Syrah is the new merlot. The explosion in plantings of this grape shows how hot the wine is. In 1985, there were about 100 acres of syrah vines in the United States. Now, there are about 20,000 acres.
The controversy over the origin of the grape explains its two names. One theory holds that it came to France from Syracuse in Sicily, hence the name syrah. Others believe it originated near the city of Shiraz in present-day Iran before moving to St. Francis Winery and Vineyards, established in 1971 in Kenwood in the heart of the Sonoma Valley, has long been known for their sumptuous merlots, cabernets, and zinfandels. They, like many wineries in California, are relative newcomers to syrah. Since they have few mature plantings of syrah in their own vineyards it can take several years after planting before a vine produces they buy grapes from their neighbors in Sonoma. Their 30-plus-year history has allowed them to forge relationships with grape growers and gain access to superior supplies of fruit. Blending wines made from grapes grown in different parts of Sonoma County adds to the complexity of the finished wine.
St. Francis has fashioned a spectacular syrah in 2002 by adding, as in the southern Rhone tradition, a little wine made from other Mediterranean varieties, mourvedre and grenache. The result is a multilayered wine with an exotic edginess and engaging suppleness that is unusual in a wine this size. Despite having more than 15 percent alcohol (most table wine runs 12-13 percent), which reflects the ripeness of the grapes and intensity of the flavors, it remains balanced and harmonious. This warming wine is perfect for wintry fare.
St. Francis, Syrah, Sonoma County, 2002 (about $19). Distributed by Horizon Beverage Company, 800-696-2337.