Sorry for the bad pun, we just couldn’t resist! Since we recently discussed Grenache, the principal red grape of the Southern Rhône Valley, it seems only natural, even fateful, that we would talk about Syrah, the other major red grape of the region. Unlike Grenache, it was thought to have a colorful history, and until quite recently, its origin was the subject of intense legend building.
Syrah is the same grape as Shiraz, grown in Australia and South Africa. Shiraz is also the name of a city in Iran, and the production site of a wine called Shirazi. Shirazi wine is said to have been discovered by an ailing harem “guest worker” who drank some accidentally fermented grape juice and found that her headache magically disappeared. (No doubt its other effects made life a little less intolerable as well). We don’t know what ancient Shirazi wine was really like, but that hasn’t stopped the speculation that Syrah originated from Shiraz.
One version of the Syrah story has a soldier, Gaspard de Stérimberg, bringing the grape back with him from the crusades, the same man who later became a hermit and is reputed to have begun wine production in the Northern Rhône Valley (hence the name Hermitage for some wine from that region). We always thought that the crusaders pretty much stopped at Jerusalem, but you know how these religious stories can take on lives of their own. Given that the church controlled so much of the wine production during the Middle Ages in the Rhône Valley, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt to give Syrah a religious aura. What better way to keep the peasants working hard at cultivation than saying that Syrah was snatched from the infidels (or a distraction from wasting lives and money and still not getting Jerusalem back)?
Another origin story has the Phoenicians bringing Shiraz with them to Marseilles around 600 BC, and the grape later making its way up the Rhône River in Roman times. Wine is thought to have originated in and around what is now Turkey, and the Phoenicians definitely made their way through the Middle East. They also had a role in spreading wine production throughout the Mediterranean, so this story stuck for many years. It has the ring of truth to it, and may also have become conflated with religious tales, since Marseilles was thought to be a safe haven for religious sects from pre-Christian times. In either case, the name Syrah was assumed to be the Frenchified version of Shiraz. (Interestingly, there’s another story that comes from the other direction, the name Syrah and its supposed origin from Syracuse in the Roman Empire.)
Sadly, but not surprisingly, it turns out that the truth may have nothing to do with any of them. Thanks to both DNA analysis and the desire of the French to preserve their agricultural heritage, testing has shown that Syrah could have descended from two native French grapes, one red and one white. Both were originally grown in regions close to the Northern Rhône Valley where so much Syrah is now produced. Neither of these two varietals is well-known or used much these days. DNA can’t tell us everything, though, so we don’t know when the first Syrah grapes would have been grown. It’s possible that future DNA analysis of residue from old clay wine vessels will give us clues if those vessels can be found. It would also be interesting to know if the Shiraz grape taken to Australia was simply a weirdly anglicized version of the French name Syrah, or homage to a past legend.
[Maybe we can start our own story starring a hermit botanist with a Crockodile Dundee accent and a oddly blond harem girl with a singing voice suspiciously like Doris Day’s and a fatalistic approach to life. Wearing berets! Eating foie gras and cassoulet and haricots verts! Come on, people, work with us here! 😉 ]
No matter where it came from or what you call it, Syrah is a grape that makes a spicy wine with ripe fruit flavors like black cherry and undertones of tobacco. Syrah also has a lot of tannins in its skin, adding a lot of structure and chewiness to the wine. Depending on where it’s grown in France, the fruit flavors can be more pronounced or muted. Most Northern Rhône reds, like Hermitage, are 100% Syrah, and they often need some time in the bottle to soften enough to drink. Producers in the Southern Rhône Valley blend Syrah with Grenache because the two balance each other so well. But it’s possible to find 100% Syrah wines in the South of France, and they can be spectacular. Australian and South African Shiraz wines are bigger, fruitier, and spicier (and often higher in alcohol too) because of the warmer climate. It’s kind of a toss-up in California. Those wines that purport to be more French in style are called Syrah, while those that are bigger-bodied are called Shiraz. Syrah can also be made into rosé, and depending on where the grape is grown, the wine will still have some of the red-grape fruit characteristics.
This week’s recipe is a tuna stew with bold flavors – bold enough to serve with Syrah – but perfect for summer because it’s great at room temperature. Tuna is often served rare, but when it’s poached like this it stays moist and has a wonderful texture. For this recipe, you sear tuna steaks, cook the stew, and then cut the tuna into smaller pieces for serving. It’s great as leftovers, like many stews, because it just gets more flavorful. The hearty combination of roasted peppers, lemon peel, anchovies, capers, and garlic is very Mediterranean, but it also has cayenne for heat and thyme for an extra layer of flavor. You can roast the peppers ahead of time and refrigerate them, which cuts down on prep time.
We’ve got three wines that are mostly or 100% Syrah to pair with the stew. Domaine Fond Croze Cuvée Shyrus 2005 ($20) is 100% Syrah, aged in oak. It’s from St. Roman de Malegarde, in the Northern Vaucluse, where the Syrah is still a little earthy. Although the wine is on the young side for Syrah, the oak aging has mellowed the tannins without adding an oaky flavor, and the fruit is luscious. We also have two older wines: Les Secrets du Château Palvié 2002 (on sale for $17.60) from Gaillac is in its fully mature stage now, with aromas of dried figs, lovely as an aperitif as well. Syrah from Gaillac doesn’t have the earthy tobacco undertones of Rhône Syrahs, so there’s a bit more subtlety and variety of fruit flavors. And Les Terrasses du Belvédère Cuvée Prestige 2003 ($26) is 80% Syrah, blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre, smooth and delicious. It comes from the village of Cairanne, which is one of the hottest places in the Southern Rhône Valley, giving the Syrah more fruit and spice than you might expect. It costs a little more, but it’s definitely worth it – you won’t want to waste a drop!
Spicy Tuna Stew
4 anchovy fillets
1 tablespoon capers
1 onion, peeled, halved, and sliced thin
4 peeled garlic cloves
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
3 green bell peppers, roasted, seeded, and stemmed, with liquid (see note below), sliced into strips
2 pounds or so tuna steaks, cut fairly thick
Zest of one lemon, removed with a vegetable peeler into wide strips
3-4 branches fresh thyme, or half a teaspoon of dried thyme
One and a half cups dry white wine
One 14-15 ounce can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes
Half a teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Rinse the anchovies and capers, put them in a bowl and cover with lukewarm water. Let soak for 15 minutes, then drain. Chop the anchovies. In a small food processor, or on a cutting board with a knife, crush the garlic, a half-teaspoon of freshly-ground pepper, and a half-teaspoon of salt together to form a paste. Don’t skimp on this — the garlic should really be a pulpy mess with no visible garlic pieces.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Season the tuna on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet to very hot, and cook the tuna for a couple of minutes on each side. It should be nicely browned. Set the tuna aside. Using a large ovenproof skillet with a lid or a dutch oven, put the garlic paste, onion, and lemon zest, and thyme in it with a quarter cup of olive oil. Turn on the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine and simmer for about 10 minutes. Then add the tuna, green pepper strips with their liquid, the tomatoes, and the cayenne. Mix well, cover, and bake for an hour.
You can serve the stew as is, or cut the tuna into smaller pieces and mix it in. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Note: If you have a gas stove, you can set the peppers right on the burner grates. Turn on the burners to high and roast them until they’re charred all over. If you don’t have a gas stove, or would rather use the broiler, cut the peppers in half, seed them, and put them skin side up on a baking sheet under the preheated broiler until they’re charred. After charring, put the peppers (and any liquid on the baking sheet if you’re using it) in a big bowl and cover the bowl with plastic, let the peppers sit for 20 minutes until they’re cool. Over the bowl, remove the charred skin and seeds from the insides with your fingers. Strain the contents of the bowl and keep the liquid for the stew.