At the start of 2020, I originally put together a plan for my first wine party of the year -expecting it to take place on a cold winter’s night on February 29th – for a Leap year celebration. For the first time in five years, three couples had conflicts with the date and I decided to reschedule the evening. The first available weekend that could work with the majority was April 25th.
There was no way back then, that anyone could have predicted that one morning we would wake up and learn of a dangerous and sometimes deadly pandemic that gradually spread from country to country making its way through our world and would significantly change life as we previously knew it. The CDC recommended that the only way to suppress the spread of this virus was to adhere to government mandates or social distancing that required everyone for the most part remain home. So this party plan had to be set aside for a little more than a year.
As vaccinations became available and administered, over a period of several months, the mandates lifted and slowly we’re making our way back to a new form of normalcy with new appreciation for gathering with family and friends.
Our group of seven for this gathering was a little smaller than usual with some having travel plans causing three of our usual couples to be absent, but the evening was in no way short on the usual good conversation, good wine and delicious food. All vaccinated and with a little more elbow room at the table than usual, here’s how our Shiraz versus Syrah plan came together.
Above is an example of the emailed invitation, created as a Word document, with assigned wines of half Shiraz and half Syrah.
On to the theme…. the research and putting a plan together
Shiraz versus Syrah. My research informed me that Shiraz and Syrah, are both wines made from the same grape. In Australia the grape is called Shiraz , and in France, the grape is called Syrah. While both Shiraz and Syrah are developed from the same grape, their differences are described below and I decided to use this information as a guide to create an exercise for my group that would test their abilities to identify which wine is a Syrah and which is a Shiraz. As the labels of each bottle selected were sent to me, I searched for the information on each to gather a collection of the described flavors and aromas.
https://mcwilliams.com.au/shiraz-v-syrah/ source of information below:
Syrah Flavours: The (slightly)leaner than the Australian style, yet more complex (spice, cherry, tar, smoke, cassis, plum, etc), earthy, lively (more acidity),softer tannins, and typically capable of short to long term bottle ageing.
Shiraz Flavours: Shiraz wines that are full bodied and encouraged to produce rich, ripe, and intense fruit flavours (plum, blackberry, cherry, etc), as well as hints of black spice. They can also have a higher alcohol content due to longer ripening on the vine before picking. These fruit driven wines are usually made in an easy drinking style and are good everyday wines but are able to age for many years.
The typical old-world Syrah is lighter and leaner than the intense Shiraz wines of Australia, which tend to be richer intensity, fruit forward and more full-bodied with tannin. The difference between the Canberra Syrah and Hilltops Shiraz exhibits this difference very clearly.
The Table Setting
My gal pals and I etched the wine glasses with numbers in late 2019 and this will be the first time we will be using them. I’m kind of excited about it! The table centerpiece is meant to add a little color and sparkle, but created low so that my guests can interact with a clear view of each other.
The Friday evening and day of the party (Saturday) are both extremely busy for me (the host), so setting the table a week in advance frees me of this task the weekend of the event. Faux olive vines, glass votive candles and battery twinkle lights provide a safe, but elegant ambiance to the table. Glasses evenly lined up, in numerical order, wiped free of fingerprints and then turned upside down until the day of the party is a way to set the table in advance and keep the glasses free of any dust or those pesky summer insects that can slip into an open door from time to time.
At each place setting, scorecards with information about each wine (shiraz /syrah), a printed description of each guests’ wine and a pen are ready for a planned activity.
I ask everyone to send a picture of their wine label at least a week before the scheduled party, 1) to ensure no duplicates and 2) for time to research information and pairings for each wine. With the wine notes of bottles in hand, for this party I gathered examples of the flavors and aromas in the descriptions and made “wine notes” samplers. Portions could be set up early and then covered with plastic wrap, while fresh items like fruits or fresh herbs are added the day of the party.
The “wine note” plates were provided to assist in our activity. Each guest was asked to attempt to identify their bottle of wine and in addition to labeling which glass of wine they think is a Shiraz and which is a Shiraz. Blindfolds (used at a past meeting) proved to awaken the nose and palates when eliminating the sense of sight – were available, but not required.
https://www.afoodieworld.com/tersina/2018-06-07-rewriting-wine-101-syrah-or-shiraz-pinot-grigio-or-pinot-gris This website provides good information about the differences between syrah and shiraz and I clipped some info for the scorecard to help with efforts to identify the version of each wine tasted.
As my guests arrive, everyone falls into a natural choreographed routine of handing off their wine bottles to me, placing their trays of food on the table and then visiting with the other guests. As I work to uncork the bottles, and then bag and number each (with the help of a couple of volunteers) I always prepare a tray of small glasses of some kind of aperitif for everyone to sip while I’m getting the bottles poured and the final touches are made to the table. For this meeting’s aperitif, I found Byrrh – served over ice with a splash of club soda and slice of orange peel. I prefer an aperitif that is wine based, so as not to disturb the palate before our actual wine tasting. There were lots of “ooo’s” and “ahs” coming from the living room as my guests began to sip and visit after such a long separation. I think it’s safe to say it was well received. I truly enjoy discovering and sharing new wine experiences of all kinds with my group.
Pronounced “beer,” this red wine–based aperitif is loaded with warming spices and relies on quinine for lightly bitter undertones. Think of it as a slightly spicier sweet vermouth and use it as such in a Negroni, or drink it straight with a large cube of ice.
Byrrh is an aperitif amaro first produced in 1886 by Simon Violet and his brother Pallade. By 1935, Byrrh was the most sold aperitif in France, with sales of 35 million liters. In the late 1960’s, regulatory changes led to a shift in production towards Vin Doux Naturel, a type of fortified dessert wine, and away from aperitif drinks like Byrrh. This led to the family selling the label to Pernod-Ricard in 1977.
Byrrh is made from partially fermented Grenache and Carignane grapes that have a bit of alcohol added to them (called mistelle) that then has dry red wine added to it before being flavored with cinchona bark and other herbs and spices. The resulting aromatized wine is then aged in large, neutral oak barrels for three years before bottling. Byrrh is 34 proof.
In 1999, Pernod-Ricard introduced Byrrh Rare Assemblage, which is aged for ten years in small oak barrels.
Preparing the blind tasting
Years ago I purchased these metal disks and wrote numbers on each with a white felt tip pen. The bottles are opened and slipped into slender brown grocer wine bags, cut to size, but not until the bottles are received since they can be shaped differently and some are taller than others. Finally each receives a number wrapped with twine before being poured into the glasses with the same number at each place setting.
The Activity: Can you identify which wine is yours?
Each guest received a printed description of the aromas and flavors of the wine they brought, a score card and information to reference about the differences between Shiraz and Syrah. Once all of the wine is poured, we say a blessing together and then everyone is seated to start the evening’s activity.
Before any food is brought to the table, everyone sips each of the wines and takes notes – the activity has begun. For this tasting the response was unusual. None of the wines were getting very good responses, and it was funny to hear how a few claimed the same numbered glass was “their wine”. After about 15 minutes of sampling and noting, I delivered the small cheese course to the table along with spicy barbeque peanuts.
The Cheese Course…
Most of the cheese pairing recommendations I found for these wines were strong blue cheeses. I found a gouda black truffle cheese that several wine experts at our stores agreed would pair well with these wines (and boy did they!)A couple of chunks of blue cheese, blackberries and mission figs (the black fruits mentioned frequently in the wine notes) and freshly made blue cheese pecan crackers that are always a hit and come out perfectly every time were added to complete the course.
Tip: Pecan blue cheese crackers = after slicing each I used a flour dusted cookie stamp to create a little honeycomb surface. Note: Once the dough is mixed it requires 24 hours refrigeration – so plan ahead!
As hostess, I provide the cheese and dessert courses. Usually I help my group with some ideas for small bites based on my research about the wines we are featuring and their pairing recommendations. When there are enough participants we can usually create a balanced meal, or when I see that we are short of something I will make the addition myself. The group for this meeting was a little smaller, so I added a salad with blackberries that is fresh, light and had the blackberry notes of the wines. Sprinkled with my signature white balsamic vinegar, olive oil and for this salad a little agave. Light with a touch of sweetness.
The recommendations for these wines was a bit challenging. Everything I read suggested grilled, barbecue and spicy pairings. While the wines did not receive a lot of praise when sipping, once the food was added, the wines came to life and completely changed. It was our opinion that these wines were best when paired with the right food – and we had the right food. Some of wines brought out the spiciness of the food and the entire experience was very interesting. I seem to always forget to take a picture of all of the food, but you can see from the table below, not much was left behind. It was all delicious!
The Dessert Course…..
As I searched for information about Shiraz and Syrah wines, a past post kept coming up of an event where a variety of Lindt chocolate bars were paired with different wines. Among those pairings was this J. Lohr 2017 Syrah, paired with a dark chocolate chili bar.
I decided I wanted the dessert course to include this wine and chocolate pairing two ways. First in the original method of small sips of the wine paired with a square of the chocolate. Secondly I wanted both transformed into an actual dessert that still maintained their original flavors. I found a recipe for these fudgy, spicy dark chocolate cookies (filled with chunks of the dark chocolate chili bars) and a sorbet made with the rest of the bottle of wine.
The sorbet is very simple – and both pairings only required one bottle of the wine (8 servings). Make at least one day ahead.
TO MAKE THE SORBET: In a medium saucepan combine 1/2 cup of sugar and 6 ounces of water. Heat until the sugar is dissolved. Turn off the heat and add 10 ounces of the bottle of wine (the rest will be used for the small sipping glasses.) Stir the three ingredients together and then let it cool. Place in an ice cream maker and freeze to manufacturer’s instructions. I turned mine for about 30 minutes. It will not be solid, just icy (you can see the video of my instagram post). Pour all of the frozen wine into a loaf pan or other container and freeze overnight.
The spicy dark chocolate cookies were surprisingly good and even better with the wine. https://www.twopeasandtheirpod.com/dark-chocolate-chili-cookies/
Over the five years (now starting our sixth) that our club has been gathering, we have enjoyed discovering new wines sometimes with playful themes like a murder mystery, a derby themed party, a hauntingly elegant evening, a rio de janeiro carnival – as well as a variety of wonderful small bites and desserts. Tonight was a return to Wine Club with a surprisingly “spicy twist” that peppered our appetites and curiosity of what we have yet to discover.