Pinot vs Syrah – War of the occult reds

Pinot GroupsPinot noir and syrah are polar opposites in terms of wine style and heft, but they share a similar challenge—they’re both confusing to consumers who are still learning their way around red wines.

Pinot got a real shot in the arm with the unanticipated success of the movie Sideways, based on the novel by Rex Pickett.  In the story, a wine geek takes his soon-to-be-married buddy on a road trip through the California countryside to visit wineries and vineyards.  Their adventure and relationship degrade in direct proportion to their self-absorption and crude expectations, with unfortunate and sometimes hilarious results.

Although the movie made pinot cool to thousands of new wine aficionados, it never really explains what pinot ‘is’.

Pinot noir is a very earthy wine.  It generally has a lighter color than Bordeaux varieties like cabernet and merlot—it is not a purple or even deep red wine; it is usually a bright brick red color.  It smells of mushrooms, rich dirt, leather, cut hay and bright, sweet-tart fruits like raspberries, cranberries and rhubarb.  Sometimes it has a sexy undertone of white truffle oil.  Depending on where it is grown, it can range from tightly-laced-up and steely to a love potion you might drink in a gypsy camp under a full moon.  But a pinot noir should always smell like sex.

This can be confusing to a generation introduced to wine through the royal purple hues of merlot and cabernet, which have deeper fruit profiles, heavy with plum and blackberry flavors.  Because of these preconceptions some wine drinkers expect all pinots to taste like a mainline red—pure blackberry and plum, with maybe a little floral note or leather in the background.  These are the same unimaginative wine drinkers that want their syrah without the smoke, zinfandel without the pepper, and sauvignon blanc without the cat pee.  They’re probably the same people who are responsible for the abundance of Caesar salads without anchovies and menudo without tripe.

An unfortunate side effect of the sudden popularity of pinot after Sideways is that wineries who had never taken an interest in pinot before (it is notoriously difficult to grow) began ordering pinot juice and bulk wine by the tankload from bulk brokers who buy up excess fruit after the harvest season.  These wineries are getting second, third, and fourth level quality, but they’ll add a little cabernet or merlot or whatever to balance the wine and add a little more color, bottle it up, and sell it for $12 to $15 a bottle—cashing in on the market, but at the same time flooding it with wine labeled ‘pinot noir’ that has no true pinot character.  It’s pinot without the anchovies.

Pinot noirs should not appeal to everyone.  A real pinot is distinctive, different, challenging, sexy, earthy.  Wine drinkers either love them or avoid them.  But no matter what your friends think of the wine you open for them, if it’s a real pinot they will all agree on one thing.  Just one whiff, and everyone should immediately be able to say, “That’s a pinot.”

Syrah is also a variety of grape that challenges the senses—and to add to your confusion, it is so extremely expressive of its terroir that it can range from spicy and elegant—fresh plums, Asian spice, and sandalwood— to what I call the ‘Hun warrior’ expression—notes of blood, iron, campfires, leather and impending rain.

One thing I believe a syrah should always have somewhere in its profile is a scent of roasted meat.  Roast beef or game, bacon, some kind of meaty, smoky essence.  I often think of mincemeat as it was originally—a savory pie of minced beef, suet, dried fruits and brandy.

Syrahs are dark in color, ranging from a dark blood red to a velvet, royal purple.  Fruit profiles often reference blueberries, blackberries, and elderberries.  Syrah is also one of the most tannic grape varieties in the world; young syrahs are frequently thick with woody tannins and require either aging or considerable aeration to open up and soften.  The hefty nature of syrah allows it to absorb a considerable amount of oak, which in addition to its tannins can make it seem quite oaky when young—with age, the timber is usually tamed into balance by the voluptuous fruit and spice.

The occult nature of these two red wines—one is earthy and sexy, feminine and alluring as a full moon; the other masculine and bloody, cloaked in aromas of smoke and rain—put them outside the experience of wine drinkers who expect their wines to be a well-behaved beverage with culturally acceptable profiles of blackberry, oak and pastry.

Side by side, these two varieties will battle for your attention and only one may win your heart.   But if, like me, you love the earthy nature of a wine destined to seduce the senses, then both of these witchy reds will steal your heart and capture your loyalty forever from red wines lacking any essence of earth and fire.


Mary Baker is a wine and culinary consultant with over 20 years of experience in wine marketing and production.  She has worked for outstanding producers like Wild Horse and Justin, and conducted wine seminars throughout the central coast.

One Reply to “Pinot vs Syrah – War of the occult reds”

  1. Thanks for making this comparison between different versions of occult reds here. This is great work from you, and if you can do similar comparisons in the future, I would be extremely grateful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.