Syrah or Shiraz ? Anyone?

March 5, 2011 1:52 pm - Posted by otta in Learn

Like the ongoing debate over how to pronounce tomato, the Syrah/Shiraz question threatens to get nasty, but it shouldn’t because they’re the same grape. Honestly!

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.

Which is better Old World Syrah or New World Shiraz? I have no idea, just an opinion or two and so I think the debaters should just kiss and make up and  try each to learn about their own opinions.

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

6 Responses to “Syrah or Shiraz ? Anyone?”

  1. Mark Jondahl says:

    I like higher elevation/ cooler climate Syrah. I like the blue fruit and garrique expression better, with the high acidity and firm tannins. I like Syrah as a food complement, and I find the hot weather ones to be either too rubbery, or explosively alcoholic.

  2. I beg to differ that the Shiraz grape indeed did come from the city of Shiraz in current Iran.
    I have visited many sites there over the years and have seen some old vines over 100+ years old still yield grapes.
    About 350+ years ago it mades it way to SE Australia and also South Africa.
    Once into the rhone valley it became known as Syrah.

  3. Renee says:

    Fun blog! I am curious to know why you are convinced that “shiraz” is an Australian slang term. I, like many others, learned that the Australians gave this grape the name shiraz in honor of what they mistakenly thought was its place of origin in Iran. Share!
    This might be a nice juncture to mention the petite sirah grape. Just recently recognized as synonymous with the grape “Durif,” it is the result of the Peloursin plant being germinated by Syrah pollen.

  4. Otta says:

    @Mark, interesting point about the warm weather Syrah tastes. We spoke with a winemaker the other day who specifically planted their Syrah at their lowest altitude in the hottest region of their vineyards to get that exact heavy alcohol taste. Funny how people’s tastes are so varied.

    @Renee the true meaning I guess is probably lost forever, that’s why I love wine. It’s always so personal. Our creative team recently interviewed a wine historian who has researched this extensively and his conclusion was that the Aussies changed the name to Shiraz just for fun in much the same way they used slang for many other things. As the historian said imagine “Crocodile Dundee as a winemaker and there’s yer answer mate :-)”

    Petite Sirah – it is our Director’s fav varietal. Yummy and yes you’re right. It’s amazing what they can prove now with DNA.

  5. Otta says:

    @Mariam thanks for the note. I know this is a hotly contested issue. I have never been to Shiraz but have seen pictures, it looks really beautiful. And I know they have ancient grapes there, however the current thinking (and this is based upon DNA from the grapes) is that Syrah or Shiraz is in fact a different varietal from the grapes that were grown there. That said to be really honest, I’d like to go taste and see for myself. That sounds like more fun.

    BTW I visited your site, very nice and informative.

  6. Seth says:

    I’ve looked into this for a while and believe DNA evidence does prove that the parent varietals for Syrah are Dureza which is a dark-skinned grape variety and Mondeuse Blanche, a white grape. Both varietals are indigenous to France.

    The Ampelography is solid on this account. But I love the debate, it makes wine very fun. Also your pictures are hilarious, you totally nailed how we wine lovers are. Very passionate.