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December 19, 2010

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A good US Shiraz will warm the body and soul

Winter has once again hit Shanghai with a vengeance, so what better way to warm you body and soul than with a good wine. The wines we enjoy should not only entice the palate but also pair well with the heavier dishes of winter.

Ideally, the wine should be full-bodied with plenty of dark fruit and earthy flavors. One wine that features these qualities is a Syrah red wine from California or Washington State. Though globally recognized as a premium variety, the Syrah, or Shiraz as the Australians and some other new world producers call it, grape in the United States has never achieved the success or popularity of other French red wine varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

The northern Rhone still makes the most complex and balanced Syrah wines, and Southern Australia in general – with Barossa in particular – has built a reputation for huge, richly flavored and textured Shiraz wines. But the best wines from these regions also come with equally impressive prices. A lower cost alternative is a Syrah wine from the west coast of the States. These wines not only gracefully match our favorite winter dishes but their modest prices will leave plenty of cash in your pocket for Christmas shopping.

Back in the early 1990s, many US wine producers believed that the Syrah variety was the next great hope for the US wine industry that would help propel them to new levels of success domestically and internationally. Both dreams crash landed. US Syrah wines gained little attention as they were rightfully eclipsed by the superior Shiraz wines from Southern Australia. While they will almost certainly never reach the heights of wines from the Northern Rhone and Southern Australia, my recent tasting of Syrah wines from the US has indicated all is not lost.

Cost and quality wise, US Syrah wines are actually quite competitive with recent vintages offering greater balance and complexity. These new-style Syrah wines still have plenty of fruit but also exhibit some of the attributes of Northern Rhone Syrah wines, such as savory scents and flavors of olives, herbs, meats, spices and minerals. In fact, the best US producers are trying to avoid the high alcohol, fruit bombs of the past and emulate the more sophisticated style of the Northern Rhone. The result is better wines that belong on the table with food, particularly winter dishes.

A delicious trio of Chinese meat dishes that I especially enjoy during the winter months is Shanghai-style braised pork seasoned with red rice (红米五花肉), savory lamb ribs (风味羊排) and Gannan cured beef (赣南熏牛肉). All these dishes pair beautifully with a good US Syrah. The ripe fruitiness of the wines adds flavor dimensions to the meats acting almost like a sauce while also highlighting the different textures of the meats, in particular the chewy-crispy texture of the beef. All three dishes have a degree of fattiness that helps make them good winter fare. The tannins and alcohol of the Syrah wines help to breakdown and digest the fat while cleansing the palate. The slight spiciness of the beef and lamb dishes is wonderfully mirrored and complemented by the innate spiciness of the Syrah variety. Enjoying these dishes with a good US Syrah wine is a marvelous way to mitigate the nasty chill of this Shanghai winter.

Good US producers with Syrah wines available in Shanghai include La Crema, St. Francis and Delicato. The La Crema winery was established in 1979 and is an all-female affair with sisters Laura and Jennifer Jackson the owner and Melissa Stackhouse the wine maker. Because this winery is most famous for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines, it's no surprise that their Syrah wine features not only power, but also grace.

St. Francis is another producer located in Sonoma that makes boldly flavored, fruit-driven Syrah as well as other wines. Their Syrah wine features fruit from the warmer Russian River Valley that contributes ripeness and fruit from the cooler Sonoma Valley that adds complexity and freshness. The Delicato Family Vineyards was set up by an Italian family in 1924 and today features the only Chinese-born wine maker outside of China. This curious combination has resulted in one of California's most successful wineries with prize-winning Shiraz wines.

I'll feature this wonderful story of the success teaming of Italy and China in a future column. The giant Californian product Beringer has a good value, easy-drinking Syrah that only recently became available here. Another producer of budget-worthy Syrah wines is Columbia Crest in Washington State. Their Two Vines Shiraz and Grand Estates Shiraz both offer a lot of tasty, typically Syrah flavors at attractive prices.

Delicato Shiraz, 2005
"one of the most popular Syrah wines in the Americas, the wine has a dense purple color, scents of blueberry and oak and balanced flavors of dark berries, black pepper with leather notes and a smooth, slightly spicy finish "

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Shiraz, 2006

"Rhone-style blend of 89 percent Shiraz, 6 percent Grenache and 5 percent Viognier, the wine has a deep purple-red color, blueberry and exotic spices nose and weighty ripe black and red fruit flavors with a velvety texture"

Columbia Crest Two Vines Shiraz, 2005

"with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added for structure, this predominantly Shiraz wine features a purple color, ripe almost sweet fruit nose and black fruit and blueberry flavors with just a touch of white pepper"

St. Francis Syrah, 2004

"robust but still stylish wine with deep purple color, plenty of blackberry and black pepper and other spice aromas and concentrated jammy black fruit and blueberry flavors with hints of tobacco and a smooth finish"


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