Subscriber Miriam D. asks “Can you speak about Syrah vs. Zinfandel and are they the most similar?” A good question in light of today being #SyrahDay, an event hosted by the Rhone Ranger group, whose mission is to promote wines made from the 22 varietals that call the Rhone Valley their spiritual home. Of these varietals, Syrah and Grenache are in a constant battle for top position.
Miriam, I’m no ampelographer (botanists who specialize in the identification/classification of grape vines) – but as you can see from these two images (Syrah on left, Zin on the right), the two appear fairly similar on the vine – both varieties produce large clusters, and both can be difficult to get color extraction (color differences shown here may be misleading, as they are not from the same photographic source).
In terms of how they taste once in your glass, the similarity diverges a bit. Both varietals are quite flexible, and can be made in wildly different styles. The current fad is to produce both varietals in an extremely ripe style, which
produces dark wines one cannot see through, huge-bodied wines (Winemakers often add acid to keep them from being flabby), that deliver alcohol levels that can flirt with those of Port wine (and which can be almost as rich, sweet and fruity). Such wines are popular during the cocktail hour, which is how many Americans drink their wine.
In contrast to this body-builder-on-steroids approach, both varietals can express a more delicate and food-friendly style which is seeing an increase in popularity among the “alternative” crowd. This style is more common when the grapes come from a cooler climate, and is marked by lighter wines (sometimes the Zins will have a transparency that rivals Pinot) that emphasize white pepper and floral notes.
So yes, both varietals have a variable fruit profile and this peppery note in common. As a result both are often recommended for similar pairings – usually with foods that express a grilled and/or peppery note to serve as a natural bridge between the food and the wine.
Let’s assume you’ve been handed a glass of each wine (each one made in a similar style) and asked to identify which is which. How would you discern? You can identify the Syrah by its darker fruit (Plum, dark cherry) profile and (if made in the lighter style) a hint of lavender on the nose. By contrast, the Zin will express a brighter fruit profile that evokes bramble berries. Syrahs also have a natural chemical element, especially as they age, that comes across as smoked meat/bacon or beef jerky or sometimes liver pate.
But don’t be surprised if, without the ability to taste the two side-by-side, an experienced taster follows the white pepper path instead of the fruit path, and confuses these two kissing-cousin varietals.
Hope that helps! If anyone has other suggestions for Miriam, please add them as comments, below…
After moving to the Bay Area from the Midwest in 1994, most weekends were spent fueling my wine passion in Napa or Sonoma. Being single and new to the area, these were often solo trips, which meant I had to confer with no one about what wine to taste, where to eat, or how much to spend. This freedom was greatly appreciated until it came time for dinner, when it would have been nice to share a meal with someone and rehash the events of our wine-soaked day.
But one solo dinner I recall fondly was eaten in a small restaurant called Girl & The Fig. At the time, it was situated in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon, and its warm glow rekindled memories of bistros enjoyed while biking through the Provencal wine country. Every wine on their wine list was either from the Rhone valley or made from Rhone varietals, and their menu was crafted to match the warm and welcoming foods of Provence.
Although “French Bistro” is one of the most over-used restaurant concepts, this one was different. Owned by the very special Sondra Bernstein, Girl & The Fig was infused with the spirit of the Rhone and I was smitten. The Bistro became my preferred dining spot for many future trips – and I became something of an evangelist for it.
I watched with pleasure as Sondra tirelessly added successful venture after successful venture – cook books, an iPhone app, a line of packaged food products, a line of body products, two restaurants, bio-dynamic farms behind each of her restaurants, a catering company and probably several more things I’m forgetting.
I’ve become casually acquainted with Sondra and her business partner over the years, and was most pleased that she agreed to provide a recipe to pair with domestic Syrah-based wines. I think this dish would work well with a broad range of red wines such as Cabernet, Zinfandel and any red Rhone blend. This dish can be made year-round, but it resonates for me during the cold Fall and Winter months, when oven braising fills the home with warmth and aromas that beat back Winter’s chill.
Ingredients for Pork Shanks (Serves six)
6 Pork Hind Shanks (we prefer Niman Ranch)
Salt & black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 yellow onion, quartered
2 stalk celery, rough chop
1 small carrot, peeled, chopped
4 crushed cloves of garlic
1 bottle white wine (unoaked, preferably)
1 bay leaf
5 black peppercorns
4 sprigs thyme
2 quarts pork or chicken stock
Procedure for Braised Pork Shanks
Preheat oven to 350’. Season the pork shanks heavily with salt and black pepper. Over medium heat, add the oil to a hot sauté pan and then sear the shanks until browned on all sides. Remove from pan and keep warm.
Meanwhile, heat a braising pan (deep-sided roaster) over medium heat and then add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and half the bottle of white wine. Bring to a boil and reduce until almost dry. Add the seared shanks to the braising pan along with the bayleaf, peppercorns, thyme and enough stock to just cover the shanks and vegetables. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and move to the heated oven for 1-1.5 hours or until the shanks are just tender.
Remove from oven and when sufficiently cool, remove the shanks from the braising liquid and set aside keeping warm. With a fine mesh sieve, strain the braising liquid and skim any remaining fat from the top. Add the remaining half bottle of white wine to a large saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and continue reducing the wine until almost dry. Add the braising liquid and simmer while continuing to skim off any fat that forms on the top. Reduce to a thickened consistency.
Ingredients for Soft Polenta
2 cups water
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup polenta
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Procedure for Soft Polenta
Add the water, milk, olive oil and butter to a medium saucepan, season with the salt and bring to a simmer. While stirring with a wire whisk, slowly add the polenta and beat into the liquid. Simmer and continue to stir for 10 minutes. Add the Parmesan cheese, adjust the seasoning, continuing to stir, cover and keep warm.
Ingredients for Broccolini
3 Bunches broccolini, tough stems removed
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
Salt and white pepper
Procedure for Broccolini
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Blanch the broccolini for no more than 60 seconds, then shock in an ice water bath until cool and drain. Heat the butter in a large sauté pan over medium low heat until melted; add the broccolini, season to taste and heat till warm. Alternatively, roast the broccolini in the oven until just crispy, and once plated, top with a small amount of the Gremolata.
1 bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, cleaned from the stems
3 tablespoons capers, chopped
2 lemons, zested
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 horseradish root, peeled & grated
Mix the parsley, chopped capers, lemon zest, garlic, olive oil, and grated horseradish. Season with sea salt.
Spoon the warm polenta into the center of a warm bowl, place a sixth of the warm broccolini onto the polenta, top with a braised pork shank. Nap the shank with the white wine braising sauce and garnish with the gremolata.
“the girl & the fig” • 110 west spain street • sonoma, ca 95476
Sometimes one must eat dinner alone, though I must admit I don’t care to. To offset such misfortunes, I turn solo meals into a treat with a recipe that’s satisfying but easy enough to justify cooking for one. This is such a dish, a favorite from my bachelor days. But please don’t feel compelled to save it for a night on your own – it works just as well for two. Or a crowd.
There are two keys to success here. A heavy pan (a well-seasoned cast iron skillet is ideal) and freshly ground peppercorns. I recommend green peppercorns here, as they are significantly milder than their black counterpart, and won’t fight the wine. If black peppercorns are all you have, use half the amount called for. And while steaks are welcome at my house in all seasons, the backbone of mild heat that runs through this sauce will warm the cockles of the coldest Winter-chilled heart! A great cold-weather dish. (Image from Shawna’s Food Blog – click to find another recipe for comparison)
1 Steak / person (about ¾ pound if bone-in)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Shallot – minced
¼ Cup cognac (or red wine, in a pinch)
¼ Cup red wine
2 tsps green peppercorns, roughly smashed
1/3 Cup cream (or a bit less, with a good pat of butter whisked in at the end)
Salt & freshly-ground pepper to taste
Heat a heavy frying pan over medium heat for several minutes. Season the steak with salt & pepper and prepare your ingredients. Remove pan from heat, add oil and quickly tilt to coat evenly. Return to heat and add steak – do not move until it is time to flip! Cook to preferred doneness, remembering the meat continues cooking after removing it from the pan. Cover and place in warm oven. (Alternatively, grilling the steak adds nice complexity)
In the pan, adjust the fat so there is a scant tablespoon. Add the minced shallot and sauté a few minutes until lightly browned. Pour in cognac and deglaze the pan. Add the red wine, raise heat to med-high and reduce liquid by ¼. Add the peppercorns and whisk in the cream. Reduce sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. Whisk in cold butter, if using, and serve as desired – this sauce is nice whether served as a base, a topping or on the side. And don’t under-estimate its deliciousness when used to top potatoes or steamed vegetables!
Wine Pairings – Pair this with bold reds such as Zinfandel, Syrah, Rhone blends or new world Cabernets or Bordeaux blends.
On most weekends, we haunt the hills of Anderson Valley, where we try to grow olives. One weekend several years ago, Superwife got the notion that a perfectly good Saturday morning should be spent putting her jogging shoes one in front of the other until they took her to the top of the hill (elevation 1,100 feet). Never one to follow another’s path, she blazed her own trail, and in so doing startled a small family of large feral pigs, who were apparently unaccustomed to seeing such energetic humans.
Though feral pigs are a few generations removed from wild boar, but they replicate like rabbits, have a taste that’s more flavorful than farm-raised pork, and can tear up acres and acres of virgin hillside as they forage. This is an unfortunate combination of traits, as it makes them quite popular with the local hunters. Their foraged diets make their meat a little richer and gamier than pork, a bit less so than wild boar. Any of the three meats are acceptable here (1-2 days advance notice is usually required to obtain wild boar). Whichever meat you use, ask your butcher to grind enough for ingredient #2, below…
INGREDIENTS (6-8 servings)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ Lb ground wild boar
1 Bottle dark beer
1.5 Lbs wild boar shoulder, in1/2-inch dice
1.5 Lbs tomatillos, husked and coarsely chopped (yes, they are oddly sticky!)
Kosher salt & fresh-ground black pepper
1/2 Cup crushed tomatoes (canned or fresh)
1 Large white onion, chopped
1 Cup chicken broth
4 Cloves garlic, minced
2 (14.5-ounce) cans pinto beans, drained
2 Large Anaheim peppers, diced small
Juice from ½ a lime
2 Jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced
1 Tbsp chili powder
Chopped red onions
1 Tbsp dried oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
Procedure Season the meat (both the shoulder and the ground portion), with salt and pepper. Heat a large Dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat for three or four minutes, add half the olive oil and when it shimmers, brown all the meat in two batches for 3-4 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Add remaining olive oil and sauté onions for about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute, then add the peppers and continue for another 3-5 minutes. Return meat to pot and add a tsp salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, the chili powder, cumin, oregano and smoked paprika. Combine until the spices are evenly distributed. Deglaze the pot with the beer, scraping up the flavorful browned bits on the bottom!
Add tomatillos, crushed tomatoes and chicken broth, and bring to a simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the pinto beans and continue to cook for another 45 minutes, again stirring occasionally. Just before serving, stir in the lime juice, taste for seasoning adjustments, then garnish and serve!
Adapted from a recipe by Amanda Gold, San Francisco Chronicle
Cheers! Dave the Wine Merchant
NOTE: This recipe was included as an insert with the October, 2009 shipment to members of my wine sampling program. Click here for membership information. To see additional wine pairings for this dish, try my Rhone Style Reds selections, or my collection of Zinfandels. The spice of the chili can sometimes fight a high-alcohol wine. Minimize this by selecting one with enough ripe fruit to balance the alcohol and to serve as a salve for heat-tenerized taste buds!
I took my first of many wine vacations in 1988. I was staying in what was then the small town of Healdsburg, quaintly nestled in Sonoma. When it came time for dinner, the owners of the Camelia Inn B&B directed me to one of the few restaurants in town back then – Bistro Ralph. I’ve been in love with that place ever since.
I recently introduced some friends to Bistro Ralph, where we shared a leisurely lunch. The combination of this lamb burger and the Rhone wine we selected was so memorable, it’s become one of my favorite easy meals.
This recipe originally appeared in the December, 2008 shipment to our club members. It played chaperon to a bottle of the Tous les Jours syrah from Andrew Murray Vineyards, and that youthful wine remained well behaved under its careful tutelage.
Ingredients (serves 4 – 6)
1 Red onion, peeled, halved and sliced
2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Cup Crumbled Goat cheese, or to taste
1 ½ – 2 Lbs ground lamb
2 Cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp cumin
Freshly ground black pepper and Kosher salt, to taste
4 -6 Good buns
1-2 Heads Bibb lettuce
Heat a sauté pan over medium high heat until hot, add the olive oil then the onion. Sauté until well caramelized and dark but not crispy – 10-15 minutes. Add the balsamic and integrate well, remove from heat and add the goat cheese. Stir to coat and melt slightly. Set aside. Can be re-heated
In a large bowl, combine minced garlic, thyme, cumin, pepper, and salt. Add the ground lamb and combine. Be careful not to over-handle the meat (and I caution those of you with dirty minds to get them out of the gutter right now) or the consistency of your burger will be mushy.
Form 4 patties, each about 3/4 inch thick. Place on a medium-high grill for 4 to 6 minutes per side, or broil or sauté for ~5 minutes per side.
Brush buns with olive oil, toast slightly, scrape once with a peeled garlic clove, and set aside.
Assembly– Place burger on bun, top with lettuce, then with onions. Spread goat cheese on underside of top bun, pour a glass of wine, and call me if this isn’t transcendent.
This wine was included in our June shipment to members of our sampling program “Maya’s Collectible Selections”.
It hails from the warm reaches of the Shenandoah Valley (between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite) in hot Amador County. This region is home to lots of big, fruity, “Monster” Zins, whose alcohol can exceed 16%.
This wine runs counter to that stereotype. It swims upstream. Marches to a different drummer, and a number of other hackneyed expressions that don’t come immediately to my fingertips at the moment. It enjoys an elegant body and a moderate 14.1% alcohol level with hints of fresh cracked black pepper that make this versatile wine – equally pleasing at the cocktail hour or the dinner hour.
A Classic Zinfandel With Pleasant Surprises!
For one, winemaker John Bambury has crafted that rare California Zinfandel that works well with food (recipe suggestion). The wine shows a beautiful dark fruit profile topped by a filigree of red raspberries and the tell-tale Zinfandel markers – mouth-watering wafts of dark licorice and fresh ground pepper.
From an old historic Sonoma family, this wine reminds me of the Zins I fell in love with in the 80’s. Pop the cork and drink a piece of history!
While eating at one of Barcelona’s hoity toity tapas bars, I was surprised to see what looked like Chicken wings. They struck me as a sad concession to the McDonald’s crowd – tourists with highly domestic, non-adventurous palates. But on the premise that all the other small plates we’d had there were memorable, and that even Spanish chickens provide two wings each, with which SOMETHING must be done in the kitchen, I decided to give them a try – I was risking barely a couple Euro, after all.
The risk was well worth it! These are about as far from the typical “Buffalo Wings” as culinary skill can take you. Don’t get me wrong, paired with a cold beer, some celery sticks and a good hot barbecue dip, few snacks provide more pleasure per calorie.
And this version is equally easy, and can be prepared by those who are normally all thumbs in the kitchen. This easy recipe requires about 15 minutes of prep, a few passive hours for marinating, then half an hour in the oven. Serves 8 as an appetizer course.
2 Pounds chicken Drumettes (the meatiest part of “Wings” and easiest to eat without utensils!)
2 tsp Spanish paprika
1 tsp Coriander
1/4 tsp Cumin
1/2 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp Freshly ground pepper
2 – 3 Cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp Brown sugar
1 Tbsp water
3 Tbsp virgin olive oil
Wash and dry the drumettes and set aside at room temperature. In the bowl of a food processor or mini chopper, combine all remaining ingredients into a thin paste. Place the drumettes into a large, sealable container, pour on the marinade and rub into each drumette before covering. Marinade for at least 4 hours (up to 8 hours) in the refrigerator.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking pan with parchment or foil. Arrange wings in a single layer, brush on marinade to assure each piece is covered, then discarding any remaining sauce. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn each piece. Return to oven for a final 15 minutes. Serve on a platter with a parsley garnish and plenty of napkins.
For our bi-monthly wine club shipments, we reject dozens of wines for every one selected. Our tasting notes cover decades of tasting, and form a stack several stories high (which presents some challenges when negotiating limited storage space with other household members!)
My point being that the following wines have run the gauntlet. They were selected as the best and most unique expression of available wines within the designated price range. We have a limited amount remaining, and hope you can get an order in before shipping closes down for the week on Wednesday (bad weather still limits our shipping days to Mon – Wed for West coast orders, Mon only for anything farther!)