October 4, 2007


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Shiraz history
The grape with a Persian past
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

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..

9/27/2007 Ingenious appellation

9/20/2007 Small world of wines
9/13/2007 How not to get screwed
9/6/2007 Wine lover's shopping trip
8/30/2007 Bottle surfing
8/23/2007 Lobster goes red
8/16/2007 Emotional tasting notes
8/9/2007 Stop, wine thief
8/2/2007 Be your own sommelier
7/26/2007 You do know your wine
7/19/2007 Booze free association
7/12/2007 Raiders of the sidewalk
7/5/2007 A sustainable buzz
6/28/2007 We are the merlot
6/21/2007 Forgot Dad? Bring booze.
6/14/2007 Jack & Jill and a pail of wine
6/7/2007 Our lady of the Rioja
5/24/2007 Breaking the fast
5/17/2007 What the best bears drink
5/10/2007It's OK to be pink
5/3/2007 In praise of tastings
4/26/2007 Invention-tini
4/19/2007 More 'Mas'
4/12/2007 Futures in a bottle
3/29/2007 Uneasy glass of spring
3/22/2007 Chateau de blech
3/8/2007 Finding new beauties
3/1/2007 Infatuation or addiction
2/15/2007 The extraordinary ordinary
2/8/2007 A glass of sweetness
2/1/2007 A glass of sweetness
1/25/2007 Ham it up
1/18/2007 Cheating on wine
1/11/2007 Burning down the tree
1/4/2007 New Year's hangover
12/28/2006 Sins of the vine
12/21/2006 Kissing frogs
12/14/2006 Wine for horrible friends
12/07/2006 Like dregs in the wine glass
11/30/2006 Gift of calmer shopping
11/23/2006 YouTube for YouWine
11/16/2006 Welcome to wine
11/9/2006 Fine art, supermarket wine
11/2/2006 The geography of grapes
10/26/2006 Please continue to hold
10/19/2006 The trouble with reds
10/12/2006 Making new friends
10/05/2006 TiVo-ing the wine
09/28/2006 From an unknown battle
09/21/2006 Toast to turkey
09/14/2006 Wine for life
09/07/2006 What are Malpeques, Alex?
08/31/2006 Hanging out wines
08/24/2006 Falling into new wine season
08/17/2006 Where has that wine been?
08/10/2006 Bringing out the dead
08/03/2006 The birth of a wine fop
07/27/2006 Slow process of maturation
07/20/2006 The pain of adolescent wines
07/13/2006 Nice day for a white wedding
07/06/2006 Scoring goals with booze
06/29/2006 Beer, it's what's for dinner
06/22/2006 A drink fit for a czar
06/15/2006 A summer of beer and fried clams
06/08/2006 Keep your cool, fool
06/01/2006 The social lubricant
05/25/2006 Water, water everywhere
05/18/2006 Big fat greek wine tasting
05/11/2006 Drinking to the end
05/04/2006 Schooled in the art of wine
04/27/2006 Make a wish
04/20/2006 Immigrant wines
04/13/2006 A pain in the glass
04/06/2006 Got milk?
03/30/2006 Throw a dart and there's wine
03/23/2006 A life of good wine
03/16/2006 Honoring the dead soldiers
03/09/2006 What once was old i new again
03/02/2006 The taste of sibling rivalry
02/23/2006 Wine travels, doesn’t sing
From grape, to barrel to red-tape jungle

02/16/2006 Love and vine
02/09/2006 A dog-drink-dog world
02/02/2006 The winos' mecca
01/26/2006 Date-nite drinks
01/19/2006 Touring eastern wine country
01/12/2006 Wine, Cheese and Granny Smith
01/05/2006 Resolve to try new wines
10 Wines To Get Lucky With

Adventures in and past the Euro-Cave
A Do-It-Yourself Wine Tasting
A Red For Everything
A Red Wth Your Leftovers?
A Tasty Way To Put Wine To The Test
A Year Of Wine
An Around-The-World Holiday
A wine for every holiday

Basking In The Mondavi Light
Behind One Door Is Great Wine
Beware The Hot Bottle
Brandy and the nude beach
Champagne, The Other White Wine
Cheers And Whines Of The Vine
Days of wine and jelly beans
Deep in the heart of Texas
Drinking for your health
Drinking like a newspaperman

Drinking Whites After Labor Day
Finding A Great Medium-Weight Drink (I)
Finding A Great Medium Weight Drink (II)
Gifts for blood, love or money
Grill and sip, sip and sip. Finding the perfect wine for barbecue
Hey baby, stay cool
How The Corleones Saved Wine

In Praise Of An American Wine
In search of the girl next door
Keeping it in the family
Keeping up appearances
Looking back at the heyday of cheap wine
My Big Fat Greek Wine Tasting
The Best Drinks On A Budget
The Highly Drinkable (Mostly) Merlot
The Long, Strange Journey Of Wine
Old French grape in the New World
Olé! to a week in wine
Opening the Parker book

Our French friends — really
Our Northern Neighbor
Poker faces and wine

Presenting A New England Vodka
Presenting The Wines Of Spring
Rewarding Your Support Staff
Schooled In The Art Of Wine
Shopping for Wine Bargains

Sitting By The Fire And Dreaming Of Wine
Slipping A Little Sideways
Spending the holidays in NYC
Spirit World Tales
Springtime calls for wine and ice cream
Sudden ugly mood swings
The new face of fine wines
The wines of fall
Thinking ahead to the holidays
Time To Stay Frosty
Tipples for turkey day
TV worth drinking
What it means to miss N.O.
What To Drink When You Eat Wild
What's Your Wine Sign
White’s OK after Labor Day
Wine Between The Season
Wine for the NASCAR set
Wine is in at the Inn
Wine’ll make you crazy
Wine Works With Red Sauce