Shiraz to Australians, or Syrah to just about everyone else on earth is not something I set out to drink often. (I'll refer to it here as Syrah, its proper name, fairly). I don't dislike it and it's not a snobby thing either, it's just a boredom issue. Over-exposure and too many crumby uninteresting ones. Of course when it's great it's bloody wonderful, perhaps unmatched in sheer saturation of flavour. So I'd recommend seeking out its most virtuous forms at its origins to get a full register of it's worth. But before the virtuous, it's important to understand the un-virtuous. (An apology in advance, sorry-not-sorry, like Simon Schama, I love a footnote)
Shiraz* (because in this instance I'm pointing the finger a bit at some retrograde Australian versions) is too often un-satisfyingly directionless in the mouth, amorphous, bulky, undetailed, warm, short-lived and without genuine tannic presence. Excessive alcohol is a normal problem too, creating an illusion of fruity unctuousness, but it's disingenuous, just a trick. Concentration of alcohol doesn't equal concentration of fruit flavour**.
Thankfully there has been a substantial philosophical shift in Australian oenology in the last ten years or so. It's a shift to mid-weight wine with a more focussed and balanced palate, wines lead by their fragrance, concentration and tannin not just their sheer bulk. This makes a better drink, not just a gratuitous momentary sensation. The viticulture is better (less greedy), the winemaking is more focussed on making a beautiful drink and the wine media and arbitration services such as wine shows and wine writers have a better tuned aesthetic interest for it. Syrah wines like those from Clonakilla in the Canberra region really stalwarted the change some time ago, championing fragrance and elegance over mass (not to be confused with concentration, there is plenty of that). Definitively the gorgeous black pepper character*** we see in cool climate Syrah has built its way into our psyche and is staying.
Back to France. Jamet's wine is a beautiful example of the Syrah grape in it's origins. Cotê-Rôtie (the 'roasted slopes') is in the cooler more continental Northern part of the Rhône Valley but has very steep slopes (some 60deg.) facing roughly south as the river bends to the South West trapping much more sustained incidental sunlight without the sustained ambient heat of the AOC further south (which experience a more Mediterranean climate, ie warmer nights). Syrah got serious here a long time ago, the 2nd century BC it's thought, when the Romans arrived in the Vienne area (an area where the Allobroges tribe were native). Syrah is an old probably accidental hybrid of the Monduese Blanche (white) and Dureza (red) varieties and it's genetic sister is the apricot-smelling white variety Viognier***, which is permitted to be co-fermented by up to 20% in the Côte Rôtie AOC (mainly for fragrance and a little oily texture on the palate). Famously Côte Rôtie Syrah has the covetted black pepper aroma and occasionally when improperly ripe or when the fruit is a little too shaded the less desirable white pepper character sneaks in.
Jean-Luc Jamet famously split off from his cooperation with his brother a few years back and makes gorgeous wine. Jean-Luc was the oenological brains in the pair and a proper vigneron; he makes the wine 'in the vineyard' and carefully preserves what he has through the winemaking process. This wine in particular is a blend of 13 plots from terraces along the côte (no Viognier in this case). The vines are small compared to most of ours we see in Australia. They're staked rather than trellissed on those very steep slopes and they're just a little stressed and sinewy but happy enough, producing powerfully concentrated small berries. It's not a cheap wine at $200 a bottle but thoroughly worth the experience. Considering the total AOC is only about 200 hectares it's a fair cop.
Some tasting notes: Iron/blood/red meat, sage, smoky bacon, pepper, raspberry, satsuma plum, stoney-minerals. Density, power but not dopey. Acid akin to Pinot. Very fine and compact, unfurling.
*Shiraz the grape has no connection to Shiraz the city in Iran. Glad to clear that up. If you're South Australian you probably say 'Shi-ræz' (with the hard 'æ' sound in 'cat') and if you're from Western Australia you might say 'Shi-raahz' with the 'a:' sound of 'cars'. I'm not sure what they say in the Hunter Valley but it's probably doesn't matter because it's not great there anyway, haha ouch.. (That's not true of course but it's worth the ribbing. If it makes NSW feel better the 1983 Lindemans Bin 0088 Shiraz is something of a vinous marvel).
**Why is/was this common to Australian wines? Long story: In Australia we're allowed to irrigate vines, something prevented by appellation controls in Europe. Irrigated vines are bigger, bigger vines can make more grapes, more grapes equals more wine which equals more $/hectare. But bigger vines need the support of regular water to ripen the bigger load of fruit, this often means bigger berries with less concentration and a longer ripening period to achieve flavour. As the grapes have to hang on the vine longer they loose too much acidity and acquire too much sugar which creates higher alcohol wines with flimsy palates that need acidification with grape-derived tartaric acid to re-adjust the pH to a stable level. The wine then appears 'sweet'n'sour'. Worse still, the corollary effect of a high alcohol level is the over-extraction of oak barrel flavours (as a result of the increased solvent effect of alcohol on oak resins while maturing) which tends to create a broad, acrid and 'hard' feeling on the palate. This of course is a generalisation and things have got a lot better in the last ten years and irrigation isn't wholly bad, it's just a case of usage vs abusage, vineyard design, and intentions for the quality level - not every wine can cost +$100/bottle.
*** The compound causing the black pepper character is called cis-rotundone and is so powerfully aromatic that it is detectable to the human nose if you were to add a single drop to an Olympic swimming pool.
**** Viognier as a pure white wine is most famously found in Condrieu, the AOC immediately south of Côte Rôtie in tiny walled acerages. Its slippery and rich and very different in it's design to many other white wines. Interestingly Syrah's genetic first cousins are Lagrein and Teroldego found in Subalpine Italy DOCs. Two deeply coloured and highly underrated red varieties not well enough explored in Australian vineyards.