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WHITE'S WINES

Syrah: The perfect wine for winter

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - 1:23 pm

All wines are appropriate for all seasons. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a simple white or crisp rosť in the winter, and big reds work all year long.

But our diets change as the weather cools. Just as we look forward to watermelon and fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes in the summer, in winter we crave soups, stews and roasts. So our go-to wines change, as well.

This winter, I'm drinking Syrah.

Syrah's ancestral home is the northern Rhone, where the classic wines of Cote Rotie and Hermitage are produced. The best wines from these regions still set the benchmark for the varietal.

High-quality Syrah is wonderfully accessible, even in its youth. As Steve Heimoff, West Coast editor for Wine Enthusiast, recently explained, "I would describe a good Syrah as having the weight of Cabernet Sauvignon, but a little softer, and while both wines are marked by the aromas and flavors of blackberries, Syrah's meaty, peppery notes distinguish it."

Heimoff's description is spot-on. The blue-and-black fruit of a good Syrah will delight you, while the aromas of black pepper and meat will seduce you. The grape is capable of striking the perfect balance between power and finesse. Consequently, good Syrah works well with all sorts of food.

Syrah also represents a great value.

Over the past few years, sales of the varietal have dropped steadily, leading many California winemakers to joke that that it's easier to get rid of a case of pneumonia than a case of Syrah.

Consumer preference partially explains this drop. Although many California winemakers have spent the past decade hoping Syrah would be the state's next great varietal, consumers remain more interested in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Consumer confusion also explains the slide in demand. Even wine connoisseurs have a difficult time distinguishing between Syrah and Shiraz.

Technically, the only difference between the two is location. When Syrah was taken to Australia in the mid-1800s, local winemakers started calling the grape "Shiraz," and the name stuck.

The climate is quite different in Australia, though, so the grape tends to produce riper, fruitier wines with higher alcohol and lower acid.

Generally speaking, these are your prototypical "fruit bombs" -- they can be deliciously hedonistic, but even the best ones are difficult to pair with most meals.

Across Europe, the United States and most everywhere else, vintners call the wine variety "Syrah." When winemakers use the Australian moniker, as they often do in New Zealand and South Africa, and sometimes in the United States, they're typically trying to convey they're making the wine in the archetypical Australian style.

Consumers also confuse Syrah with Petite Sirah. While the grapes are distant relatives, they're completely different.

As a result of these factors, good Syrah is generally quite affordable, especially when compared to other varietals.

In the United States, many of the best Syrahs come from vineyards along California's coast -- from the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles along the Central Coast, to the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, to the Russian River Valley and Dry Creek in Sonoma.

In Washington state, stunning Syrahs are coming from the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley, and Oregon's Rogue Valley is producing many impressive wines.

You'll notice all these areas are relatively cool. Although Syrah is a farmer's dream -- reasonably easy to grow and fairly resistant to disease -- it shines when grown in cooler areas, resulting in complex, vibrant, more aromatic wines.

When grown in warmer climates, it's too easy to produce Syrahs that are flabby and raisiny.

At your local wine shop, Qupe's "Central Coast" Syrah is an excellent wine for $15 -- and for just a few dollars more, you can explore Syrahs from producers like Landmark and Rosenblum.

If you're interested in exploring some smaller, family wineries -- and live in a state where you can order wine online -- Novy Family Wines and Cabot Vineyards are two fantastic producers that make affordable Syrah.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, a wine portal on the Internet.