Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Wine School! (Lesson #7 -- Syrah/Shiraz)

Syrah -- the juicy grape.

Our final red class focuses on Syrah. (Or Shiraz, if you prefer -- same grape.) Of the three reds, syrahs are biggest and fruitiest. Now, I use "biggest" to mean the fullest body -- not necessarily the strongest flavor. Think of Chardonnays. The Kendall-Jackson had the fullest body, but the Alamos had the strongest flavor.

I had a misconception about Syrah. I was under the impression that the French cultivated Syrah, and after transport to Australia, gained its more common name, Shiraz. Nope. The French actually changed the name. The grape's name comes from the city of Shiraz in Southern Iran, the possible origin of winemaking over 7,000 years ago.

A French crusader brought the vines back to Europe and withdrew to his home for the remainder of his life to cultivate it -- thus earning the wine made from French Syrah its first appellation -- "Hermitage." In the 1830's, the grape was brought to Australia, where it regained its original name and eventually became the most-planted grape Down Under. American growers tend to name their wine depending on which style it most resembles. "New World" styles are usually called "Shiraz."

Syrah creates wines that tend to be fruity (and I mean dark fruit -- like blackberries and plums) and peppery. Syrah is the backbone grape (along with Grenache) of many wines in the Rhone region of France. The wine usually tastes "heavier" and goes well with big foods. Oh, and chocolate! For my money -- I personally think that the flavors of syrah complement chocolate better than any other varietal.

Syrah is considerably less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, and so doesn't generally age as well. Some vintages age better than others, but, generally, Syrah really comes into its own after about 3-4 years.

During a springtime of craziness, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I ended up with a free weekend that turned out to be unseasonably cool. Not willing to waste a perfect opportunity, we decided to cook up a few different pairings for the syrah. Our lineup was:

Estancia 2003 Central Coast Syrah -- $9-11
E. Guigal 2004 Cotes du Rhone -- $11-13
Penfold's 2003 Koonunga Hill Shiraz -- $9-11

We cracked the Estancia first and gave it a swirl. Smelled like smoke and alcohol, tasted like spiked grape juice. Much like the cabernet, decanting was necessary. However, once you open a syrah, you're committed. Even if you vacuum-seal a bottle, the big fruit taste fades rapidly, so plan to finish within 2-3 days, tops.

After about 20 minutes, we tried again. First up, the Estancia. After decanting, the smoky scent was still there, but much more gently. Instead, a strong dark berry aroma took center stage. The full body of this wine was loaded with big flavors of blueberry. The finish was fruity and was the least dry of the three. The finish is best described as "smoked blueberries."

Moving on to the Guigal. Cotes-du-Rhone is typically a blend of Syrah and Grenache. These are the "generic" wines of the Rhone region -- usually because their grapes are from all over the area, not because they're inferior wines. I find them to be good "starter" wines if you want to start tasting French wines. They don't have as much of the "Old World Funk" I mentioned before.

The Guigal's nose was light, with some berries and flowers. Since it's a blend, the Grenache made the wine lighter than a straight syrah. The taste was less fruity as well -- instead yielding more of an earthy flavor. The finish was somewhat dry, "leathery," and slightly chalky. While the description may not sound appealing, Cotes-du-Rhone really shows its colors when matched with food, like many European wines. And it certainly was drinkable on its own.

Finally, the Penfold's. This Australian number also had a fruity nose, but with a leather and vanilla scent backing it up. The body was second in line here, with a smoky flavor and a taste like figs or prunes -- not sweet fruits as with many Syrahs. The finish was full of vanilla and pepper.

We tried different recipes on three consecutive nights. With a warm, spicy lentil dish, the big winner (not surprisingly) was the Guigal. Earth goes with earth, and Cotes-du-Rhone is tailor-made to pair with root vegetables and legumes.

We made a slow-cooker dish called tzimmes the next night. Tzimmes is a Jewish casserole, made by slow-braising a roast with vegetables and fruit, seasoned with honey and cinnamon. So, while meaty and earthy, there's a lot of sweetness. The Estancia was the best pairing here. If it had been a simple pot roast, I'd guess the Guigal would have been the call.

Our final meal was mustard-coated lamb with rosemary-garlic potatoes. The Estancia is not recommended here. The other two wines ran neck and neck, but the Penfold's took the title by a nose. The peppery flavor of this wine meshed really well with the mustard and the richness of the meat.

We discovered with chocolate that the Guigal isn't built to handle dessert. The chalkiness comes out, but not much else. The Estancia really brings out the cacao flavor -- the deep bittersweetness of the bean, almost like coffee. The Penfold's was fascinating. The flavors went through transformations, with varying, shifting intensities of fruit, tartness, and bitterness. We felt as if we were tasting the component flavors individually.

One last note -- you may see a varietal called "Petit Sirah." While a distant cousin, it's a very different grape than Syrah -- one that yields wines that are even bigger and much more tannic.

One lesson remains. The final white -- Riesling.

Class dismissed.

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