The most important grape of the Northern Rhone Valley, Syrah is quickly becoming one of the most noted grapes planted in America. America's best bottlings hail from the Central Coast, Santa Barbara, Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Syrah displays a spicy blend of black pepper and raspberries, with dark fruit undertones; full-bodied with smoke, tar and tannins. It is made into a few magnificent varietally labeled wines, but is also often the base grape for Rhone-style blends. There are those who believe that the Napa Valley should be planted mostly to Syrah, for it thrives in warm growing regions. In Australia, where it is the most-planted red variety, and in South Africa, the grape is known as Shiraz. While viticulturally identical with Syrah, Shiraz grown in Australia is typically sweeter and riper, with more chocolately notes than pepper and spices.
One of France's most exciting red wine appellations, lies in the far north of the northern Rhone, well beyond the town of Tain where the major negociants and Hermitage is located. Some believe it is the site of the first vineyard cultivation in ancient Gaul. Vineyards have been carved into the steep hillsides here since the time the Romans settled the nearby town of Vienne. Viticulture is difficult here, with vines planted in schist banked high above the Rhone River to maximize sun exposure.