Going red for winter

Syrah is a seductive and savory companion to wintertime meals, a classic Rhone-region red wine.

Its rich black fruit, hints of black and white pepper and smoky, meaty flavor, accented by a healthy dose of natural acidity, makes syrah a delicious pairing with beef, lamb, braised dishes and stews, sausages and anything layered in mushrooms. Sometimes syrah and syrah-based blends taste of salami, sometimes of leather, cardamom spice, cocoa and thyme.

"Syrah is smoky and inky and fruity," says cookbook author and local cooking instructor Jill Silverman Hough. "It's earthy and kind of low-down and dirty, and I mean that in a good way."

She also makes the point that almost every syrah pairing is improved by the addition of bacon.

Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein adds that dishes with coarse texture work well with syrah, options such as polenta, black beans or a sauce made with whole-grain mustard. He also recommends playing off the peppery character of syrah by including spices and peppers in sauces and marinades and any side dishes that will accompany a main course.

Herbs are a match, too.

"Whether they are coating a cheese, sprinkled onto a dish, used as an accent for a marinade, or simply adding flavor to the grill's coals, fresh herbs are a winner with syrah," Goldstein said.

One place to experiment is at Sonoma's Girl and the Fig restaurant, where proprietor Sondra Bernstein offers hearty French winter fare and a Rhones-only wine list. Her braised short ribs with braised kale is just one of many plates of food that would deliciously highlight a meaty Rhone-native red wine like a syrah.

Among the syrahs on her wine list, look for Tres Bonnes Annees 2010 Rockpile Vineyard, Copain 2010 Tous Ensemble Mendocino and Anthill Farms 2010 Sonoma Coast. The Skylark 2010 Red Belly North Coast and Anaba 2009 Turbine Red Sonoma Valley are worthwhile blends, and within the listings for grenache, try Quivira 2009 Dry Creek Valley or Unti 2010 Dry Creek Valley.

Fruity and medium-bodied with dominant flavors of black pepper, raspberries, strawberries, cherries and sometimes a note of violets, grenache is often blended with its red Rhone Valley companion grapes syrah and mourvedre to help balance those wines' darker flavor tendencies. Smelling often of rose petals, it's also the key variety in the celebrated wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and in the Spanish wines of Priorat.

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