Vintage Variance 

One of these Syrahs is not like the other ones.

The average consumer on the lookout for a good value wine probably doesn't care too much about vintage. They may not even be sure what "vintage" refers to: that is, the year in which the grapes that made a given bottle were picked. Except in the case of Champagne and Sherry, non-vintage wines are generally thought to be of inferior quality — and while Wineaux may have some vague sense of that, brand loyalty is still more likely to be a deciding factor. If 2004 Brand X Shiraz served as the perfect complement to your midsummer barbecue last year, chances are good that you'll reach for the 2005 without hesitation when shopping for this year's event.

Perhaps such automatic thinking is what the marketing folks at Frei Brothers, a Sonoma County winery owned by Gallo, were banking on when they slapped the exact same description on different vintages of the winery's reserve Russian River Valley Syrah. Both the 2005 and 2006 vintages were described as "rich and full-bodied, with aromas and layers of intense flavors of dark berries and black pepper spices balanced by subtle notes of smoke and toast." Never mind the run-on sentence — the real crime here is that these two bottles contain totally different wines. What are the odds that they truly share the exact same characteristics?

Misleading marketing can of course be forgiven if the wine is good, and our Token Winemaker did pick the 2005 vintage ($13.99) as his favorite in our recent Syrah tasting. He praised its dark fruit, earthiness, and an aroma that suggested it had been aged in a small cooperage, or wooden container, rather than one of the large stainless-steel tanks in which many bargain wines mature. He also noted the intense tannins, which I found overbearing — although after the wine had a while to breathe, I could better appreciate its jammy flavor. I certainly preferred it to the 2006 vintage ($24), which brought on a torrent of lumber metaphors from us both. "Did someone sandpaper the inside of my mouth?" I asked after a sip, while our Token Winemaker commented that an overabundance of oak had imbued the wine with a little too much two-by-four on the palate.

He was equally critical of the 2005 Red Bicyclette Syrah ($9.99) from France, finding a burnt-rubber-and-garlic quality to the taste. I didn't mind this wine, finding much to like in its balanced flavors of smoke, plum, and cherry. Still, by far the best bargain of this tasting was the 2005 Jacob's Creek Shiraz ($7.49) from South Eastern Australia. It boasted plenty of red and black fruit in the aroma, along with subtle floral notes. We both praised its great balance, and I was especially drawn to the potential versatility of its peppery flavor. Try it alone or with a charcuterie plate — or a hot dog.

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