Christine Austin ditches her woolly socks in favour of the winter-friendly pepper and spice of Shiraz. Or should that be Syrah?

Our recent cold frosty evenings have, in effect, given me an ultimatum. Either I start wearing my thick woolly socks around the house again, or I open some of my bigger, gutsier wines to keep my toes warm.   I prefer the latter approach, not least for the fabulous flavours that also double up as winter warmers.

In autumn my hand automatically drifts down to the warmer end of the wine rack and to Shiraz and Syrah wines in particular. Often described as tasting of pepper and spice, they have dark, black fruit flavours, with black pepper and spice on the finish and tannins that cry out for meaty casseroles and roasts. These act as their own form of central heating.

Should this grape be called Shiraz or Syrah – and does it matter? 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. I still hear stories about the provenance of this grape.

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 just 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. Syrah also mixes well, with Grenache, Mourvèdre and others, creating warm, spicy blends that have a lift of flavour from other grapes.

Here are some of the favourites I reach for on a cold frosty evening.

Rhône Syrah

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. Further south the hill of Hermitage stands proud above the town of Tain L’Hermitage, terraced and covered in tightly planted vines, each vine staked to a pole on its steep slopes. Wines from these two areas can be magnificent, but expensive too. These are tiny areas and yields are low. Better value wines come from St Joseph which hugs the west bank of the river and Crozes Hermitage, that covers the undulating land around the hill of Hermitage.

Côte Rôtie, Brune et Blonde 2006, Vidal Fleury, Penistone Wine Cellars, £52.50

A blend from adjacent slopes, one with dark soil, the other lighter, this is a magnificent wine, dark and concentrated, pepper-edged and savoury.

Les Pierres Seches 2015, Domaine Yves Cuilleron, Hic! Wine Merchant, £27.95

Yves Cuilleron has brought a fresh approach to winemaking in the region with small plots of vines. This is still young but will be fabulous.

The Best Crozes Hermitage 2015, Morrisons, £10

Astonishing flavour for money in this chunky, deep-flavoured wine, with dark plummy fruit and a dusting of spice.

Domaine St Roch Vacqueyras 2015, Booths £12.75

From the southern Rhône where a generous helping of Grenache and Mourvèdre help bolster flavours and keep prices down. This is full of dark damson fruit, layered with pepper and spice. It will partner sausages and casseroles perfectly.

Côtes du Rhône Les Forots 2015, Jean Luc Colombo, Halifax Wine Co., £12.95

A huge step up from any light juicy Côtes du Rhône you may have tasted, this is a full-bodied Syrah Grenache blend with mocha and spice-dusted bramble fruit.

Open several hours before drinking, and make sure you have some good steak on the menu. Normally £14.95, stock up while this is on offer.

Australia

Syrah settled in Australia more than a century ago and the Barossa in particular is home to some of the most ancient Syrah vines, producing tiny quantities of superbly flavoured wines.

Teusner The Riebke Shiraz, Barossa, Waitrose £19.99

With an ability to source old-vine Shiraz, Kym Teusner makes exceptional wines that dig deep into the heritage of the Barossa. Full of black fruit flavours, this is a warm, generous wine that really needs a cold winter night to be appreciated.

Tesco Barossa Shiraz 2016, £10

Part of the new selection of wines from Tesco, this has intense, ripe bramble fruit with a creamy texture and a long, juicy, spicy finish.

The Islander Kangaroo Island Shiraz 2016, Marks and Spencer £13

From the beautiful, pristine, blowy Kangaroo Island, just off the coast of South Australia this is made by French winemaker Jacques Lurton. The wine is full of soft, supple fruit with light elegant tannins, dusted with gentle spice.

Jacques Lurton produces wines on Kangaroo Island

South Africa

Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2016, South Africa, Waitrose £7.99

This is my favourite ‘go to’ South African Syrah made by Marc Kent from grapes sourced at Swartland where bush vines grow on un-irrigated slopes gathering all that warm Swartland sunshine and turning it in to some of the best, fresh, cracked pepper and dark blueberry fruit flavours. Terrific value.

Iona One Man Band Red, 2013, Elgin, South Africa, Marks and Spencer £16

Syrah based but with a whole collection of other grapes in the mix. This is a cassis and damson-filled wine, harmonious and elegant – perfect for drinking with a Sunday roast.

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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