting the entire batch with some grape stems can add a rustic, stemmy quality to the wine. Fermenting Syrah without destemming the grapes results a wine with an earthy, tannic quality. If you have the capability, try three different fermenters with each type of fermentation – one without stems, one with some stems, one with all the stems included. One of the problems with Syrah (and Petite Syrah) happens to be its tendency toward ‘reduction.’ What do I mean by reduction? Quite simply, reduction is result of elevated levels of volatile sulfur compounds in the wine. In other words, reduction stinks – like rubber, cabbage, and earth. 

The question is, how do you beat it?

Whether reduction in Syrah is the result of a vineyard treatment, a low level of yeast assimable nitrogen during fermentation, or lack of oxygen during aging, it can easily be treated by racking. While some reds are more delicate, Syrah can benefit from racking. Racking and splashing the wine immediately after fermentation, pressing, and settling can have multiple advantages. The introduction of oxygen aids in limiting reduction; it allows the wine to breathe. Racking and splashing at this point also promotes the secondary (malo-lactic) fermentation by introducing a small amount of oxygen. If the wine can go through malolactic conversion in barrel, this will benefit the overall complexity of the wine. Once the wine is in barrel, one or two rackings from barrel to barrel in the presence of oxygen (without using gas) can help to blow off any volatile sulfur aromas. Syrah does have an affinity for oak, so a good balance of new and old barrels can add to a superior final product.

To Blend or Not To Blend 

Syrah can be made as a single variety wine and can add great depth of character to a blend. One of the best things about Syrah is that it has myriad stylistic possibilities. As a stand-alone wine, it can be concentrated, fruity, firm, soft, ripe, and/or stony. The more ripe styles of Syrah tend to show the variety’s potential for making very big red wines. The less ripe styles are in a class all their own, showing restraint and classic ageability. When combined with Cabernet Sauvignon (and other Bordeaux varieties), Syrah can soften the tannins and enhance the fruitiness of the resulting wine. When used as a blender for medium-bodied reds like Pinot Noir, Sangiovese or Grenache, Syrah performs a dual role in enhancing the structure and body of the wine. Whether you decide to blend your Syrah with other wines or simply bottle it on its own, you are sure to be pleased with its performance. 

* For more information about acidification, sulfuring, and grape processing, read the other articles about winemaking in this series.