With Australia as the theme region for this year's Winnipeg Wine Festival, there are plenty of grapes being showcased from a number of different regions: Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra, Yarra Valley Pinot Noir and Clare Valley Riesling, just to name a few.
But when you think of Aussie wine, there's one grape that still comes to mind first and foremost -- Shiraz. It's long been Australia's flagship grape, and producers have been delivering ripe, rich reds that typically deliver good quality for the price.
No matter where it comes from (or what you call it), Syrah/Shiraz has been one of the world's most popular red wine grapes for many years. Yes, Shiraz is the same grape as Syrah. The grape's origins were long thought to be Middle Eastern -- there's even a town in Iran called Shiraz, and its wine exports have been documented as far back as the 17th century.
But that city's wine was white, whereas Shiraz/Syrah we see from Australia and beyond is made from a red grape. DNA testing in the late 1990s confirmed Syrah to be the "offspring" of the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche grapes from southeast France.
As for Syrah-based wines we see and taste today, the grape's launching point (and the area in which it's still the most popular in the Old World) was France's northern Rhône region. Producers in Rhône sub-appellations such as St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage produce excellent examples of earthy, balanced mid-price Syrah, while Côte Rôtie wines are often big, complex (and pricey) wines made for long-term aging.
In the southern Rhône, meanwhile, the grape is often blended with Grenache, resulting in wines with additional depth of colour and dense dark berry flavours.
Syrah landed Down Under in the early- to mid-19th century, growing in popularity throughout the century until it was the most prominent red grape grown in Australia. Some of Australia's oldest Shiraz vines are 150+ years old, and are still producing fruit for that country's ultra-premium reds such as Henscke's iconic Hill of Grace.
Because of Australia's many warm-climate regions, the grape ripens well on the vine and produces impressive, densely fruity wines. And while there are great swaths of vineyards planted in sprawling areas such as Riverland, many of which are growing Syrah, it's in areas such as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale where Shiraz's global reputation lives and dies on the vine.
Syrah/Shiraz also does well in other warmer-temperature regions, especially south of the equator -- South Africa, Chile and Argentina make some impressive examples -- while north of the equator, hot spots such as California's Paso Robles and Napa Valley produce wines of similar dense fruit.
Slightly cooler regions such as Washington State and B.C.'s Okanagan Valley produce Syrah that are more subtle and nuanced, harkening back to the grape's Rhône origins. B.C. Syrah has been blowing judges away at recent Canadian wine competitions (this judge included).
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FONCALIEU 2011 LE VERSANT SYRAH (Pays D'Oc, France -- $13.30, Liquor Marts and beyond)
With cranberry, cherry-juice, tart raspberry and light earthy notes on the nose, this red would never get mistaken for a jammy Aussie counterpart. There's a decidedly Old World vibe on the palate as well, with black tea, pepper and earth notes that give some grip to the lighter cherry and plum flavours. 3 stars
SISTER'S RUN 2011 SHIRAZ (McLaren Vale, Australia -- $15.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Sourced from the Epiphany vineyard, the Sister's Run is classic McLaren Vale Shiraz, with deep cherry, menthol, spice, blackberry and cedar aromas. Medium-plus bodied, it is juicy and almost jammy, with cherry and brambly blackberry/raspberry notes making way for that woody, minty note on the palate. Tannins are light -- this is drinking well now. 4 stars
LAMMERSHOEK 2012 LAM SYRAH (Swartland, South Africa -- around $22, private wine stores)
Cherry, perfume, raspberry and white-pepper aromas are elegant, while red-berry and cherry notes on the medium-plus bodied palate work well with a bit of acidity. Some grapes are whole-bunch fermented, meaning the juice ferments inside the grapes, producing an intense purple fruit component commonly found in Beaujolais reds -- adding a lip-smacking, mouth-watering aspect that works quite well. 4 stars
PENFOLDS 2009 ST. HENRI SHIRAZ (South Australia -- $99.99, Liquor Marts and beyond)
Black-cherry, spice, blackberry and dark-chocolate notes are intense on the nose. On the full-bodied palate, meanwhile, the dark-fruit flavours are dense, fleshed out by soft vanilla from 14 months in big, old oak barrels. Medium tannin and light acidity, meanwhile, provide structure, meaning the St. Henri should be decanted for a couple hours or cellared for five years or more. 5 stars