In a world of great vines, none has deeper historical roots than syrah. Compared with this ancient aristocrat, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are nouveau riche.
For more than 2,000 years syrah has been cultivated along the banks of the river Rhone in southern France. The syrah vines that produce monumental red wines today on the steep granite slopes of Hermitage and the precarious terraces of Cote Rotie are direct descendants of those planted by Romans and Gauls.
But even then it was an immigrant. Its ancient origins are murky, but syrah vine cuttings are believed to have been transported to the Rhone from the east, probably by Greek or Phocaean traders about 500 B.C. Nobody really knows, but some experts theorize that those cuttings came -- probably with some intermediate stops -- from the ancient Persian wine-growing center of Shiraz.
Modern-day Shiraz, under the wary eye of Iran's abstemious ayatollahs, is wineless. But the name lives on in the lore of the vine. When France's syrah made its second great migration -- to Australia in the 1830s -- it did so under the name of its presumed Persian home.
In Australia, the one-time aristocrat went native in short order. Over the decades, the hardy, prolific shiraz became the workhorse grape of the country's burgeoning wine industry.
Now, with Australian wines widely available in the United States, American wine consumers have a broad selection of shiraz wines available to them. And since it usually costs less than cabernet, shiraz remains a good value.
Still, the consumer needs to be selective in buying Australian shiraz. When it's good, it can be thrilling wine, but much of it is indifferently made. Stylistically, it is all over the board -- from thick, roly-poly teeth-painters to tight-lipped, high-acid gum-strippers.
The reason for this inconsistency goes back to how shiraz is perceived in Australia. Much like zinfandel in California, shiraz became the grape for making everyday jug red wines. A very forgiving vine, it thrived virtually anywhere it was planted. Even in overly hot climates, even when it carried crop loads that were far to big, it made decent wines.
Those wines, however, did little to enhance the reputation of the grape. They bore little resemblance to the great wines of the Rhone, and as Australian winemakers became more interested in high quality, they turned their attention to cabernet sauvignon and other fashionable varieties.
But also like zinfandel, shiraz had a small group of passionate advocates who were convinced it could make magnificent wines if treated with respect. And unlike the orphan zinfandel, shiraz had a track record in Europe.
During the 1950s, Max Schubert, winemaker at the historic Penfold's winery, took the best shiraz grapes and best oak barrels he could find and created Grange Hermitage -- a wine that Hugh Johnson calls "the one true First Growth of the Southern Hemisphere."
It is virtually impossible to describe Grange Hermitage to somebody who has not tasted it. No red wine in the world, with the possible exception of Spain's Pesquera, is so dominating at the table. It's an all-embracing wine that overwhelms the senses with sheer power but retains a core of elegance worthy of its Rhone namesake and ancestor.
Of course, such excellence is rare and costly. The 1981 and 1982 Grange Hermitages can still be foundin the Baltimore area for $50 to $60 a bottle.
A few other Australian shirazes also sell for blue-chip prices, but most weigh in at under $10.
With a few exceptions Australian shiraz does not much resemble the syrah-based wines of the Rhone. Unlike an Hermitage or a Cote Rotie, most Australian shiraz is mature at three years and doesn't improve much beyond six (Grange is an exception). The grape also picks up some more exotic flavors Down Under, such as leather and tropical spice. That's not necessarily bad, but it sure is different.
In recent weeks I tasted through more than a dozen of the shirazes available in Maryland stores. These are a few of the best:
*1987 Montrose Special Reserve Shiraz, Mudgee district, $15.19. This is not what you'd call elegant. It's a Crocodile Dundee of a wine, with deep, rich flavors of blackberry, chocolate, leather and spice. Its intensity is reminiscent of Grange, and while it doesn't quite reach that standard, the price makes it an attractive alternative. Drink it young with a hearty wallaby stew.
*1988 Balgownie Estate Shiraz, $10. Do you like Chambord? Well, this is virtually a dry version of that liqueur. It's as intense a blast of blackberry and black raspberry as you'll get anywhere. There's some real structure and tannin behind the exuberant, chunky fruit, and the finish is long and satisfying. A great value.