Syrah and Shiraz – are they the same grape?
Syrah and Shiraz refer to the same grape; Syrah is how the variety’s was originally referred to while Shiraz is how it became known in Australia, with the term then being adopted elsewhere for wines that share Australian Shiraz’s style. So, in short, each term is now associated with different styles of wines made from the same variety.
Syrah, mostly referring to Old World expressions, is lighter in body and alcohol, leaner and with finer tannins. Shiraz, on the other hand, refers to New World, intense wines, which are generally richer, with riper aromas and fuller in both body and alcohol. While the distinct styles first emerged as a natural consequence of the different growing conditions and microclimates (i.e. the grapes in Australia reaching higher potential alcohol and more ‘cooked’ aromas than their European counterparts), producing a wine in either style is also greatly influenced by winemaking decisions. This explains why beyond France and Australia (and even in these countries) producers might choose to call a wine a single varietal Syrah or Shiraz to easily denote its style.
Scroll down for scores and tastings of 12 must-know Syrah/Shiraz wines
Where is Syrah/Shiraz originally from?
The origins of Syrah were once a matter of much debate, with many speculating that it might hail from Syracuse in Sicily, ancient Persia (the city of Shiraz in ancient Persia, modern-day Iran, being the reason for it Australian name) or descend from an ancient Rhône variety known to produce fine wine in Roman times.
In 1998, however, DNA profiling established that the variety’s parents are in fact Mondeuse blanche and Dureza, believed to be local to the Rhône-Alpes region of France. Some studies also show that, with great probability, Pinot Noir is a great-grandparent of Syrah, and both Viognier and Mondeuse Noire seem to be closely related to Syrah, too.
Some winegrowers in the northern Rhône distinguish between a small-berried, more concentrated version of Syrah, which they call Petite Syrah, and the larger-berried Grosse Syrah, but most ampelographers reject the distinction.
Petite Sirah (with an i, not a y), on the other hand, is the name given to what has been shown to be a common California field blend that makes robust, tannic, earthy wines. It is made up of Syrah, Durif and two other varieties related to them.
Syrah/Shiraz can produce wines of great elegance that can age beautifully. Some of its distinct characteristics are intense black fruit aromas lined by a savoury tapenade-like edge, medium to high tannins and black/white pepper spice. (Syrah/Shiraz is one of the varieties shown to contain more of a compound called rotundone, responsible for peppery aromas in wine.)
Unlike other varieties, Syrah demonstrates a strict relationship between how severely it is pruned and how good the eventual wine is. On the other hand. some argue that is not so expressive of terroir, a question Decanter’s Rhône expert Matt Walls explored in a recent tasting.
It can also lose its aroma and acidity quickly if left past optimal ripening stage which explains why some lesser-quality Syrahs can be rather flat and bland.
France – home of Syrah
Syrah is the queen grape of the northern Rhône where it makes the muscular, deep-coloured, age-worthy, savoury and peppery wines of Hermitage. In Côte-Rôtie it makes more perfumed, slightly floral and refined wines, namely when co-fermented with a small percentage of Viognier.
Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph and Cornas are other appellations worth looking at, offering earlier drinking and great-value examples.
Until the 1970s, French Syrah plantings were mostly concentrated in and around the vineyards of the northern Rhône valley. Since then, however, Syrah has had an extraordinary surge in popularity throughout southern France and it now is the country’s third most planted red wine. It can be found through the southern Rhône, notably in Châteauneuf-du-Pape country, and has been firmly adopted in the Languedoc-Roussillon.
Australia – home of Shiraz
Cuttings of Syrah/ Shiraz, then known as Scyras, were likely taken to Australia from Montepellier by the so-called father of Australian viticulture, James Busby, in the early 1832. It flourished and was quickly adopted by New South Wales and from there to the whole country, eventually becoming Australia’s most planted variety. The country has some of the oldest Syrah/Shiraz’s plantings in the world and some of the very few that survived phylloxera.
The country makes a range of styles, the most recognisable of which might be distinctively rich, ripe styles from both traditional (Barossa Valley), and newer (Heathcote) regions. Barossa Valley is considered by many to be the ‘spiritual home’ of Australian Shiraz, much due to the iconic status of historic producer Penfolds. Its Grange became Australia’s first serious collectable wine and set a benchmark all Australian winemakers aspired to.
Blends of Shiraz and Cabernet have also been an Australian speciality for decades.
There’s however a growing trend towards more subtle, elegant, cool-grown Rhône styles, less concentrated and handled with a lighter touch in the cellar. These are often, aptly labelled as Syrah instead of Shiraz. Adelaide Hills is a region to look at if you want to explore this expression.
Elsewhere – Syrah/Shiraz as an international variety
Syrah/Shiraz is currently the sixth most planted grape in the world, ranking among the roster of international varieties.
It was enthusiastically planted in California in the 1990s by the so-called Rhône Rangers, a group of winemakers determined to demonstrate that it may be even better suited to California than Cabernet Sauvignon. A vibrant community of Californian winemakers are consistently making very vibrant, refined Syrahs.
Washington State also produces fine, bright examples. Chile, South African and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay are other interesting regions to explore. (Some of those who make the finest South African examples label them Syrah.)
There are some noteworthy Syrahs in Italy, Spain (mostly in Castilla-La Mancha) and Portugal (Alentejo). Another unexpectedly successful site for mature, concentrated Syrah is the Valais in Switzerland, particularly around Chamoson on the upper reaches of the Rhône valley.
12 must-know Syrah/Shiraz producers and wines:
Wines shown by score in descending order.