Syrah or Shiraz ? Anyone?
To set things straight from beginning, Shiraz and Syrah are the exact same grape variety. It is a black grape which originated in the Rhone region in the South of France where it is known under the name Syrah. The name Shiraz was invented by the Australians, like many of their other slang terms. The name Shiraz has been used in Australia for close to 200 years although some still believe it originated in Iran in the city of the same name. But it didn’t, trust me.
In France you will find Syrah under the demographical labelling, Hermitage or Crozes Hermitage in North Rhone, as well as Cote Rotie , where it’s being blended with a little bit of Viognier (a white, aromatic grape variety). In the South Rhone, Syrah is a secondary wine in a majority of blends including Chateauneuff du Pape, Cote du Rhone and Gigondas. In those wines Grenache is the dominant grape variety. In other southern French regions, including Vin de Pays d’OC it’s labelled simply Syrah for easier recognition.
The classic style of Syrah is a wine with high alcohol, full body, high level of tannins and moderate acidity. Dark berry fruit, pepper, chocolate and spice, with earthy and leathery under tones make it unmistakable.
Another important area for Syrah production is south Italy, especially Sicily. Their Syrahs are rich and full bodied with low level of tannins, but high levels of alcohol. Blackberries and dark chocolate covered cherries would be appropriate descriptors here.
By contrast the Shiraz in Australia is a very different tasting wine. In Australia Shiraz always carries it’s varietal name even if it is also sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or as in the French example with Grenache and Mourvedre. (a.k.a. GSM). Other large New World Shiraz producing regions include South Africa, Chile, Argentina, California and the Pacific North West (Washington State and British Columbia)
Shiraz in these countries seems to be much riper and juicier and is known for it’s chewy characteristics, meaty and deep dark fruit concentrations. Chocolate and peppery spice dominates the flavours. In the cooler areas of the Pacific North West it seems to have more red and blue fruit characteristics and appears to be more gamey and minty, with flavours of green peppers. The cooler climate variations tend to also have much higher level of tannins than in the Southern locations.
In this spirit, many New world producers choose to use both names, and it is quite often that you find Shiraz and Syrah from the same producer, creating 2 different styles of wine.
California is producing some high quality examples combining the best of both worlds; offering the richness and concentration of the new world Shiraz, with great tannic structure and finesse of old world Syrah.
I recommend buying a bottle of French Hermitage and Australian Shiraz in the same price point and comparing those two styles side by side. I guarantee you will be surprise how different those 2 wines are. Cheers!!!
Blog by: Otta Zapotocky, General Manager and Sommelier at Wildfire Steakhouse Wine Bar