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Meet the grape that put Aussie reds on the map

MY friends at Shanghai Daily are wonderful and talented people and they love giving me challenges. Take for example this week’s iDeal section with a featured topic of eggplant. How does one relate the eggplant to wines? Actually this isn’t the greatest challenge they’ve given me as eggplants are an exceedingly wine-friendly food and are genetically related to grapes. Technically the eggplant is a fruit, not a vegetable.

When used in Asian or Western cooking, eggplants soak up oils and sauces and add rich and complex flavors and textures. When added to seafood dishes the eggplant helps the dish pair better with red wines. Deep-fried, roasted or sautéed, the meatiness of eggplants helps bring out the best qualities of red wines. The best style of red wine to pair with eggplants really depends on how it’s prepared and what other ingredients comprise the dish; however, one red wine that goes well with many eggplant dishes is Syrah.

The enigmatic origins of the Syrah variety have finally been decoded thanks to the science of DNA analysis. University of California Davis researchers collaborating with Monpellier University in France have been responsible for solving many of the most difficult amplelographic questions of our time, including the parentage of the Syrah variety. For over a century wine experts have speculated over the origin of Syrah, proffering theories that it originated in the similarly named Iranian city of Shiraz or was brought by Phoenicians from Syracuse in Sicily. Both theories turned out to be erroneous.

US and French scientists proved that the parents of Syrah are two rather obscure French grapes. The father is the Dureza red variety from the Ardeche region while the mother is a white variety named Mondeuse from the Savoy region. Both regions are close to the Northern Rhone, so sometime centuries ago Dureza vines pollinated Mondeuse Blanche vines and Syrah was born.

Today there exists two major styles of Syrah wines with two different names, the classic Northern Rhone style and the New World Australian style that goes by the name Shiraz. The Northern Rhone style tends toward elegant, structured and generous wines replete with dark berry and black pepper flavors, while the Aussie-style Shiraz wines are more fruit driven, concentrated and heady with softer tannins.

As much as I adore the Syrah wines of the Northern Rhone, this must be a story for another day. In this week’s column I’ll examine the Australian Shiraz wines, particularly those from the Barossa Valley.

The French rightly claim the Syrah grape as their own, but the modern popularization of the variety must in large part be shared with the Aussies. What Napa Valley did for Cabernets and Merlots in the 1970s and 1980s, Australia and predominantly the Barossa Valley did for Shiraz wines. They popularized them globally and proved that the New World could make Syrah wines as good as the best of the Old World, albeit with a different name. Many of the best Shiraz wines come from the Barossa Valley in South Australia.

The Barossa Valley was first populated in the early 19th century by German settlers fleeing Prussian rule. Most of these newcomers lacked winegrowing experience so the successful cultivation of vines took many decades. Much of the early wine production focused on the German grape Riesling and the red wines that were made were considered inferior in quality.

The first Aussie red wines to receive global attention were Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties in the cooler climate regions of Coonwarra and Padthaway.

Shiraz grapes grown in the Barossa Valley were mostly used for blending. Then in the latter half of the 20th century pioneering Aussie producers like Penfolds and Wolf Blass started to change the reputation of Australian wines in general and Shiraz wines in particular. A number of quality-minded smaller wineries also played a role. Barossa with many of the world’s oldest Shiraz vines was at the center of this transformation. Planted in 1847, the world’s oldest wine producing vineyard is Turkey Flat in Tanunda, Barossa Valley.

Penfolds Grange was the first Aussie wine to be internationally recognized as among the world’s greatest red wines. A healthy percentage of the Shiraz grapes used to make this iconic wine are sourced from the Barossa Valley. Australia’s most famous single vineyard red wine, the Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz also played an important role in putting the Barossa Valley on the map as one of the world’s greatest red wine regions.

Good Barossa Valley Shiraz wines are widely available in Shanghai. Two of my favorite classic Barossa style Shiraz wines are made by Wolf Blass, the Gold Label Shiraz and ultra-premium Platinum Label Medlands Vineyard Shiraz. Other wines from this region to look for are the Penfolds BIN 28 Kalimna Shiraz, Yalumba Patchwork Barossa Shiraz and Lou Miranda Estate Leone Shiraz. All typify the smooth, concentrated juicy style of wine that’s made Barossa famous.

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