Maybe the wind is blowing. Maybe there is a rain and snow mix pelting your windows. Maybe there is a stew on the stove and a fire in the hearth. Hmmm, what to drink? This is not a night for a Chardonnay or sweet, fruity wine. This is the time for heartier fare: black pepper, plums, licorice, leather. Syrah should do nicely.
Syrah is a French grape and, in spite of legends about Phocaeans or crusaders bringing the grapes with them from the Middle East, DNA typing and in-depth historical research by the University of California/Davis indicates that Syrah is a cross between two native grapes in the northern Rhone regions. Dureza, a dark grape, appears to have crossed with Mondeuse Blanche, a white grape, possibly as long as 2,000 years ago. One of the myths about Syrah's origin is that it came from an Iranian city called Shiraz which was known to produce a popular wine. However, that wine was white, and Syrah is a very dark grape.
France's most expensive and esteemed Syrah is Hermitage. This Appellation Origine Controlee (AOC) is 345 acres of vineyards located above a small town on the Rhone River and has been termed the "spiritual home" of the Syrah grape because the ideal conditions consistently bring out its best qualities, and Knight Gaspard de Sterimberg settled here after his tour in the crusades in 1235. He built a chapel (hermitage) on this prime vineyard land, granted to him by Queen Anne of Castille for his service, and lived the rest of his life as a religious hermit. Legends say that he brought Persian vines (those from Shiraz) with him to plant, but this area had already been cultivated, ideal in soil and climate for Syrah. The wine produced became the favorite wine of Russian Tsars, Louis XIII, Louis XIV, Henry IV and Thomas Jefferson and still averages between $70 and $300 a bottle.
A classic French Syrah and an Australian Shiraz are made from the same grape and may look nearly identical. However, they have different characteristics in alcohol content, flavors and sweetness versus dryness because of the variations in soils and climates.
Why would one Syrah command $200 per bottle and another French Syrah or Australian Shiraz (same grape, different place) be available for under $20? One of the keys to understanding Syrah and many other wines is understanding the concept of "terroir."
The French word "terroir" literally translates to "earth" or "soil," but the concept encompasses much more. The type of soil-such as clay, lime, gravel or mineral-is a component, but so is climate and character. It is the "sense of place" where the wine is grown. The belief is that all of these play parts in creating the unique taste, qualities and spirit of the wine which is characteristic of that place only.
In the case of Hermitage the gravely soil, moderate climate and southern exposure of that particular acreage are optimum for the Syrah grape. Vintners here have cultivated and drawn out the best qualities in taste and longevity for this wine, and that is the job of winemakers everywhere.
Because of its tannic nature, Syrah can be cellared for up to 40 years. Syrah may be grown in other places in and outside of France, but while the qualities of the grape remain the same, the actual taste and even personality of the wine will be different. In general Syrah/Shiraz is considered medium to full-bodied, possibly slightly tannic depending on age, with dark fruit flavors like blackberry or plum and other flavors of coffee, chocolate, tobacco, spice or black pepper. Most Australian Shiraz and California Syrah will be fruitier because of the warmer climates and different soil conditions. Many Washington state Syrahs are closer to the French style.
To illustrate the differences, this writer held an informal tasting with a French Cotes du Rhone (2012 Saint Cosme, a French classic-style Syrah with alcohol content at 14.5 percent, available at Casa Di Vino) and an Australian Shiraz (Lindeman's 2010 Padthaway Reserve, alcohol at 13.5 percent, available at Kroger's St. Clairsville.) Both are solid, affordable representations of the grape in their particular geographical areas. In color, both wines are dark and rich, nearly an eggplant color.
One taster immediately pointed out the "perfume" or "floral" scents on the nose of the Cote du Rhone. In the mouth, the wine is somewhat dry and "slightly acidic" with "a little, but not too much, bite." Prominent flavors included "spice" and "black pepper" and a hint of blackberry at the beginning.
Tasters first comments on the Lindeman's included "fruity, but not overly fruity;" "smooth, with a nice mouth feel;" "a refined sweet." There were also "woodsy" notes, as well as red plum and hints of berries. On initial tasting, this was the preferred wine. However, the preference changed when they were tasted with food.
While most Americans view wine as an alcoholic beverage to be sipped like any other drink, Europeans value it as a complement to a meal and drink wine mainly with food. People in this area of the United States prefer sweeter wines in part because they consume them as social drinks. Sweet wines, though, don't pair as well with main dishes, especially savory entrees like stews, roasted chicken and vegetables, pastas and venison.
When tasters sipped the Australian wine with the Mediterranean pizza, they could taste the culture clash in their mouths. The smoothness of the fruit was overpowered by the salt of the olives and sharpness of the feta cheese, much like drinking apple juice with a loaded cheeseburger. Tasting the French Syrah with the pizza changed everything. The drier, spicier wine evened out the saltiness and became "less dry" as it was balanced out by the oil and crust. Instead of overpowering, the food and wine enhanced each other.
This does not mean that the Australian Shiraz cannot be drunk with food. It, in fact, went nicely with the shortbread and chocolate cookies the tasters had for dessert. It depends on the dish. French Syrah and Australian Shiraz can stand up to the spice, sweetness and fat in barbequed, braised, grilled or stewed meats like spareribs, steaks, lamb and pork. Rhone-style Syrah pairs better with casseroles, aged cheeses, venison, sausages, salmon, game birds, chili and mushrooms than the sweeter Australian Shiraz. For the holidays, a Rhone style would be better with the traditional turkey dinners, while a fruitier style would pair better with the sweeter ham.
Recent research on the health benefits of red wine is still encouraging, despite some of the neutral findings on the polyphenol resveratrol being of little benefit to healthy humans. Because scientists are trying to determine how the body breaks down resveratrol, they note that those who are overweight or have cardiovascular disease or, potentially, even cancer are the most likely to see improvement in their diseases by drinking a glass of red wine a day. However, the University of British Columbia has just found 23 previously unknown polyphenol molecules in the skins of dark grapes which could contain more antioxidants and substances that humans can use.
While winter is making its blustery entrance it can't hurt to do some taste-testing. It's time for comfort food, throw blankets and some winter red wines to ward off the chill.
Valenti can be reached at email@example.com.