The grape with a Persian past
By Tim Protzman email@example.com
I’ve been thinking about Iran.
Not because I was supposed to go to a Barolo tasting in New York on the same day their president was speaking at Columbia University. Not because my college roommate was from Iran. But because I read a wine column by Eric Asimov in the New York Times online. It was about nice wines for under $10 a bottle, and the byword was Shiraz.
I don’t drink a lot of Shiraz. I drink more Syrah. But they’re the same grape. In ancient times the wines of Shiraz in Persia were highly sought after. In the rolling foothills of the Zagros Mountains, the hot dry days and cool nights create a micro climate that grapes thrive on. It was perhaps here, in the Shiraz Plain, that wine was first made 7,000 years ago. Romans, Greeks, Babylonians and the British loved the wines of Shiraz. Today grapes are still grown there, but not much wine is made because the Islamic religion precludes drinking of fermented beverages.
The use of the word Shiraz to denote grapes dates back the dawn of time. During the Crusades a French Chevalier (knight) took some vine cuttings and rootstock back to his Rhone Valley estate, where it flourished and became the basis of the Northern Rhone wines. Cote Rotie and Hermitage are two of the most elegant manifestations of Shiraz. But the French, probably because the name was difficult to pronounce, called it Syrah.
The word Shiraz resurfaced in Australia in the 19th century. James Busby was a Scot who immigrated to Australia in 1823. He brought grape vines back from Spain and France and planted them on his family’s holdings in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. He also was a minister for the Crown to New Zealand and possibly brought some of the vines with him on his missions to New Zealand. So in Australia the grape was always known as Shiraz, and it grew very well. The Australian wine industry is only a little younger than Australia itself. Seems that every pioneer and immigrant brought rootstock and barrels with them and by the time Busby got there in 1823 most farms or ranches had some sort of arbor, vineyard or wine cellar. The word Shiraz burst on the scene with the phenomenal success of Penfold’s Grange Hermitage in the early 1960s. This was serious wine from a non-serious wine county. And some people even called the Shiraz grape, “Hermitage,” until the French said “Mais Non!” as they already had a region called Hermitage and the got first dibs.
Today the Hunter valley is filled with wineries and vineyards. Cockfighter’s Ghost, Rothvale and Tinkler’s (I’ll skip that one) are just a few of the close to 50 vineyards in the valley and nearby Pokolbin Hills. But many an old Sydney hippie will remember the valley for “Hunter Green,” a potent strain of marijuana that flourished in the 1950s and early 60s and grew rampantly throughout the vale. They’d planted it during World War II to make hemp fibers and after the war was over and the demand dropped it just kind of went to pot. It took the Australian government nine years to eradicate it. But there’s a happy ending because the land was soon turned into vineyards and the demand for and quality of Australian wine, particularly Shiraz, exploded.
My college roommate wasn’t from Shiraz. He was from Tabriz, where the carpets come from. His name was Kouroush. We went to school in Washington, D.C. It was the mid 1970s. One day another Iranian head of state came to town and there were demonstrations. Some were for the king, Reza Pahlavi; some were against him. There were signs everywhere proclaiming “Down with the Shah and Farah!!!”
One of my less intellectual friends couldn’t understand why all the Iranians were so mad at the really pretty one from Charlie’s Angels. Anyway, my roommate told me not to go to the mall that day. But I did and ended up in the middle of a full-scale riot. Pro-Shah forces led by elements of his secret police, the Savak, clashed with the larger number of demonstatrors against the Shah. Tear gas clouds rolled over the South Lawn of the White House, forcing President Carter, the First Lady, the Shah and his Empress Farah inside. It didn’t take a genius to see his days were numbered. District police waded into the crowd on horseback. It was like a cavalry charge. Nobody noticed us college students, but we still got tear gassed. Coughing, we stumbled away.
Which is why I skipped the Barolo Tasting. Even the finest Mauro Veglio doesn’t pair well with tear gas.
Wines I tried this week:
2005 Laboure-Roi “La Belle Maure” Cote de Nuits Villages ($17.99). I had the clerk pick this one out for me, but I would have gotten it on my own because it had such a great, traditional label. Lean on the fruit but all the right faded tones and structure. Wooly, with faint dried cranberry and a hint of licorice.
2004 Bridlewood Central Coast Syrah ($10.99). This is also a Shiraz. It’s two, two wines in one! Yummy and dense with spicy plum and Hoisin sauce flavors. Really drinkable and nice, not much structure but a good example of a traditional winery’s take on the Californian Rhone Ranger phenomenon.
2005 Chateau Reveil de Diane Pomerol ($22.49). Imported by Monsieur Touton, which is a sign of quality wine. This was mostly merlot with 15 percent cabernet franc. Very structured and pretty. No tannins. Elegant sour berry fruit flavors. Loved it. My second favorite after the Laboure-Roi.
2005 Napa Valley Merlot ($9.99). Had this at a tasting and it was good. Great price too. Fruit and structure galore for an under $10. They make a good Chardonnay too, but the cabernet was a little savage..