With its narrow neck to the north and its broad bottom to the south, the decanter-shaped Rhône Valley is setting increasingly high standards of quality with its predominantly red wines

Hugging both sides of the steep banks of the Rhône River, the vineyards of the north are dominated by the elegantly peppery, tarry, black-fruited syrah grape which forms the backbone of its appellations of Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph, Cornas, Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. In the sun-baked, Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône, the aromatic power of the syrah diminishes, joining grenache and mourvèdre as a bedfellow in the fuller, spicier, more robust red blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and the enchantingly pretty region of Côtes-du-Rhône Villages.

The benchmark for Crozes-Hermitage is the 2005 Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage, £17.99, Waitrose, a consistently fine red achieving the great 2005 vintage syrah's trademark fragrance and black-fruited richness. Graillot's counterpart in St Joseph is Pierre Gaillard, whose smoky, paprika-like richly endowed blackberryish 2003 St Joseph Rouge, Les Pierres, Domaine Pierre Gaillard, £22.50, Jeroboams shops (020-7730 8108), is excellent. If you want some of the flavour of Hermitage without the high price tag, Tesco's Finest 2004 Hermitage, £17.99, is a fair place to start. For the full monty, you need to go to the classically peppery, richly concentrated 2004 Côte Rôtie, Champin Le Seigneur, Domaine Michel Gerin, £32.95, Berry Bros & Rudd (0870 900 4300), or the youthfully complex 2004 Michel Chapoutier La Sizeranne Hermitage, £36, Waitrose.

Compared to merlot and cabernet sauvignon of Bordeaux and Burgundy's even fussier pinot noir, the relative ease with which syrah is grown has made it popular in the New World. Australian shiraz's success is remarkable, varying from the approachable, spicy, everyday value of the 2006 Wakefield Estate Shiraz, £7.99, buy 2 = £5.99, Majestic, to the heights of one of Australia's greatest reds in the cool climate, tarry finesse and opulence of Dr Bailey Carrodus' 2004 Yarra Yering Dry Red No2, £35.25, Berry Bros & Rudd. California's syrah is on the move with spicy everyday reds such as the 2005 Marmesa Syrah, Edna Valley, £8.99, Oddbins, while South African syrah is starting to motor with examples like Tulbagh Mountain's approachably dark- cherryish 2006 TMV Swartland Syrah, £12.99, Waitrose. Perhaps the greatest potential for the northern Rhône cool-climate style lies in New Zealand's Hawkes Bay, where the 2005 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Shiraz, £14.99 (or buy 3 = £9.99), Wine Rack, shows the way with terrific intensity.

With spice, smokiness and blackberry and plum fruit at their hearts, the robust wines of the southern Rhône are made for autumn pheasant, partridge and venison. In the warmer south, the flavours become more powerful, with wines like the vibrant, perfumed 2006 Séguret, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, £8.99, buy 2 = £7.99, Majestic, and the juicy, dark cherry fruit richness of Tesco's Finest 2005 Gigondas, £8.99. You'll find the highest expression of the southern Rhône in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and wines with the plummy fruit richness and spice of the 2005 Domaine des Sénéchaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, £17, M&S. For a New World counterpart, go for the spicy liquorice 2005 Spinifex Indigene, Barossa Valley, £22.95, winedirect.com, Hailsham Cellars (01323 846238), a mourvèdre-shiraz blend, or the 2005 Joseph Phelps Le Mistral, Monterey, £27.50, Waitrose, a distinctive Californian blend of syrah, grenache and alicante bouschet.

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