Since then Chile has displayed its New World credentials of energy, resilience and innovation, refusing to be tied to just one style. After all, it was only a decade ago that Chile discovered to its horror that most of its merlot was actually the long-lost Bordeaux variety called carmenère.

It didn't like that, so tried to deny its existence. Now, by accident of fashion and chance, it finds that two if its increasingly important red-wine styles are based on grapes it didn't have, or didn't know it had. Even now it can't quite make up its mind whether to call syrah by its French name or its Australian counterpart, shiraz. According to Alvaro Espinoza, one of Chile's leading winemakers, producers who use the shiraz name do so "because of the success of Australian shiraz", while some, like Aurelio Montes prefer "syrah" because it's closer in style to the French version.

Whatever the name, the exciting reality is that the syrah grape looks capable of producing not just one, but a variety of styles in Chile's benign climate. Aided by radically improved vineyard management and stony, well-drained soils, syrah crops up in the northern Elqui Valley down through Aconcagua and into the many regions of the vast Central Valley. The Mediterranean variety displays its freshness and spicy, peppery qualities in cooler areas such as Limarí, San Antonio and Elqui with wines like the sumptuous, blackberryish 2004 Alta Tierra Elqui Valley Syrah, £7.49, Laithwaites and the excellent value, tarry, peppery 2004 Candelabra, Elqui Valley Syrah, £5.50, The Wine Society. At the highest quality level, the brilliantly herby and black fruit-laden 2004 Matetic Vineyards EQ Syrah, San Antonio, £16.99, Oddbins Fine Wine, showed its worth by winning this year's trophy at the 3rd Wines of Chile Annual Awards (so hurry, while stocks last).

Closer perhaps in climate to the southern Rhône, the warm southern region of Colchagua is a major producer of richly fruity syrah and here you'll find such opulent examples as Casa Lapostolle's sleek 2003 Cuvée Alexandre Syrah, Requinoa Vineyard, Rapel Valley, £17.50, Selfridges, £16.95, bottle by case, Goedhuis & Co Ltd, London SW8 (020-7793 7900). And syrah does extremely well in softer styles in central regions such as Maipo Valley, the source for instance of Concha y Toro's spicy, rich bright 2004 Marques de Casa Concha Syrah, £7.99, Majestic and the vivid, accessible 2005 Torreón de Paredes Syrah Reserve Rengo, Cachapoal Valley, £7.99 bottle / case, Forth Wines Ltd (www.forthwines. com). It may take a few years yet before we see syrah to match the great Hermitages of France and the Granges of Australia, but you can be sure Chile's producers are working on it - and fast.