Syrah and Zin – Kissing Cousins?

Subscriber Miriam D. asks “Can you speak about Syrah vs. Zinfandel and are they the most similar?”  A good question in light of today being #SyrahDay, an event hosted by the Rhone Ranger group, whose mission is to promote wines made from the 22 varietals that call the Rhone Valley their spiritual home.  Of these varietals, Syrah and Grenache are in a constant battle for top position.

syrah grape cluster - king of red rhone valley wines!Miriam, I’m no ampelographer (botanists who specialize in the identification/classification of grape vines) – but as you can see from these two images (Syrah on left, Zin on the right), the two appear fairly similar on the vine – both varieties produce large clusters, and both can be difficult to get color extraction (color differences shown here may be misleading, as they are not from the same photographic source).
In terms of how they taste once in your glass, the similarity diverges a bit.  Both varietals are quite flexible, and can be made in wildly different styles.  The current fad is to produce both varietals in an extremely ripe style, which

Zinfandel grape cluster, source of America's native wine?

produces dark wines one cannot see through, huge-bodied wines  (Winemakers often add acid to keep them from being flabby), that deliver alcohol levels that can flirt with those of Port wine (and which can be almost as rich, sweet and fruity).  Such wines are popular during the cocktail hour, which is how many Americans drink their wine.
In contrast to this body-builder-on-steroids approach, both varietals can express a more delicate and food-friendly style which is seeing an increase in popularity among the “alternative” crowd.  This style is more common when the grapes come from a cooler climate, and is marked by lighter wines (sometimes the Zins will have a transparency that rivals Pinot) that emphasize white pepper and floral notes.
So yes, both varietals have a variable fruit profile and this peppery note in common.  As a result both are often recommended for similar pairings – usually with foods that express a grilled and/or peppery note to serve as a natural bridge between the food and the wine.
Let’s assume you’ve been handed a glass of each wine (each one made in a similar style) and asked to identify which is which.  How would you discern?  You can identify the Syrah by its darker fruit (Plum, dark cherry) profile and (if made in the lighter style) a hint of lavender on the nose.  By contrast, the Zin will express a brighter fruit profile that evokes bramble berries.  Syrahs also have a natural chemical element, especially as they age, that comes across as smoked meat/bacon or beef jerky or sometimes liver pate.
But don’t be surprised if, without the ability to taste the two side-by-side, an experienced taster follows the white pepper path instead of the fruit path, and confuses these two kissing-cousin varietals.
Hope that helps!  If anyone has other suggestions for Miriam, please add them as comments, below…
dave the wine merchant with glass of syrahCheers,
Dave Chambers

4 Replies to “Syrah and Zin – Kissing Cousins?”

  1. California Zinfandel has (for the most part) become undrinkable to me. Fruit bombs with absurd amounts of alcohol. It is as if every California wine maker is making the same mistake every day………..are there any Californians left who drink California wines..?

    1. SF Doc, thanks for your comment. I have to say “yes” – there are many Californian’s who still love the high octane Zins, as anyone who has watched the departing and tipsy crowd after the annual ZAP fest can attest.

      If this news strikes you as incredible, bear in mind that our American diet (especially our kids’ diet) contains lots of sweeteners – whether Corn Syrup / Sugar, Fructose or other forms of Sucrose. As such, we arrive at adulthood with one of the biggest sweet tooths (sweet teeth?) on the planet! And big California Zins cater to this natural preference in two ways – first, the ripe fruit (even in a wine fermented to total dryness) is a metaphor for sweetness, and our brains tell us to experience the wine as sweet. Second, high alcohol enhances the sweet experience, effectively amplifying the effect of the ripe fruit.

      The key is to identify the few producers whose Zinfandels are crafted in the old school style, if you enjoy Zin’s peppery characteristics over its big fruit and high alcohol. When you identify such wines, you’ll find they are very nicely compatible with grilled anything, deep winter stews, and other such dishes. Plus, you can arrive at work the next day with your liver untaxed and your head clear!


  2. Hi! Dave – thanks for your great job in this site! Can you recommend some Varietals or wine that have this “big ftuit” or ripe fruit that you mention above? Me and my woman love the zinfandel but here in Brazil we have low choices – thanks!

    1. Lourenco, sorry for my late reply! But yes, I’m happy to recommend varietals known for their big fruit profile. I don’t know which of these you might be able to find in Brazil, but I suspect you can get some of the Carmenere from Argentina? It can be hit or miss, but even the less expensive deliver great pleasure per dollar. And of course, if you can find any Syrah, Cabernet or Merlot from warm-weather sites, they all lean towards the lush fruit profile. The warm vineyard is the key, however, as all three of those varieties can tend to be tart and vegetal if grown in cool climates – something that bodes well for aging, but is something of an acquired taste if near-term drinking is the goal!


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