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).
Similarities
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.
Differences
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