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The next big red

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Shiraz the people’s choice.

It seems everywhere I go today people are drinking syrah, or should I say shiraz. The two grape names, now interchangeable in the minds of consumers, have captured the taste buds of wine drinkers who clearly like the rich flavours and soft textures of the globetrotting red grape.

In many ways the love affair with syrah/shiraz is the next step in palate building for the new-to-red-wine drinker after merlot. Some would suggest the rich, spicy fruity nature of the syrah or shiraz offers everything merlot promises but often fails to deliver.

In its broadest context New World shiraz/syrah from Australia, Chile, California, Washington State, Argentina, South Africa and even B.C. offers intense peppery flavours of blackberries and damson plums. Mix that with smoky bacon, black pepper, mocha, coffee and vanilla flavours and you have a recipe few consumers can resist and many they look for in their coffee.

In Europe, particularly the Rhone Valley, France, the flavours of syrah are generally drier and perhaps more tannic with white pepper characters. English wine guru Oz Clarke describes French syrah as "all blackberry, damson, loganberry and plum with some quite strong tannin, tangy smoke and a warm, creamy aftertaste with a promise of chocolate."

Clarke rightly points out that the "occasional scent of violets and a white-pepper character together with a greater finesse or elegance is evident when late-developing Syrah is grown at more marginal cooler sites." Certainly it’s the case in B.C.

If there is one bugaboo with the syrah vine it is vigour. A vineyard can quickly turn into a jungle unless growers remain vigilant and keep this rambunctious vine in check. An old vine tends to self-regulate its growth so most of the work controlling vigour and reducing yields is with young syrah plantings.

Inexpensive and varietally correct is always a good place to start when you are learning about a new grape variety so with that as a guideline I’ve assemble a list of syrah/shiraz you can work your way through as you discover the delights of this ancient grape whose origins are most likely Persian.

You may be surprised to learn that syrah is doing well in small selected areas of British Columbia’s south Okanagan. Mission Hill, Jackson-Triggs, Burrowing Owl and Sandhill are all in the game and early results are impressive.

Mission Hill actually produces two versions: the Shiraz Reserve ($18) takes its cue from Down Under boasting plenty of American oak with softer, bolder juicy-fruit flavours and just the right amount of pepper and leather to get your attention.

The Estate Syrah ($27) with its deeper colour and darker tones is aged in French oak. It is a tighter, Euro-style wine that’s leaner in the mouth and spicier than the shiraz.

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