Syrah, Shiraz, Sirah
Big, peppery, earthy and robust, or soft, fruity and slightly sweet? Rough and tannic, demanding cellar time, or slurpy and simple, meant for drinking now? Depending on circumstances and the bottle you choose, Syrah can meet either of these seemingly contradictory descriptions ... and that's before we've even started talking about Shiraz or Petite Sirah.
This month in Wine Tasting 101, we'll sort out the differences among these familiar names. Today, let's touch lightly on all three, setting up the framework that we'll fill in with tasting and talking during March.
The French name for the grape took its name from the Persian city of Shiraz, where the Crusader is said to have found it; and by happenstance, when cuttings were shipped to the new colony of Australia in the early 1800s, the grape took back the Persian name. Syrah in France, Shiraz in Australia, but it's the same grape, even if local custom and vinification practices might make it seem like two different wines. South Africans, by and large, have adopted the Australian name, although curiously, a handful of New Zealand producers who are experimenting with it - largely on relatively mild Waiheke Island near Auckland - prefer to call it Syrah, perhaps in a gentle jab at their neighbors to the west. A minority of California producers also use "Shiraz," perhaps to signal that their wine is made in a fruit-forward Australian style.
Finally, Petite Sirah, a completely different grape, confuses the issue with a similar name that was almost certainly chosen in hope of being mistaken for the more respected variety. A California pioneer, it's still found in some ancient vineyards, intermingled with other varieties, that can make some of the state's most interesting wines. Actually the same as the low-rent Southern French grape called Durif, it's a 19th century cross between true Syrah and another little-known French variety, Peloursin. Some tasters find a superficial resemblance to Syrah in the inky, fruity if rather one-dimensional wines that Petite Sirah makes; good examples can survive for decades in the cellar, staying little changed until they finally start to develop interesting complexity after 20 years or more.
You're encouraged to taste the Syrahs, Shirazes and Petite Sirahs of your choice this month, the drop in to WT101 to share your tasting reports and talk about your impressions. For those who enjoy comparing notes with others who've tasted the same wines, I have selected three New World "benchmarks" in the relatively affordable $10 range. Prices shown are those I paid in Louisville at a national-chain wine shop, Cost Plus World Wines, and may vary in other parts of the world:
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Let's leap right into the WT101 action with a quick tasting report on this month's "benchmark" Petite Sirah. This widely available bottling gives a good sense of the grape in a rendition that's full of lip-smacking fruit, ready to enjoy right now.
Bogle 2002 California Petite Sirah ($9.99)
Very dark purple, black in the glass, with a day-glo violet edge. Attractive black-plum and blueberry aromas, fruit-forward with hints of smoke, seem typical of Petite Sirah. Ripe and juicy black fruit and tangy acidity meet on the palate, so fruity that there's a brief impression of sweetness, but so tart and powerful with nearly 14 percent alcohol that it seems to finish dry. Tannins aren't perceptible, but good structure and balance elevate it above a mere "fruit bomb." (Feb. 28, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Bold enough to call for robust fare. Red meat or sharp cheese would be welcome; it went nicely with a more offbeat dinner choice, fettuccine alla carbonara made with American smoky bacon.
VALUE: Very good value for $10. U.S. prices for this wine range from $8 to $13, so shop around.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although it lacks the tannins of top-rank Petite Sirahs, there's no reason to believe that this one, like its varietal kin, won't last for many years in the cellar and eventually develop aged-wine character.
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Wednesday, March 2, 2005