In theory, January could be depressing. It is long, cold, dark and inevitably anti-climactic, coming as it does on the heels of the holidays.
However, the reality of January is anything but depressing in my home. I'll grant that this is partly because--as an expatriate from a northern state--I'm afflicted by a psychosis in which cold and snow are actually regarded as enjoyable. Nevertheless, even sane people can enjoy January, provided they approach it as the culinary windfall it can be. You won't see the snow if you keep the windows fogged over with condensation from the stockpot, and if you administer enough doses of soup, stew, cassoulet and roasted game, you'll soon find yourself loving a month that you formerly hated. Remember, though, that the key to this therapy is a more-or-less steady stream of Syrah.
Syrah is the undisputed champ of winter wines. Classic renditions meld rich, dark berry fruit with wonderful scents of leather, smoke, tobacco and spices. This profile provides the perfect foil for the hearty foods of winter, which in turn serve to tame the tannins and intensity that mark most great Syrahs.
If you still need to be cheered up, I'm also happy to report that there has never been a better time to buy Syrah. New plantings of this noble grape have increased dramatically worldwide over the past decade, especially in California and Australia (where it is called Shiraz). The French, whom we can thank for introducing Syrah to the modern world, have also increased acreage in the greater Rhone Valley region and across much of the south.
Relative abundance and international competition have combined to open a category of affordable Syrah that was virtually unknown a decade ago, when most available bottlings were from great but pricey appellations like Cote Rotie and Hermitage. Brief reviews of the best wines in this category appear in order of preference below, with approximate prices and D.C. wholesalers indicated in parentheses:
Peter Lehmann Wines Barossa Shiraz 1997 ($15, Australia): Exceptional richness and depth of flavor, with pure blackberry fruit and just enough structure from ripe tannins. (Franklin)
Domaine Durieu Cotes du Rhone "Cuvee Lis Amourie" 1996 ($11.25, France): Intense and direct, with meaty, spicy notes augmenting the strong berry fruit. Although notably ripe, this 100 percent Syrah bottling also shows good freshness and acidity that will help it marry effectively with many foods. (Franklin)
Cline Cellars Carneros Syrah 1996 ($15, California): In addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Carneros shows great potential for Merlot and Syrah. This bottling shows lovely black cherry and dark berry fruit, augmented by alluring aromas of smoke, pepper and leather. (Bacchus)
Rosemount Estate South Eastern Australia Shiraz 1998 ($12, Australia): This top-selling wine used to be a simple quaffer featuring gushy red raspberry fruit, but recent releases have shown ever more richness and strength, with black fruit flavors joining the red ones. (Washington Wholesale)
Domaine des Blagueur Vin de Pays d'Oc Syrah 1997 ($11, France): Soft, silky and very ripe, but not raisiny or overly alcoholic, this wonderful wine shows just the right interplay between fruity and earthy flavor components. (DOPS)
Domaine des Entrefaux Crozes-Hermitage 1996 ($10, France): A great value from the northern Rhone, this shows fine blackberry fruit with the unmistakable tarry, leathery aromas attained by Syrah in this area. Ideal for game dishes. (Kysela)
Chateau Mas Neuf Costieres des Nimes "Prestige des Gibelins" 1996 ($10, France): Warm and rich, with good intensity from 80 percent Syrah and nice nuances of spices and wood. Closely comparable to much pricier wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. (Kysela)
Borie de Maurel Minervois Syrah 1998 ($9, France): Pure, impressively concentrated fruit with plenty of intensity but also considerable polish and charm. (Washington Wholesale)
Hardys South Eastern Australia "Nottage Hill" Shiraz 1998 ($8, Australia): A great value, showing excellent concentration for the money and just enough structural framing from wood and tannin. (Port Dixie)
Thomas Mitchell South Eastern Australia Shiraz 1998 ($10, Australia): Unusually bright and fresh for an Australian Shiraz, with nice peppery notes augmenting fine black cherry fruit. (Franklin)
Cave de Tain l'Hermitage Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 1998 ($6, France): An unbelievable bargain with intense aromas of leather and roasted meat leading into pure, medium-bodied fruit. (Wines, Ltd.)
Michael Franz will be answering questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.