One of the difficulties with writing about syrah is that I really don’t like it. Too much of it, and especially if it’s from , leaves an upside down feeling in the back of my mouth. Yet it’s increasingly popular, selling almost as many cases in the as pinot noir (and without a movie to push sales). How to explain that contradiction?

Part of it is price, since inexpensive shiraz — the Australian version of syrah — washes up on these shores like debris after a hurricane. Yellow Tail is the best known, but it’s far from the only one. Part of it is style — a jammy, over-the-top fruitiness the Australians popularized that has been copied in California and the Pacific Northwest and that appeals to millions of wine drinkers who aren’t me. So what do you need to know if you want to make up your mind about syrah and shiraz?

First, syrah and shiraz are the same grape. Wines from the Rhone region of are called syrah, while those from are called shiraz. The Californians and winemakers in Washington state use both names, depending on their marketing strategy. Second, petite sirah is not the same grape. It’s genetically similar to syrah and almost certainly evolved from it, but it’s not as intense or as bright (though still a fine wine grape in its own right).

Generally, shiraz is much less subtle than syrah, and syrah is not a subtle wine to begin with. The reason is mostly climate. has a longer growing season than the Rhone, California and the Pacific Northwest, so the grapes get riper, which means more intense flavor and more sugar. And more sugar means more alcohol during fermentation, often as much as 1½ to 2 percentage points more. And regardless of alcohol content, these are food wines. If you taste even the simplest without red meat or something equally hearty, you’ll likely need some water.

The following are a good example of each style:

• Robert Mondavi Private Selection Syrah 2006 ($10). This is surprisingly full-bodied for an inexpensive wine, with a berryish, fruit-forward California approach.

• Archetype Vineyards Shiraz 2005 ($15). Wonderful bright berry fruit, with balanced acid and alcohol. It’s not as overwhelming as most Aussie shirazes, which means it’s a good introduction for the faint of heart.

• Domaine de l’Ameillaud Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne 2005 ($18). This is a blend from the southern Rhone, mixing grenache and syrah. The grenache makes it easier to drink, but it’s still a rich, full wine. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Roast potatoes with rosemary and sage

Serves 4 as a side dish, 2 as a main course (takes about an hour)

Serve this with a big green salad, some sautéed mushrooms and onions, and a French-style syrah, and it’s a new approach to dinner.

Serves four as a side dish, two as a main course (takes about an hour)

6 medium baking potatoes
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp fresh sage
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 375. Peel potatoes. Cut each in half, then cut each half into thick wedges. Mix potatoes, oil and spices well.

2. Place mixture in ovenproof container in one layer and bake four about 1 hour, tossing occasionally so that potatoes brown on all sides.

Ask the wine guy

What do the scores that some wines get — 92 points, 88 points — mean?

Those are given by various wine magazines and reflect the style and judgment of the magazines. Most of them also don’t take into account price, which means a $100 wine that gets an 88 is probably not a value for money. Scores are only good as the people giving them, and they’re no replacement for your own taste.


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