Wine & spirits: Superb shiraz
Syrah is an ancient variety thought to have originated around the Persian city of Shiraz. In the sixth century BC, it was transported from Asia Minor to France's Rhone valley. Romans – the first connoisseurs of the grape – encouraged its proliferation throughout the region. Today, it's grown in almost every part of the world and produced in two distinctly different styles.
In France, where by law it must be called Syrah, it tends to taste a bit tough, tannic and reserved in its youth, though it gains exceptional smoothness, elegance and finesse as it ages. Aromas of blackberry, black cherry, plum, cedar, spices, smoke, crushed black pepper, licorice and dark chocolate waft up from the glass of a mature Syrah. It epitomizes European refinement.
Upstart Aussie winemakers chose to call their version shiraz. The style is much more assertive, with rich, jammy, bramble berry and cassis flavours, nuances of Kraft vanilla caramels, heavy cream and bread pudding. Australian shiraz offers early drinkability, though its lifespan is somewhat shorter.
But rules be damned; some French Syrahs are lovely from the get-go, while the best Australian shiraz can age for decades and shouldn't be opened till into its teens.
Most other Syrah and shiraz wines fall in between these styles, replacing certain regional characteristics with their own unique touches. California versions, for example, are predisposed to having lower acidity, toned-down fruit intensity, a fuller body and shorter lifespan. In Washington the opposite is true. Walla Walla and Columbia Valley Syrahs have stinging acidity, intensely deep flavours, lean texture and long aging potential. South African examples seem to insert a sweaty, gamy, leatherlike nuance reminiscent of the local Pinotage grape.
Under European wine regulations, shiraz is not considered a sanctioned synonym for Syrah; as a result, the popular Fat Bastard Shiraz, a French wine, cannot be sold in France. It's made in the bolder style specifically for the North American market.
Two of the most exciting wines of this variety I've tasted are a pair from the Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley. The one labelled shiraz is more Australian in style than most Aussie wines, with billowing fruit flavours, while their Syrah-labelled wine could put the best French wines to shame. The winery makes both styles “in keeping with our belief that we won't fully understand what the Okanagan's signature will be for another decade,” says Ingo Grady, Mission Hill's director of sales and trade development.
Either way, Syrah and shiraz are superb when paired with red meats: roasted venison, rack of lamb, prime rib of beef, wild boar, even glazed ham. Add roasted root vegetables, a side of wild rice, or a savoury pasta dish and a rich cheese to follow, and you've got yourself an instant feast.