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Sensual Syrah
by John Axelrod, © 2012


It has been said that a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.
Winemakers are anxious for the start of fall, and the harvest season so that more wine can be enjoyed with a good meal.  The hot summer weather has actually been good for grapes, making them retain much of their sugar to allow for a healthy balance between size and fruit content.   

One wine that benefits from this is the Syrah.  This grape, also known as Shiraz down under, takes the heat and keeps on growing.  Once they are picked, and the skin and juice are retained and filtered, the aging process in the barrels increases the natural tannins and makes for a spicy, saucy, seductive and scrumptious wine.  

Syrah is a noble grape that came originally from the northern Rhone region of France, not from ancient Persia as stories suggest.  The most famous wines, and equally expensive, are the La La's of Guigal, wines of Cote Rotie known as La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque.  The Hermitage has also a well appreciated heritage.  

The Syrah grape flourishes in warmer climates, making it now the wine du jour in California and Australia, where the soil seems to feel more solid with Rhone varietals than Bordeaux grapes.   Rosemount and Penfolds have established their names as reliable and affordable options for quality Shiraz.  And the Americans, like Joseph Phelps, have won acclaim for their Syrah.   But beware, there are many risks growing an unpredictable grape that can be as easily destroyed by rain or too much sun.  And its sensual and jammy fruit explosion to the palate is an acquired taste, different from the elegance of Bordeaux and the refinement of the Pinot Noir.  But to wine growers and wine lovers, the gamble is worth the risk.  Syrah benefited by the Phylloxera fungus that infected many American vineyards in the 1990's.    As they replanted lost Cabernet and Chardonnay vines, winemakers decided to give Syrah a try.   The "Rhone Rangers" revolution was born.  And they succeeded.   As Kermit Lynch said, who like Robert Parker is an experienced voice for wine, "The Syrah has more soul and mystery."  Wow. 

People have used similar words to describe the music of Wagner.  Soul and mystery.  Sensual.  Unpredictable and risky.  For me, it is Tristan and Isolde which encapsulates this description.   In my new book, "Wie Grossartige Musik Ensteht…oder auch nicht,"  I write extensively about the Tristan effect, its influence on modern music and other composers, and the reaction from critics during its day.  While loved by some and hated by others, all agreed that Wagner broke new ground with his musical style, metaphorically and musically capturing the essence and mystery of the German Romantic soul.  

Even Nietszche wrote, "
“Tristan and Isolde is the real opus metaphysicum of all art...insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death...it is overpowering in its simple grandeur.” 

Tristan und Isolde, das eigentliche opus metaphysicum aller Kunst […] mit seiner unersättlichen süßesten Sehnsucht nach den Geheimnissen der Nacht und des Todes […] überwältigend in seiner schlichten Größe […].

What was so beautiful and overpowering?  A chord. 

Wagner composed the Tristan chord and changed the musical world, setting off a revolution on musical chromaticism.  Some people regard it as the beginning of modernism and the disintegration of tonality.  That interval of F to B to D# to G#, or a half diminished 7th chord is considered unique in its use of silence, its duration and unresolved tonality.  The function of the Tristan chord, and its unresolved nature, leading down a path rarely taken rather than a proved destination is what changed the way the sound was heard.

The Syrah has also taken its own revolutionary path and has changed the way a grape can be cultivated and consumed.  If taken together, the Syrah and its sensual companion of Tristan and Isolde make for an unforgettable, romantic evening.  Perfect for the coming cool nights when a fire feels better than the summer heat.