The market for syrah has gone sour for a while now, the noble varietal's reputation damaged by schlocky inexpensive Aussie shiraz. There's a tired joke in wine country that it's easier to get rid of pneumonia than a case of this once hot grape.
But such vicissitudes of drinking fashion have helped beat a retreat from the gonzo fruit-bombs of a few years ago. There are signs of a shift to the more focused style of France's Northern Rhone Valley, the varietal's original home.
Bitter cold weather is a time for big reds - and good syrah is racy with nice medium to heavy body, food-friendly tannins and acidity. There can be flavors of blackberry, pepper, olives, cocoa, mushrooms, herbs and smoked meat. In other words, exactly what pairs with the rich flavors of deep winter nosh.
It was the tiny California producer Arnot-Roberts that restarted my interest in syrah. There are still a handful of bottles in town (at Square Wine and Steve's-McKee Road as well as at Tornado Steakhouse), and they are worth trying for an example of just how lovely American Northern Rhone-styled syrah can be. These are fresh, lively and savory wines.
Washington state is home to a number of delicious syrahs, and Boom Boom! from Charles Smith Winery in the Columbia Valley is a well-balanced example in the $15 range. It's a pleasant go-to bottle ideal for a dinner party.
For something more challenging, importer Louis/Dressner's Three Trees ($16) has sexy raw French funk that makes you sip and think. This is a bottle that pumps gas with a cigarette dangling from its lips, pungent and petulant.
Yves Cuilleron Syrah Les Vignes d'à Cté 2011 from Chavanay is pretty but with a subtle and delicious element of meat and tobacco. At $19 it may be the best value of the group.
Another heady American bottle is Stolpman Syrah 2009 ($26) from the Santa Ynez Valley. It boasts big blackberry flavors with nice minerality.
However, if you're going to splurge, Domaine Rostaing Les Lézardes 2007 ($36) is the one. Star winemaker René Rostaing makes famous Cte-Rtie. This bottling comes from vines just to the north of that appellation, making it stunning for the money. More than that, it is an exciting wine of great flavor and finesse.
Finally, for an inexpensive Australian bottle that goes a little way in redeeming the Land Down Under, the restrained Paringa Shiraz 2009 ($10) is surprisingly beautiful. It has superb plum and blackberry flavors with a little spice. It'll warm you up, but without the typical Aussie wallop.