It is January. It is bitterly cold, Christmas has cost a fortune, the chap next to you on the train is hacking viruses all over you, it’s dark outside and you know it is going to get dark again at 4pm. Happy times.
In these circumstances there is only one wine I turn to, the real winter warmer: Syrah, or (to give it its New World name) Shiraz. Wines made from Syrah grapes are the cheerful wines of the world, guaranteed to banish winter misery, at least for a while. They may differ hugely in style and taste, but they are all big, powerful wines with an amazing depth of colour and personality.
But there is more to this brash grape than you might think. Spend a little while getting to know it and you realise it has quite the most fascinating history and diversity of any grape in the winemaker’s armoury. Syrah started off in the nineteenth century as an unremarkable grape grown in the northern Rhone region. Truthfully it was always going to be outshone by others, like the snooty Pinot Noirs from Burgundy and rock star Cabernet/Merlot Clarets from Bordeaux. The berries were small with a thick skin and it played nasty tricks during wine making – since it was prone to reduction and could produce a wine with a delightful cabbage aroma.
That said, it does produce some of the French wines I adore – Crozes Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The wonderful, purplish glow and spicy aromas of either would help you through a winter’s evening. These are austere wines, that don’t let you forget their northern roots.
Then something wonderful happened. Like many 19th-century European peasants, Syrah left for the New World, changed its name and become famous. Syrah vines were imported into Australia, and the name, never easy to pronounce by an Anglo-Saxon tongue, became Shiraz.
“When you put the wines into warmer soil, it completely changes its personality,” says Mark Pardoe, a wine buying director and lecturer from Berry Bros. “You get a wine with a much rounder personality, with more fruit and a taste of figs and raisins.”
Now liberated, Shiraz became a New World superstar, providing the raw material for some of the most famous and expensive wines in the world, most famously Penfolds Grange, at £300 a bottle and more. This is well deserved, since these wines have everything – great structure, length, fruit and power. And they can last in a bottle for 20 or 30 years and more.
“The amazing thing about Syrah is that it can do and be almost all things, from a jug wine all the way to some of the great and long lived wines of the world. It has a split personality,” says Pardoe. Now the émigré wine has come full circle and has returned to France and Spain, where it is being grown in the sunnier climes, turning out the powerful, fruit-filled wines redolent of Australia and South Africa.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some shockers out there. I’ve been poured some near-black glasses of Shiraz that would have been better used as fertiliser. But next time you feel the winter blues, try some of these.