A Little Pepper in That Shiraz?

Shiraz and Syrah wines are often distinguished by their peppery character. As it turns out, this spicy flavor has a rather pedestrian, chemical nature. According to How to pepper up a bottle of Shiraz by Tim Atkin, “The compound responsible for the peppery aromas and flavours in Syrah/Shiraz has been identified. In case you’re interested, it’s called alpha-ylangene.”

Atkin also comments on the distinction between Shiraz and Syrah:

Syrah and Shiraz are used more or less interchangeably in South Africa – but the more a non-French wine tastes like something from the northern Rhône Valley, the more likely it is to be called Syrah. Conversely, that’s why a handful of producers in the Languedoc-Roussillon are perfectly justified in labelling their vins de pays as Shiraz, despite grumbles from their compatriots. The wines have much more in common with the Barossa Valley than they do with Hermitage or Saint-Joseph.

The only danger I see in this discovery is that unethical wine producers might try and “spice up” a wine chemically rather than letting nature take its course. A little alpha-ylangene, anyone?

Hardy’s Shiraz 2006

Hardy's Shiraz 2006Price: $15
Maker: Hardy’s
Varietal: Shiraz
Packaging: 3 liter box, push-button spigot
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Hardy’s Shiraz 2006 is an adequate if unspectacular boxed wine. It has a nice aroma of spice and licorice. The flavor is rounded and fruity, but not all that complex. The fruit has an unusual prune character along with some cherries; there’s oak and faint pepper in the finish. This wine isn’t offensive, but it kind of fails to excite.

This is part of Hardy’s Stamp of Australia series:

Hardys Stamp of Australia offers one of Australia’s most popular, easy to drink range of wines. Stamp of Australia continues the tradition of fine winemaking that Hardys have become recognised for throughout the world, by offering great wine at an affordable price. The Stamp range is identified by the original Australian postage stamp, dating back to 1937, which is featured on all Stamp of Australia wines.

Would we serve this Shiraz with a fine dinner? Probably not. Would we use it for party fare, or glass-of-red-wine-a-day drinking? Sure.

McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Shiraz 2005

McWilliams Hanwood Estate ShirazPrice: $11
Maker: McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate, New South Wales, Australia
Varietal: Shiraz
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

We picked up a couple of bottles of McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Shiraz 2005 when we spotted it on sale for nearly half price. We don’t buy multiples too often – there are just too many other wines to try and to write about. In this case, though, we almost regret not picking up a few more at the $6 – $7 sale price. This Shiraz has a powerful and pleasant nose, full of juicy berries and spice with a hint of licorice. The flavors were plum and blackberry, with a bit of chocolate. There was very light pepper in the wine’s long, slightly acidic finish. Shortly after opening, this Shiraz was pleasant but not overly distinguished. Surprisingly, the next day it had improved with deeper and more complex flavors. So, give this wine a chance to breathe.

According to the McWilliam’s Wine website,

McWilliam’s Wines has been named 2006 Winery of the Year by leading wine writer and critic, Stuart Gregor… In awarding McWilliam’s 2006 Winery of the Year in the fifth edition of his award-winning book ‘Don’t Buy Wine Without Me’ Stuart Gregor said:

“This award goes to the single winery whose range of wines excels at every price level. It is one of the most difficult decisions to make and I feel particularly for Seppelt, which is runner-up for the second successive year. But McWilliam’s richly deserves this award for its consistency, its dedication to making great-value wines at every imaginable price point and its failure to have a single dud in its entire range.”

High praise indeed, but we can confirm that McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate Shiraz 2005 is no dud.

Juno Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2005

Juno Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2005Price: $9
Maker: Juno Wine Company, Paarl, South Africa
Varietal: Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot blend
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Juno Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2005 features another of Juno’s gorgeous labels – the call these wines their “Cape Maidens” series. The wine itself is what one might expect from a blend of these grapes. The composition is Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Shiraz (30%), and Merlot (20%). This blend has a ripe berry nose, a medium body, and a nicely rounded blackberry and plum flavor with a bit of spice in the finish. We like this wine both for its attractive package and its accessible flavor. It would be nice for entertaining or a $10-range hostess gift.

The Cape Maiden illustrations are the work of artist Tertia du Toit. According to the Juno Wine website,

She paints a picture of the atmosphere of the wine, the taste and the aroma. The girls are part of exhibitions, a collection of paintings that dance around the idea of womanhood. Her paintings focuses on the female figure, milkmaids and Madonna’s, an abundance of life’s pleasures. With the strong colours and dramatic poses she invites whoever dares, ‘to indulge’.

The aim with the labels is to create an integrated visual meeting between the predominantly male winemaking traditions and the sensual nature of the wine itself. The eventual idea with the usage of the Maidens is not to objectify them but rather to turn them into super heroines

An Art in South Africa website comments on du Toit’s work, “‘ One need not be a detective or a Freudian or Jungian analyst, to be aware of a strong element of eroticism in these works.” Well, I suppose wine has always been related to harvests, fertility, and the like… However you interpret the labels, they are indeed lush and enticing on the shelf. Juno made a good choice in signing du Toit if they want to gain a bit of extra attention as wine buyers scan rows of mostly boring bottles.

Purple Moon Shiraz 2005

Purple Moon ShirazPrice: $4
Maker: Purple Moon Winery, Manteca, California
Varietal: Shiraz
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Purple Moon Shiraz 2005 was the least expensive wine we picked up during our recent Trader Joe’s visit. It’s attractively labeled, and a glance at the bottle would suggest a more expensive wine. The nose, too, was promising – nice juicy berries with spice and a hint of licorice. On the palate, though, this Shiraz is all fruit, all the time. The label calls the wine “fruit forward,” which in this case is an understatement. The flavor is full of sweet cherries, plums, and raspberries – there’s just not much else. Even for a low-end Shiraz, we’d like a peppery finish and a bit more complexity. Having said that, this wine isn’t unpleasant – it’s fruity character, smooth nature, and relative sweetness go down easily enough, and it’s far more drinkable than some wines in that price range that have unpleasant off-notes. We waffled on our own rating – this Shiraz isn’t the best wine we’ve scored an 8, but it’s more to our taste than those we’ve scored lower.

This wine is apparently only sold by Trader Joe’s. We found slightly mixed reactions on the Web, perhaps reflecting differences between vintages. Cheap Wine Reviews liked it a lot, and said, “Would buy again, without doubt.” In the 2006 San Diego International Wine Competition, Purple Moon Shiraz 2004 scored only a bronze. World Wine Weblog considered the 2003 version “great bang for the buck.”

d’Arenberg The Stump Jump Red 2005

Stump Jump RedPrice: $8
Maker: d’Arenberg, McLaren Vale, Australia
Varietal: Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvedre blend
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, screw cap
Alcohol: 14.5%
Our Rating: 9 out of 10

d’Arenberg The Stump Jump Red 2005 was another find on my Trader Joe’s expedition, and the second winner in a row. This is a big, bold, spicy red wine that Shiraz and Zinfandel lovers will enjoy. The nose is a powerful mix of spice and licorice. On the palate, this wine starts with juicy currant and plum, and finishes with chewy tannins and long-lasting pepper. It’s well-balanced and moderately complex. I admit to favoring bold reds, and this one hit my sweet spot.

The Stump Jump Red is a blend of Grenache (46%), Shiraz (34%), and Mourvedre (20%), all from South Australia. It won a “blue-gold” medal in the 2007 Sydney International Wine Competition, meaning it finished in the top 10% of wines tasted. Gourmet Traveller Wine named it a “Best Buy Under $15.” In the blogosphere, Dr. Debs at WineWaves said, “Enjoy small batch wine at a big batch price… always a winner.” The Rake found it drinkable and ultra-smooth. Mouthwatering recommends the wine to accompany their Chicken and Chorizo Cassoulet recipe. The Screwcap thought, “This is a round and earthy Australian wine with a nice long finish. Shows sweet characteristics of shiraz/grenache tempered nicely by the gamier mouvedre. Good stuff.” Tastes of Life liked Stump Jump’s fruity character and proclaimed it a “nice wine for the price.” Scriven Stuff declared it, “My newest favorite wine under $15.” It’s not that common to see such a high percentage of accolades; usually, a wine will be called “undrinkable plonk” by at least one or two bloggers. Give The Stump Jump Red a try and see if you agree.

Jake’s Fault Shiraz 2004

Jakes Fault ShirazPrice: $8
Maker: Jake’s Fault Winery, Geyserville, California
Varietal: Shiraz
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

We found Jake’s Fault Shiraz 2004 at Trader Joe’s, and we’re glad we did. If you enjoy a spicy Shiraz, then you should seek it out, too. The nose is full of berry, clove, and black pepper. On the palate, this Shiraz starts off with plenty of juicy blackberry and blueberry notes, easing into a peppery finish with moderately prominent tannins. It’s reasonably well balanced, and reasonably complex for an under-$10 Shiraz.

Bloggers have been mostly very positive about Jake’s Fault Shiraz. Just Robb thought, “The taste had hints of blackberry, a bit jam-like with a hint of oak and really easy on the tannin. Very smooth… this wine was excellent in its smoothness. ” VinoForLess.com called it a “treasure find.” LizKitchen raved, “This is a perfect Shiraz for me. It has a good body, lots of fruit, a lovely nose, and is heavy enough to be a substantial wine, but not so much that it’s overwhelming.” Liz likes it as a party wine, and has yet to find a guest who didn’t enjoy it. Alexis and Andrew at UrbanVino scored the wine as 87 and 83, respectively. Visit JakesFault.com to learn more about the wine and winery.

Concannon Stampmaker’s Syrah 2004

Concannon Limited Release WinesPrice: $12
Maker: Concannon Vineyard, Livermore & San Luis Obispo, California
Varietal: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13.5%
Our Rating: 9 out of 10

Concannon Stampmaker’s Syrah 2004 makes a great first impression – the bottle has a raised image of the vineyard gates, the label is foil imprinted and is further graced by an embossed grapevine. Fortunately, this wine isn’t all show. The nose is a powerful and exotic blend of licorice, clove, vanilla, and black pepper, with juicy berry notes in the background. On the palate, this Syrah is full-bodied and well balanced. The fruity blackberry and black cherry notes are well matched with toasty oak, and the finish is a long-lasting blend of spice and mild acidity. We liked this wine quite a lot.

So far, we haven’t gone wrong with a choice from Concannon – we also enjoyed their slightly less expensive Concannon Central Coast Merlot 2003 – although not a typical merlot, that was an interesting and flavorful wine. This wine is part of their “Limited Release” series, which features wines bottled in somewhat smaller quantities. We note that the 2003 vintage of Concannon Stampmaker’s Syrah took a “Best in Class” award at the California State Fair. We’re looking forward to trying other wines from this maker.

Box Star Shiraz

Price: $14
Maker: Imported by International Cellars, Madera, California
Varietal: Shiraz
Packaging: 3 liter box, push-button spigot
Alcohol: 13%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Box Star ShirazA new arrival in several local wine shops was the non-vintage Box Star Shiraz. The first wine that we’ve tried from this brand – they have a Chardonnay, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon in the series. The nose has spice, licorice, and weak berry notes. The flavor starts with juicy cherries and currants, chocolate, and slides smoothly into a spicy finish with a tannin bite. All in all, this is a respectable enough wine for everyday drinking or low-key party use.

We weren’t able to learn much about the background of this wine. It’s imported by International Cellars of Madera, CA. The wine itself is from Australia. There’s no website listed on the packaging, and none of the International Cellars we located on the Web seemed to be the one offering Box Star wines. Distribution for the product seems to be ramping up, though, so we expect to see more of this brand in the future. It’s nice to see a new brand of box wine pop up from nowhere, and we’ll report on some of the other wines from Box Star soon.

Les Hauts de la Brune Coteaux du Languedoc 2004

Les Hauts de la Brune Coteaux du LanguedocPrice: $8
Maker: Domaine de la Brune
Varietal: 80% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Alcohol: 13%
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

We picked up Les Hauts de la Brune Coteaux du Languedoc 2004 as an alternate choice for WBW #33 – its inexpensive price disqualified it from the $15 – $30 price range, but we thought we’d give a sub-$10 wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region a try. At that price, and with its 80% Syrah composition, this wine would compete directly with a broad range of Shiraz/Syrah wines from Australian and California. The nose was very mild, with spicy berry aromas predominating. Our initial take on this wine was that it was rather thin and very dry. Even an hour or two of breathing didn’t alter our feelings much. Oddly, after being stored for a day (with argon) and another hour or two of air, the wine smoothed out considerably. We found mainly cherry, currant, and black pepper notes, with slightly sharp tannins. We’re not crazy about this wine, but ultimately it was fairly drinkable.

We’re not sure if this is the winery’s official site, but it indicates that this wine earned an impressive 90 points from Wine Spectator. Based on that, it’s an incredible value, though I can’t say I’d rate what I tasted at nearly that exalted a level. Feel free to give this one a try, though if you are into a fruitier Syrah/Shiraz I’d suggest one of the many decent Australian Shiraz choices that are in the $5 to $10 range. If you do pick up a bottle, plan on plenty of time, or decanting (maybe an aquarium bubbler?) to bring out the flavor and balance in this wine.