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Syrah, sirah or shiraz?

OK, pay attention, because there's going to be a quiz. Syrah and petite sirah are not the same thing, even though they sound alike. Syrah and shiraz are the same thing, even though they sound as if they aren't.

Got it? There's more.

Syrah, which has grown along France's Rhone River since Roman times, is rich and hearty, with flavors of cassis, black cherries and black plums, often backed by hints of bittersweet chocolate. More recently it has migrated around the world, from Canada to California to Chile, making good, rich wines at a wide variety of prices.

Petite sirah, widely grown in California, used to be seen as the same thing as syrah, but DNA testing has proved the two are unrelated. For decades, it had a reputation for harsh and gritty tannins that needed years to soften. More recently winemakers have figured out how to make it softer but still big and powerful.

Shiraz came about when Australia imported syrah grapes from the Rhone Valley in the 1830s and renamed them. Some say the grape has mutated a bit in the centuries since, others disagree. For sure the Down Under sun grows it riper, and winemakers there make it softer and fruitier than its French counterpart.

To make things more confusing, a few California winemakers have usurped the Australian name "shiraz" for their syrah wines, mostly for marketing purposes.

That leaves the question of where the Aussies got the name shiraz. Some believe it's because, centuries ago, the city in Iran that's still named Shiraz made a popular wine called Shirazi, which much later was taken to France. That would mean it was the French who renamed it.

Ready for that quiz now?

One more odd fact: Since 2004, Parducci winery in California has been selling its top petite sirah under the name True Grit, with a pair of cowboy boots on its label. Last year, when the family learned the old John Wayne movie "True Grit" was being remade, they sent a few cases of their stuff to the filmmakers, who liked it so much they served it at the Beverly Hills premiere.

"Best product placement I ever made," says Jan Mettler, Parducci's publicist.

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Highly recommended

*2007 Parducci "True Grit" Petite Sirah (88 percent petite sirah, 12 percent syrah): Mendocino County: big, dark and powerful, with black plum flavors and muscular tannins; $30.

*2008 Penfolds "Thomas Hyland" Shiraz, Adelaide, Australia: intensely fruity, with flavors of red plums and milk chocolate, ripe tannins; $15.

*2007 Mission Hill "SLC" Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: inky black, with rich flavors of black plums and bittersweet chocolate, full-bodied, smooth and powerful; $37.

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Recommended

*2008 Morgan Syrah, Monterey, Calif.: black cherries, cloves and bittersweet chocolate, full body, smooth, big, ripe tannins; $20.

*2007 Parducci Petite Sirah, Mendocino County (88 percent petite sirah, 11 percent syrah, 1 percent viognier): inky hue, bold flavors of black cherries and bittersweet chocolate, big tannins; $11.

*Nonvintage Barefoot Cellars California Shiraz: sweet and smooth, with flavors of blueberries and spice, soft tannins; $7.

*2007 Kendall-Jackson "Summation" Red Wine Blend, California (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petite sirah, cabernet franc, syrah and other varietals): black cherries and milk chocolate, very rich and smooth, with soft tannins; $14.

*2007 Koyle Syrah, Maipo & Colchauga Valley, Chile (87 percent syrah, 13 percent carmenere): full-bodied and rich, with black raspberry and bittersweet chocolate flavors, big, ripe tannins; $17.

*2009 Oak Grove Reserve Shiraz, Calif.: black cherries and black coffee, fruity and soft; $8.

*2009 Oak Grove Reserve Petite Sirah, Calif.: black cherries and black pepper, spicy, with firm tannins; $8.