What’s the Difference Between Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz?

So you’re browsing the wine aisle at your favorite store, you have a pretty good handle on what a Cabernet Sauvignon is, and what a Pinot Noir is, but there’s always a group of red wines you’ve never quite gotten a handle on: Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Shiraz. What do these wines taste like, what are the differences between the three, are they named after a grape, like Cabernet, or are they a blend, like Meritage?

To start with, Syrah and Shiraz are exactly the same, just different names for the same grape. It’s called Shiraz in Australia, and Syrah in most other parts of the world, though a few California wineries like Coppola buck this trend and call their bottlings Shiraz. Shiraz is also the name of an ancient city in Iran where some of the oldest wine ever discovered was found, and it’s thought that the grape may have originated in this region. Legend has it that the grape was brought to the Rhône valley in France by the ancient Greek Phocaeans, or perhaps by French crusaders, though of course we have no way of knowing for certain, and it could just be a natural French grape with a lot of mystery around its origin.

In France, Syrah is usually blended with grapes like Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault to make wines we call Rhône blends, like Côtes-du-Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, whereas in other countries like the United States, Australia, or Spain, Syrah is just as often blended with a variety of other grapes or simply bottled on its own. Syrah wines are typically lighter than a bold Cabernet, but heavier than a Pinot, with a more extracted fruitiness that can be similar to Zinfandel. Depending on the climate and the bottling, Syrah can be a fruit bomb, all blackberry and raspberry, or it can be a peppery, spicy, tannic, and often smoky powerhouse, designed to be cellared for years. Try Syrah as an alternative to either Cabernet or Zinfandel, with rich foods like barbecue that won’t be outdone by the wine’s body.

So what is Petite Sirah, then? It’s not yet another name for Syrah/Shiraz, but is in fact a totally different grape. While Syrah’s origins are shrouded in ancient mystery, we know exactly who is responsible for Petite Sirah, and when; the grape was bred by a Frenchman named Durif in the mid-1800s and was mostly planted in the United States, where it was incorrectly labelled as Syrah for decades. Despite its minuscule-sounding name, Petite Sirah is one of the biggest, boldest grapes available, with massive tannins protecting gobs of blackberry, chocolate, plums, and pepper. Drinkers used to the biggest, boldest California Cabernets will love Petite Sirah, though unlike Cabernet and Syrah, Petite Sirah doesn’t age exceptionally well and should be consumed within a couple years of its vintage. For a food pairing, you’ll want a meal as big and bold as the wine; barbecue beef and pork is still a good choice, and stuffed peppers or heavy cheeses make good pairings with Petite Sirah, as well. One of the major uses of Petite Sirah is as a blending grape, particularly with Zinfandel; a huge number of California Zinfandels contain up to 10 percent Petite Sirah in them.

While Syrah and Shiraz are identical outside of the vineyard where the grape was grown, Syrah and Petite Sirah are quite different, despite both being generally bold, fruit-forward wines. Syrah is very versatile and can be used to make outstanding blends, whereas Petite Sirah is a good choice for a bold Cab lover looking for something new.

Review: Avua Cachaca Tapinhoa

Brazil’s Avua is back with another single-estate cachaca, this one a very rare edition called Tapinhoa. Tapinhoa is a dense hardwood found in Brazil, and Tapinhoa is aged for up to two years in a large cask made from this wood. (The Tapinhoã large vertical barrel was initially used by the distiller’s father on the family farm decades ago and after a lengthy recommissioning process and up to two years of aging, Avuá Cachaça restored it in 2013.)

Cachaca fanatics may want to compare the spirit to Avua Amburana, which is aged in barrels made from a different Brazilian wood.

As a reminder, “Avuá Cachaça is organically produced with only renewable energy, with water piped from a natural source to grind the sugarcane, and a boiler for the still that is fired by the residuals of the sugarcane pulp, known as bagasse. The cane, composed of three specifically chosen varietals, is hand-cut, ground with a waterwheel, and fermented for less than 24 hours using airborne wild yeasts, before being distilled in a copper-crafted alembic still.”

Let’s get on to tasting.

The color is the palest of yellow, a clear sign about how hard the Tapinhoa wood is and how little of the spirit is able to penetrate the wood even after two years. The nose has the light petrol character that’s typical of cachaca, but it’s filtered through fresh notes of lemon, mint, and some salty brine. On the tongue, similar notes dominate, with the sharp citrus and herbs quickly segueing to gentle vanilla, coconut, and some curious impression of wood — though not the typical oak — notes. The finish is lightly vegetal with some notes of green beans and steamed broccoli. Late in the game, petrol notes bubble back up — essentially impossible to avoid in any cachaca.

All told it’s a unique entry into the curious world of aged cachaca with a neat story behind it, though its flavor profile is not so unusual as to blow one’s mind.

80 proof. 600 bottles released.

B+ / $73 / avuacachaca.com.br

Review: Spirits of Long Road Distillers – Vodka, Gin, Aquavit, Wendy Peppercorn, Cherry, and Wheat Whisky

Long Road Distillers, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has an exhaustive spirits catalog (now spanning 10 products), almost all of which is made from locally-sourced red winter wheat. Want to see how versatile a single grain can be? Here’s a look at five different spirits that Long Road makes from it (plus a cherry brandy made from local fruit).

Long Road Distillers Vodka – Quite pungent on the nose, with notes of mushroom, bean curd, and varnish. On the palate, there’s a vanilla cream and marshmallow sweetness but these can’t overpower the funky, shroominess of the experience — ultimately blurring the line between vodka and white whiskey. 80 proof. C- / $35

Long Road Distillers Gin – Six botanicals are used in the making of this gin, but none save juniper are revealed. And juniper is the primary aromatic and flavor element here, and it actually works well with that earthy, mushroomy base that is revealed in the vodka. Light citrus, both orange and lemon, show up on the palate later in the game, adding a much-needed layer of brightness and adding some acidity. The finish is on the earthy side, but works well enough with what’s come before to merit a cautious recommendation. 90 proof. B / $35

Long Road Distillers Aquavit – Long Road doesn’t disclose its aquavit botanicals, but the nose offers blatant caraway notes, giving it a rye bread character from start to finish. Long Road keeps it simple throughout — there’s no overload of herbs and spices to distract you, just a touch of mint on the finish and some coconut husk character — but if caraway’s not your bag, well, you’ll want to explore other spirits. 90 proof. B / $35

Long Road Distillers Wendy Peppercorn – This is an exotic name for an overproof vodka that’s spiked with pink peppercorns, pepper being a classic Scandinavian garnish. The nose is very fragrant, loaded with fresh pepper aromas along with a gentle fruit character that tempers the spice with sweetness. The palate is initially racy, but the pepper quickly settles down to reveal notes of fresh pine needles, cherry fruit, and a touch of antiseptic astringency. Approachable even though it’s over 50% abv, and fun to drink. Try it ice cold, of course. 101 proof. A- / $35

Long Road Distillers Cherry – This is Long Road’s cherry brandy, a limited release distilled from Michigan cherries. They are sweet and lush on the nose — Maraschino style cherries with a burst of sugar — but the palate takes that cherry and filters it through light notes of savory spices and a touch of roasted grains. The palate is less sweet than the amazingly expressive nose would indicate but it’s gentle enough to sip on and works well as a cocktail ingredient. 80 proof. B / $35 (375ml)

Long Road Distillers Wheat Whisky – Distill that red winter wheat and age it in a #3 charred oak barrel for 6 months and you’ve got Long Road’s wheat whisky. Nothing all that surprising here. This is a typically youthful craft spirit that offers a nose of heavy barrel char, toasty grains, and some butterscotch, all whipped into a slightly scattered experience. The body is loaded with that lumberyard character, then it quickly fades into notes of spent grain, mushroom funk, and more barrel char — though a solid vanilla character, layered with gingerbread, manages to come through clearly on the finish. 93 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2. B / $40

longroaddistillers.com

Review: Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Batch A117 (January 2017)

When Rob referred to Elijah Craig’s cult following in 2015, he barely scratched the surface. Elijah Craig’s Barrel Proof releases, all limited-edition expressions of 12 year old, cask strength bourbon, have become collectible phenomena, snapped up on release and resold for well over asking price.

Heaven Hill is doubling down on Elijah Craig and revamping Barrel Proof beginning in 2017. While previous releases have been numbered with a simple and incremental numeric edition code, the company is doubling down on transparency by switching to a more detailed batch number.

Specifically:

To help catalog the various offerings of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, all releases will now have a unique batch number identified on the label — beginning with our most recent. The first letter indicates which of that year’s releases the bottle was a part of starting with “A,” while the second digit is a number that determines the month of the year the bottle was released. The third and fourth digits indicate the year.

So here’s a look at the first release of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, under the new labeling system. Released in January, it’s denoted as Batch A117.

This is rather low proof for Elijah Craig, but there’s ample life here and plenty to love. The deep copper-colored bourbon offers a lively nose of caramel corn, vanilla syrup, and a bit of barrel char. The palate is approachable without water, revealing some clear sweet tea notes, backed up by a bit of cola, orange peel, and faint chocolate notes. The finish is spicy and racy, but not overwhelming, leaving behind a light bitterness alongside lingering notes of cloves and oak. Altogether it’s a straightforward bourbon, but well-aged, balanced, and engaging through and through.

127 proof.

A- / $90 / heavenhill.com

Review: B4 Hangover Preventer

What better time is there to get a sample of B4 than right before Super Bowl weekend?

Billing itself as “what to drink before you drink,” B4 is a vitamin and supplement fueled hangover preventer. B4’s light orange color, mild carbonation, and metallic orange nose signal a citrus base with overtones of fortified vitamin water. The carbonation is nice on the palate, but B4 has a slightly bitter, metallic taste that finishes with the essence of cough syrup and crushed multivitamins, leaving a significant unpleasant aftertaste.

The makers of B4 say that the drink supplies enough electrolytes, amino acids, vitamins, plant extracts, antioxidants, and minerals to protect against alcohol’s effect on your system. If you are out for an all-night binge (and can physically tolerate the high B vitamin levels), B4 could be possibly be very helpful the following morning. I personally did not see any physical benefit, but I think this is designed for a heavier drinker than myself. The best use for B4 might to add the cause to the cure and use B4 as a fortified mixer for sweeter drinks that can balance the flavor out. Also note that it is essentially a vitamin bomb, featuring very high doses of B complexes and other vitamins and supplements well above recommended levels. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you have to be aware of the ingredients just like any other supplement or vitamin you would use, and plan accordingly.

C+ / $4.50 per 8.4 oz. can / drinkb4.com

Review: Wines of Australia’s MWC, 2017 Releases

MWC is a budget label from Aussie winemakers McPherson Wines, with four expressions being produced. Don’t be alarmed: All the bottles used are Burgundy-style bottles, regardless of what goes in them.

Let’s take a look at 2017’s releases, all now in the market.

2015 MWC Pinot Gris Victoria – A lovely pink hue kicks off this fruit-filled wine, which offers notes of pineapple and mango and a touch of coconut, all layered over a lemony backbone, with light grapefruit notes. Incredibly fresh and eminently drinkable, it’s a lovely wine as an aperitif that also pairs well with seafood. A- / $15

2014 MWC Shiraz Mourvedre Victoria – 95% shiraz, 5% mourvedre. Blunt and unremarkable, this lightly pruny wine offers loads of blackberry jam and some tea leaf, with a fair amount of syrupy milk chocolate notes. Nuanced it’s not, using ample sweetness to mask a thin body and a short finish. C / $15

2015 MWC Pinot Noir Victoria – More enticing, with a solid acidity level that works well with notes of cherry and blueberry that dominate the palate. The finish treads into some odd areas of baking spice and more of that milk chocolate, but otherwise the experience is robust enough to carry its own. B / $16

2015 MWC Cabernet Sauvignon Victoria – An entry-level cabernet, approachable but not the most nuanced wine in this lineup. Notes of raspberry and currant are on target, but secondary character behind them is fairly lacking. The finish is more acidic than expected, with only modest tannin structure, and with a straightforward, tart but fruit-heavy conclusion. B / $16

mcphersonwines.com.au

Review: Speyburn Bradan Orach

“Bradan Orach” is Gaelic for Golden Salmon, but I am assured that no fish were harmed in the making of this whisky. This is a NAS release from Speyburn, matured exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels. No other production information for this Highland whisky is available.

Grain-forward but not grain-heavy, Bradan Orach offers a nose of heather and classic “amber waves of grain,” just ever so lightly touched with red berries, smoke, and savory bacon fat. The palate is gentle and continues the granary theme, with a woody undertone that grows in prominence as the experience builds on the palate. The body is a fresh, but a bit chewy — the grain-heavy flavor profile makes me want to gnaw on it like a hunk of bread. As the wood-and-grain finish fades, you’ll find some green apple character hiding beneath all the savory notes, and a fade-out that offers a momentary glimpse of sweet vanilla custard.

This is a simple whisky, but it comes with a simple price tag. I prefer the similarly-priced Speyburn 10 Years Old to this release, but if you’re looking for something with a little more grit and a clearer focus on the barley, Bradan Orach is worth a look. Honestly, for 20 bucks, it can’t hurt.

80 proof.

B / $20 / speyburn.com

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