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Is syrah California's next big thing? It's a question of debate in wine circles south of the border, where the skeptics have drawn attention to recent sales declines for the powerful, peppery red variety that rose to prominence about 10 years ago. Tonnage crushed by California wineries dipped to 127,527 in 2010 from a high of 147,312 in 2005, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. But the number remains impressive compared with the trivial 586 tons squeezed in 1990.

More importantly, quality has been soaring – to the point where top syrahs now share the spotlight with California's great trophy reds made from cabernet sauvignon, the state's signature red. The wines even draw favourable comparisons with the meaty, leathery reds of Hermitage in France's Rhône Valley, all made from syrah.

In fact, one of the best wines I previewed among a slew of pricey offerings hitting shelves this month as part of a big California promotion in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec was Relentless 2009, a brawny syrah-based red produced by Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley. The previous 2008 vintage was named Wine Spectator's top wine of the year for 2012, a big thing for California syrah.

Shafer Relentless 2009, California ($82.95; score 95)

Estate president Doug Shafer named this red after veteran winemaker Elias Fernandez, who apparently pursues quality with relentless devotion. Blended from 82-per-cent syrah with tannic petite sirah, it's as luscious as they come, with well-integrated 16.5-per-cent alcohol and notes of plum, dark chocolate, white pepper and leather. Hermitage American-style. Cellar it for up to 10 years.

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($99.95; score 95)

Up on foggy Howell Mountain overlooking Napa Valley, Dunn Vineyards crafts elegantly tailored cabernets that evolve handsomely in the cellar. The slightly cooler temperatures imbue the fruit with crisp vitality. Wonderfully complex, it shows hints of cassis, chocolate, sweet tobacco and grilled beef as well as a mineral character more common to Bordeaux than to Napa. It could improve with up to 20 years in the cellar, perhaps longer.

Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($58.95; score 92)

There is, indeed, a bona fide chateau on this estate – not one of those artsy modern structures common in the architectural Disneyland that is Napa. It was built in the 1880s by Alfred Tubbs, who reaped a fortune selling rope during California's gold rush. Prohibition intervened, but the place was restored in the 1970s by Jim Barrett, who, incidentally, died last week at the age of86. Both Barrett and Montelena rank as Napa icons, taking top honours in the white wine category at the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris competition against France. This is a well-structured cabernet, laced with black currant, mineral, spice and a tight tannic grip. It would reward 12 years in the cellar.

Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel 2009 ($39.95; score 92)

Ravenswood of Sonoma is a leader in red zinfandel, with offerings that span the gamut from thick and jammy to rigid and vibrant. The 2009 Dickerson leans more toward the latter. A blast of maraschino cherry and raspberry greets the palate, followed by sweet spices, tightened up by juicy acidity on the lingering finish. Drink it over the next eight years.

Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2008 ($33; score 89)

Owned by Brown-Forman, the American drinks giant that also makes Jack Daniel's whisky, el Jimador tequila and Finlandia vodka, Sonoma-Cutrer is a huge brand carried widely by the glass in white-tablecloth restaurants south of the border. Chardonnay is its specialty, though it makes consistent pinot noir from vineyards in Sonoma's Russian River Valley. The nose here is delicate in that Burgundian way, a hint of what's to come on the palate. The flavour is berry jam, yet the texture is light and the finish dry, with hints of flowers and spice going along for the ride. $39.99 in N.S.

Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($14.95; score 88)

Clos du Bois is a big Sonoma brand owned by the world's largest wine company, Constellation Brands of New York state. What this red lacks in cachet it makes up for in value. Nicely styled for the price, it delivers classic cabernet flavours of cassis, cedar, tobacco and black olive, well-balanced by lively acidity. $18.45 in Que.