28 Feb Truth in Wine: Syrah vs. Cabernet?
If I had a shekel for every consumer who has told me he prefers Cabernet Sauvignon to Syrah, I would be a rich man. But I’m always surprised to hear it.
Both Cabernet and Syrah grapes produce some of the greatest wines on Planet Earth. Why would so many people believe they prefer Cabernet?
The answer is simple: There’s a lot more Cabernet in the marketplace than Syrah. So people are more familiar with it. And with more bottles of Cabernet-based wines to choose from, consumers may have better odds at selecting a good Cabernet over a good Syrah. That said, by blindly choosing Cabernet over Syrah, wine lovers are cutting themselves off from some of the best drinking experiences they’ll ever have.
Syrah is the king of red grapes in France’s Rhone Valley. (Just like Cabernet is the king of Bordeaux and Napa Valley.) There’s a reason that (Rhone Syrah superstar) Guigal’s La Turque, La Mouline and La Landonne all retail for around $300 per bottle. You can also get Jaboulet La Chapelle—a Guigal neighbor— for about the same price. The same goes for various Chapoutier Ermitage wines. And if you are a true connoisseur, you can seek out Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage. But you’ll have to pay $500 for a bottle. If you want Chave’s best stuff, try the 2009 Chave Ermitage Cuvée Cathelin. It’ll only set you back $5,000. All Syrah, all from the Rhone Valley. (FYI, none of these are kosher. But they do set the standard for quality worldwide.)
What gives? Well, these are among the greatest red wines you can purchase. Are they as good as equally great Bordeaux like Lafite-Rothschild and Latour (made with predominantly Cabernet)? Of course they are. But they offer an alternative tasting experience, which is what makes wine interesting.
For the record, there’s a reason they grow Syrah (and not Cabernet Sauvignon) in France’s Rhone Valley. It’s the same reason they grow Pinot Noir in Burgundy and not Bordeaux. Centuries of winegrowing have demonstrated that these varietals are best suited to the regions that have adopted them.
In Israel, where modern-day winemaking only started up a generation or so ago, I’ve tasted more great Syrah than great Cabernet. That’s not to say there’s no great Cabernet grown in Israel—because there is. But in general, I find that the soil and climate in much of Israel’s wine country reminds me more of France’s Rhone Valley (and maybe California) than anywhere else. (Full disclosure: I make Syrah in Israel and in California. But I also make Cabernet Sauvignon in the two regions.)
Here’s a simple truth: Some Cabernet will be better than some Syrah. And some Syrah will be better than some Cabernet. Both grapes—when grown in suitable terroir and vinified effectively—can deliver wines worthy of high praise. The issue is not varietal, but rather: Where are the grapes grown, and who’s making the wine?
Maybe it’s because Israel reminds me of the Rhone Valley that its Syrah really speaks to me. Typically, however, I find Israeli Syrah to be more lush in style than the top-flight Rhone reds. As such, I think it may be more Californian in nature.
It’s too bad that many of the wine lovers I meet during my travels—especially in the kosher world—are so fixated on Cabernet. Yes, I love great Cabernet too! But why limit yourself? Cabernet—unless it’s really top notch—tends to be more tannic and herbaceous than Syrah (and many other reds). I often read with dismay on Facebook how folks are decanting their Bordeaux for three hours in the hope that it will somehow “come around.” Oy! If your Cabernet doesn’t taste right after 45 minutes of decanting, you might as well sit on it for another 10 years in the cellar! Decanting is a good thing, but a great wine shows its stuff sooner than later.
Many of you reading this blog spend a lot of money on wine. I think you owe it to yourselves to have a pragmatic approach to selecting a wine for dinner. Keep an open mind and shed your Cabernet-only agenda. And if you know you like a particular winery, try to explore all their different varietals. There are many paths to perfection.
Again, this being “Truth in Wine,” I’m the first to admit that I have a not-so-hidden agenda here. Yes, I want people to drink more Syrah. And yes, I’m as proud of my Israeli Syrah as I am of my Napa Valley Cabernet. But you don’t need to drink less Cabernet. Just drink more wine! And expand your horizons—with Syrah.
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist.