- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

Zaca Mesa, Estate Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley, 2000, $20

Syrah is taking California by storm. Ten years ago, fewer than 1,000 acres were planted to it. Today, about 15,000 acres are under vine, with more going in all the time. Up and down the state, more and more vintners regard it as the red variety of the future.

Syrah’s emerging popularity stems from the fact that this full-flavored grape can yield soft but savory wines. Unlike merlot, the red darling of the ‘90s, these rarely taste excessively vegetal or candied. Instead, they tend to be packed with jammy red and black berry flavors.

The world’s best syrah-based wines, hailing from France’s Rhone Valley and South Australia (where the grape is known as shiraz), augment the primary taste of fruit with secondary aromas and flavors — gamey and earthy in France, but spicier in Australia. To date, only a handful of California wines have tasted as complex or complete.

Although fine syrah comes from all over the state, the best wines tend to be made from grapes grown in fairly cool regions. In particular, wines from the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys in Santa Barbara County, where the cool ocean influence sweeps through the vineyards each day, can taste especially nuanced.

Zaca Mesa’s 2000 estate syrah is a delicious example. Richly flavored, it supports its vivid fruit with notes that echo black pepper, sweet tobacco and more, resulting in a stunning but at the same time subtle whole.

This wine, a great companion for wintry stews and braised meat dishes, may well be a harbinger of things to come, as the whole category of California syrah seems to improve each year. For now, though, it’s very much in elite company.

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