Note: I’m a little late posting my last newspaper column, but was visiting Paso Robles, CA., wine country. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

A chill is in the air and frost is on the pumpkin which means it’s time for steaming stews and hearty chili. Wine pairing for big foods really is not as difficult as for more subtle flavors.

When it comes to big-flavored foods the wine picks should match. ‘Go big or stay home’ works for wine too!

Syrah and Zinfandel are great matches with those steamy pots of hearty fare. Both wines are characterized by bold fruit, spicy and peppery flavors and enough tannin structure to match well with big food.

First, let’s clear up a common misperception Syrah, Sirah, and Shiraz is all the same grape. Petite Syrah is a different varietal. The U.S. and France use the Syrah spelling while the Australians seemed to have coined the Shiraz spelling with great marketing success.

The wine, regardless of how you spell it, tends to have dark berry, plum, and sometimes even an olive taste characteristic. They almost always have some spice on the palate. The better Syrah wines are often quite silky in the mouth despite the big and bold flavor.

Syrah is frequently blended with Grenache or Mourvedre to make the great Cotes du Rhone wines. Elegant and beautiful French Syrah wines are available in good wine shops. There are plenty of great California Syrah wines in any shop.

California Syrah tends to be bigger in flavor but still retain the smooth style. Look at the label closely because some Syrah can be high in alcohol content.

Petite Syrah is a different grape altogether. It has waned in popularity in recent years. It is often used in blending. Don’t let the name fool you. Petite Syrah is almost always a bigger and more muscular wine.

If you want a pairing with a little less fruit but equally powerful then try a California Zinfandel. Zins often exhibit dark berry or cherry flavors with a peppery finish. It’s very much a food wine and will go well with pizza, burgers, or that bowl of hearty stew. Zinfandel is a robust wine. It generally is not a sipper.

Yes, it is the same grape used to make the very sweet and cheap White Zinfandel. But that is where any similarity ends.

Zin is one of those wines that can vary greatly depending on region and style. They can be rich and silky but also powerful enough to make you blush.

These two red wines are a regular on most wine drinker’s dinner tables in cold weather months. If you are not already enjoying these wines, go to your favorite retailer and ask them to help you select an introduction to Syrah and Zinfandel.

Howard Picks:
Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel – This wine is rich in cherry flavor, big on the pepper with balanced tannins producing a glass that will hold up to any winter dish. It’s widely distributed in Indiana at $16-$18. This producer also makes a great Syrah around $15.

Columbia Crest Shiraz – This Washington state winery goes with the Australian spelling for its black cherry and silky smooth wine. It has a hint of the Viognier grape to add nuance. Columbia Crest wines are also widely available. This wine retails at a real bang-for-your-buck price of around $12.
Howard Hewitt, Crawfordsville, writes about wine for 12 Indiana newspapers, a national online wine magazine, and his own blog –

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