Food & Drink: Shiraz or syrah - the next big thing?

In the third and final part of our guide to Christmas wines, the spotlight is turned on New World reds.

IT'S IRONIC that having gone to great lengths to build a Fort Knox to safeguard appellation controlee, France should find the New World has burrowed under her precious earth and run off with the gold. While the French were out drawing the boundaries of vineyard and slope, the New World gratefully adopted France's classic grape varieties. A big merci, then, from the southern hemisphere, above all for Bordeaux's cabernet sauvignon and merlot, the Rhone Valley's syrah, and Burgundy's pinot noir.

Classic bordeaux styles

If instead of setting up appellation controlee, Bordeaux had managed to patent the king and queen of grape varieties and raked in a commission for every cabernet sauvignon or merlot label produced around the world, it would be richer than Croesus today. Just about everywhere grows these grapes successfully with increasing good value from South America and South Africa.

Chile has proved itself to date the most adept at reproducing the bordeaux style at a fraction of the bordeaux cost. Typical of the value on offer are wines such as the attractively textured, blackcurrant-centred 1998 Isla Negra Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 4.99-pounds 5.49, Waitrose, Oddbins, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, Victoria Wine, Tesco) and the brambly, spicy 1997 Cono Sur Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (pounds 5.99, Asda, Oddbins).

Fuller's has slashed the pounds 7.99 list price of the 1997 Porta Cabernet Sauvignon by pounds 2, making it a snip. For pounds 1 more, the 1996 Santa Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva (pounds 6.99, Unwins) is a sumptuous Chilean red with the distinctive herb and fresh mint character of Maipo Valley cabernet.

Quality cabernets and merlots are at last emerging from the Cape, too. Try the 1998 A Few Good Men Merlot (pounds 5.99, Safeway), a spicy, black-fruits and damson-like blend. Or If you're prepared to risk just over a tenner, the 1996 Beyerskloof Cabernet Sauvignon (pounds 11.99, Oddbins) is well worth the outlay for an impressively concentrated, opulent red with refined, cedary notes.

Red burgundy lookalikes

The pinot noir grape of red burgundy is an infuriating tease, far harder to get right than its Bordeaux or Rhone (syrah grape) counterparts, not least on the slopes of Burgundy's Cote d'Or itself. Its simpering prima donna refuses to make life easy for its admirers, sulking, fussing and insisting conditions have to be just so before it performs.

The South Africans found that in their hot climate, crossing pinot noir with the Mediterranean cinsault was one solution. The result, pinotage, works well in the heat and dust of the Cape, reaching new peaks of quality in wines such as the 1996 Hidden Valley Pinotage, (pounds 14.95, Waitrose). A Devon Valley red made by Jeremy Walker of Grangehurst, it is intriguingly burgundian, but more vigorous, intensely aromatic with new oak spiciness and studded with ripe, cherry and loganberry-like flavours.

In Chile's cooler regions, pinot noir can give red burgundy more than a run for its money. Pablo Morande's 1998 Vina Morande Pinot Noir (pounds 5.99, Safeway) is an appealingly soft, rhubarb and redcurrant-style of pinot noir with a touch of toasty oak, while from the ultra-cool Bo-Bo region, as far south as winemaking goes in Chile, the 1997 Vina Gracia Pinot Noir (currently pounds 5.99 reduced from pounds 7.99, Co-op) is a succulent delight, scented and jam-packed with ripe-strawberry fruit flavours and rustic tannins.

Spicy rhone styles

Until a decade ago, the syrah grape of the northern Rhone was a bit of an also-ran. Not so today. The syrah revival in Australia (there known as shiraz), along with the huge plantings of syrah in southern France, has placed it in pole position. More stable and consistent than pinot noir, more characterful than merlot, the crown prince to cabernet sauvignon's king produces wines with rich pepper and spice qualities.

With more shiraz planted than any other premium red, Australia is still the number one venue for the Rhone Valley's best grape variety. In traditional style (for Australia), the 1997 Stonyfell Metala Shiraz/Cabernet (, pounds 6.99 Safeway; pounds 7.49 Oddbins) is a blend of mainly Langhorne Creek shiraz (for Australia) from Nigel Dolan, showing smoky oak and sumptuous red-berry flavours suffused with a eucalyptus herbiness. And from Victoria, the 1996 Seppelt Chalambar Shiraz (pounds 8.99, Unwins) packs a punch of spice and pepper with oak-infused blackberry fruit.

From South Africa, the 1998 Stellenzicht Syrah (pounds 8.99, Oddbins) is a double gold Veritas winner (South Africa's top award) from Stellenbosch vineyards with relatively silky tannins for such a young red, and great spiciness, superbly integrated oak and fruit richness.

Chile, keen to get in on the act as ever, has a worthy rival in the 1997 Errazuriz Reserve Syrah (pounds 9.99, Oddbins, Tesco, Safeway, Fuller's), an Aconcagua red with a touch of herb and mint and a very juicy, rich, concentrated blackberry-like fruitiness.

50 BEST WINTER WINES

What happened to Wines Of The Month last week? Look no further than today's The Information, where you'll find Anthony Rose's guide to the Best 50 Wines. From good value wines under pounds 5 to a host of glamorous and exclusive styles - red, white and sparkling - you'll find all you need here for festive season drinking and presents. Go on, treat yourself.

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