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The next big red

Shiraz the people’s choice.

It seems everywhere I go today people are drinking syrah, or should I say shiraz. The two grape names, now interchangeable in the minds of consumers, have captured the taste buds of wine drinkers who clearly like the rich flavours and soft textures of the globetrotting red grape.

In many ways the love affair with syrah/shiraz is the next step in palate building for the new-to-red-wine drinker after merlot. Some would suggest the rich, spicy fruity nature of the syrah or shiraz offers everything merlot promises but often fails to deliver.

In its broadest context New World shiraz/syrah from Australia, Chile, California, Washington State, Argentina, South Africa and even B.C. offers intense peppery flavours of blackberries and damson plums. Mix that with smoky bacon, black pepper, mocha, coffee and vanilla flavours and you have a recipe few consumers can resist and many they look for in their coffee.

In Europe, particularly the Rhone Valley, France, the flavours of syrah are generally drier and perhaps more tannic with white pepper characters. English wine guru Oz Clarke describes French syrah as "all blackberry, damson, loganberry and plum with some quite strong tannin, tangy smoke and a warm, creamy aftertaste with a promise of chocolate."

Clarke rightly points out that the "occasional scent of violets and a white-pepper character together with a greater finesse or elegance is evident when late-developing Syrah is grown at more marginal cooler sites." Certainly it’s the case in B.C.

If there is one bugaboo with the syrah vine it is vigour. A vineyard can quickly turn into a jungle unless growers remain vigilant and keep this rambunctious vine in check. An old vine tends to self-regulate its growth so most of the work controlling vigour and reducing yields is with young syrah plantings.

Inexpensive and varietally correct is always a good place to start when you are learning about a new grape variety so with that as a guideline I’ve assemble a list of syrah/shiraz you can work your way through as you discover the delights of this ancient grape whose origins are most likely Persian.

You may be surprised to learn that syrah is doing well in small selected areas of British Columbia’s south Okanagan. Mission Hill, Jackson-Triggs, Burrowing Owl and Sandhill are all in the game and early results are impressive.

Mission Hill actually produces two versions: the Shiraz Reserve ($18) takes its cue from Down Under boasting plenty of American oak with softer, bolder juicy-fruit flavours and just the right amount of pepper and leather to get your attention.

The Estate Syrah ($27) with its deeper colour and darker tones is aged in French oak. It is a tighter, Euro-style wine that’s leaner in the mouth and spicier than the shiraz.

The latest ’02 releases from Burrowing Owl ($25) Jackson-Triggs ($22) and Sandhill Small Lots ($24) are all fine examples of the potential of New World syrah made from young vines.

Elsewhere in South America, Chile is embracing syrah although most are labelling it "shiraz." Best bets here include: the Casillero del Diablo 2003 Shiraz ($13) from Concha y Toro with its spicy, bramble berry / meaty, sausage aromas and flavours; or new labels from Morande 2001 ($20), Valdivieso Reserva ($24) and Casas del Bosque ($23) are all sure to turn heads.

Next door, in Mendoza Argentina, you will find the Finca Flichman 2002 Syrah ($12) to be equally tasty with its trademark gamy, meaty nose followed by licorice, black cherry fruit and a dry, earthy peppery aftertaste.

For pure fun and value you can pick up the Obikwa 2002 Shiraz from South Africa. At $10 you are sure to appreciate its bright black cherry, spicy licorice gamey flavours.

Introductory European syrah is best mixed with a little grenache. The hip red wine for the fall has to be VF Lasira, a screw cap syrah/grenache blend that is rich in peppery black raspberry flavour and a snap to open. Oh did I mention its sells for a mere $13.

For more fruit and less of the meaty gamy flavours think Australia. The Deakin Estate 2002 Shiraz ($14) offers all the typical spicy, vanilla and pepper fruit with toasted smoke and blackberry flavours in the finish. Or look to the McWilliams Hanwood Shiraz 2002 ($15) with its ripe, jammy blackberry fruity nose and floral/berry fruit flavours.

Once you jump above the $15 mark things get really interesting beginning with a trio of Oz reds. First up is the Yalumba Y Series 2001 Shiraz $18, a smooth silky shiraz packed full of blackberries, black cherries and licorice fruit flavours.

Compare that with the soft and supple Thomas Hyland Shiraz 2002 ($19) and its blackberry jam, spicy coffee licorice flavours or the knockout Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2001 Shiraz ($21) and its coffee/vanilla and blackberry jam aromas and intense red fruit flavour.

If you are still thirsty, and under no budgetary restraints, look for any of the following blockbuster shiraz. Each is designed to dazzle your taste buds and will help you better deal with the impending cool weather of fall.

The Mitolo Jester 2002 Shiraz ($30) is a big-time McLaren Vale red packed with spicy, blackberry jam fruit streaked with cedar, vanilla and lead pencil. This is an attractive red that comes with a screw cap.

One of the best wines I’ve tasted this year is the Penfolds RWT 2001 Shiraz ($109) from the Barossa Valley. Expect huge concentrated blueberry blackberry jam flavours mixed with coffee and creamy vanilla flavours. It is delicious.

Finally a personal favourite and a consistently fine shiraz is the Greg Norman Estates Shiraz ($28). Look for ripe peppery, vanilla smoky black pepper fruit streaked with blackberry jam and crème brûlée flavours.

Is it any wonder this variety is destined to be the next big red?

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto