GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN McWHIRTER ON SHIRAZ, THE SYRAH OF AUSTRALIA
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The Independent Culture
SHIRAZ is to Syrah as g'day is to bonjour. There's no difference between the vines. When Syrah vines arrived in Australia in the mid-19th century from their homeland of the northern Rhne, someone may have had a glass too many. The slurred linguistic corruption "Shiraz" took firm root and began to spread.

The first serious exporters of Shiraz to Britain some 15 years ago consulted the commercial section of the Australian Embassy as to whether the name Syrah, more familiar to the Poms, might go down better than Shiraz. No, they said. Australian Shiraz had a totally different style from the big, tarry, raspberry-scented Syrahs of the northern Rhne. The bigger, fatter, more ripely fruity Australian Shirazes had sufficient character to make their own way. And indeed, now we drink more Shiraz than French Syrah.

Occasionally, however, a "Syrah" does pop out of Australia, for reasons best known to marketing men. One such is the spectacular 1992 Balmoral Syrah (£16.49), that arrived at the beginning of this month in the top Tesco stores. I've rarely been so impressed as by this dark, thickly blackberry- fruity, almost treacly (but dry) red. It is quite delicious now, but will keep for ages. It is made from tip-top quality Shiraz grapes, and named after the family homestead not the royal residence.

Very nearly as brilliant as the Syrah (and rather cheaper) is the new vintage, 1992 of St Hallet Old Block Shiraz (£9.98 Reid Wines of Halla- trow near Bristol, £9.99 selected Tesco, Winecellars of London SW18 and The Australian Wine Club of Datchet (mail order only), £9.99 Bottoms Up and Wine Rack from the end of April). This is similarly dark, treacly and immensely fruity, with undertones of chocolate and roasted coffee. It's advisable to keep this a few months (or longer) to reach its best, but it's delicious now. Much the same goes for the yummy 1992 Chapel Hill McLaren Vale Shiraz (£7.99 larger Tescos and Australian Wine Club), just a chip below the Old Block in brilliance, and packed with ripe strawberry and raspberry fruit accompanied by a spicy, clovey oak and treacly concentration.

Both Rosemount and St Hallet do cheaper, mini-versions of these super- wines. The 1993 Rosemount Estate Shiraz (£5.86 Macro, £5.99 Marks & Spencer and Co-op) is especially good value, being firm, peppery and minty, with lovely, ripe plum and raspberry fruit. 1993 St Hallet Barossa Shiraz (£7.59 Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and Australian Wine Club) is softer with rich, raspberry fruit and a hint of spicy oak. Both are lovely now, but would be even better after five years.

Marks & Spencer's 1993 McLaren Vale Shiraz (£5.99) offers brilliant value with its smoky, raspberry and blackberry character, as do the savoury, oaky 1992 Primo Estate Adelaide Shiraz (£6.99 Australian Wine Club) and the silky-smooth, blackberry-fruit 1990 Willows Vineyard Barossa Shiraz (£6.99 Aust-ralian Wine Club). On a smaller scale, 1992 Vine Vale Shiraz, Peter Lehmann (£4.99 Oddbins) has rich, raspberry fruit with a hint of treacle.

Shiraz is often blended with other grape varieties, usually Cabernet Sauvignon. Shiraz Cabernet has a majority of Shiraz, Cabernet Shiraz a majority of Cabernet. 1993 Penfolds Rawsons Retreat Bin 35 (£4.25, Waitrose, £4.45 Safeway, £4.49 Somerfield, Morrisons, Oddbins, Thresher, Wine Rack and Bottoms Up) has Cabernet, Shiraz and a not very distinguished grape called the Ruby Cabernet, but this is lovely wine nevertheless, with heaps of ripe raspberry and blackcurrant fruit, a subtle hint of leathery flavour, and a little smooth tannin.

Two other excellent value blends are the soft, gutsy, damson-fruity 1993 Ryecroft Flametree Cabernet/Shiraz (£4.99 Safeway) and the brightly cherry- fruity, minty 1994 Rosemount Estate Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon (£4.95 Victoria Wine, £4.99 Tesco, EH Booth and Fuller's).

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