As this winter grinds on with rain, floods and general disruption to travel, my thoughts turn to warming wines to keep the cold at bay and bring some sunshine into these days which don’t actually seem to be getting any shorter.
This is the moment I turn to the vibrant flavours of Shiraz, or should it be called Syrah? Frankly, who cares? There are winemakers around the world who agonise whether their wine should be called Shiraz, in which case it should be warm-hearted and full flavoured, or whether Syrah is a better name to describe its perfumed, peppery style. To my mind, it doesn’t matter what it is called, it is the taste that is important. This is the grape with a whole range of flavours from light, easy drinking rosés to rib-sticking rumbustious damson and blackberry-laden reds that act like central heating on a cold winter evening. Syrah also does well in a blend, adding fun and fruit to Cabernet and a dusting of chocolate and pepper to Rhône-style blends of Mourvèdre and Grenache.
There used to be a theory that the Shiraz grape originated in Persia and was named after the city of Shiraz. Then it was thought that it could have come from Egypt via Syracuse and acquired its name there. Now extensive DNA testing has revealed that it is a disappointingly natural cross between two grapes, Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza, from the Rhône-Alps region. It has Teroldego of northern Italy as a close relative and Pinot Noir somewhere in its pedigree but sadly the stories of ancient Phoenicians sailing across the Mediterranean with cuttings of Shiraz vines are probably nothing but stories.
Syrah was definitely established in the Rhône valley of France long before the Romans arrived and it remained there for centuries before anyone thought of planting it elsewhere. Now it is one of the darlings of the New World. As site selection has moved from being a mere hunch to a scientific art, the plantings of Syrah have increased dramatically, particularly on some of the best sites in Australia and South Africa.
Syrah likes the heat, but it can only tolerate so much without going flabby and producing too much alcohol and it is that which determines the good wines from the merely overblown.
Here are some of the favourites I reach for on a cold rainy evening.
Head to the Northern Rhône for a real taste of unblended Syrah. The Côte Rôtie hugs the south-facing slopes of the Rhône river, battling steep planting sites and the Mistral which blows down the valley, keeping pests at bay but also providing a sharp cooling breeze through the vines.
One of the top producers in this region is father and son team Michel and Stéphane Ogier who produce some of the most stunning, complex, perfectly balanced wines. With clear attention to detail, matching grapes to the right soil, they allow the wines to express the sense of place and terroir.
The Halifax Wine Company has some of their 2005 Côtes Rôtie at a fairly hefty £39.95 but this is a taste of how Northern Rhône should be. With dark, black fruit and a savoury character, with plump tannins now acquiring a silky sheen, this is just entering its perfect drinking window. Call up the butcher and get a three rib joint of beef and settle down for a treat.
At just £13.49 Waitrose has the gutsy flavours of St Joseph 2010 from Cave de Saint-Desirat. Lighter in style than the Côte Rôtie, it has ripe, black raspberry fruit, layered liquorice and a hint of pepper. I enjoyed this recently with a rare sirloin steak and it hit the mark to perfection.
The wines of Yves Cuilleron are also well worth looking out for. He has brought a fresh approach to winemaking in the region and he has acquired some top plots. Some of the best value to be had is in his Vins de Pays wines, made from wine that didn’t quite fit into the blends for his top cuvées. Head to Syrah “Les Candives” Vin de Pays Rhodaniennes 2012 (£15.99, Harrogate Fine Wine), for intense fruit, savoury olive notes and a chunky finish. Decant this for a while before drinking to smooth out those tannins.
With just 49 per cent Syrah in the blend, Guigal’s Côtes-du-Rhône 2010 still manages to pack all the right peppery fruit, with Grenache and Mourvèdre filling in the rest of the profile. Currently on offer at Majestic at £9.99 on multibuy, but this is so good it is worth buying it by the case and then Bon Coeur in Masham (01765 688200) becomes best value at just £107.88. Don’t rush to drink this; it can always keep through the barbecue season and into next autumn.
Syrah has really settled well into Australia where it was taken as part of the first shipment of vines. Very much at home in the Barossa where Yalumba make The Scribbler, a 50:50 blend of Cabernet and Shiraz which I tasted recently and thought offered exceptional value for money. Currently on offer at Majestic at £11.99 on multibuy, this has the cassis and blackcurrants of Cabernet, bolstered by spice and floral aromatics of Shiraz.
At the same price, at Majestic, while it is on offer, Jim Barry “The Lodge” Shiraz from Clare Valley provides a cooler-climate style of Shiraz, still full of dark fruits with violet notes and a streak of elegance. Buy both of these wines and indulge in a side-by-side comparison for a real taste-bud treat.
My favourite “go to” South African Syrah is Porcupine Ridge, made by Marc Kent from grapes sourced at Swartland where bush vines grow on unirrigated slopes gathering all that warm Swartland sunshine and turning it in to some of the best, fresh, cracked pepper and dark blueberry fruit flavours. At just £7.99 (Waitrose) this is great value, but even so it occasionally goes on offer down to £6.99. I’ll let you know when it does.
Step into a completely different taste profile with Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2010, Franschhoek (£30.99, Harrogate Fine Wine), still made by Marc but providing a bigger, more concentrated, dense wine, layered with spice and hints of chocolate.