Guide to the Shiraz / Syrah grape & wines
Shiraz used to be very popular here in the UK but Syrah remained, and still remains to some extent, relatively unknown. In fact Shiraz is the same grape as Syrah. This guide to the Shiraz or Syrah grape will reveal more about this wine grape variety and the different styles of Shiraz or Syrah wine. I’ll also be looking into what Shiraz tastes like, whether Shiraz is a good wine or just a big juicy but somewhat one-dimensional wine as we used to see dominating our supermarket shelves as well as advice on which food to eat with Shiraz or Syrah wine.
The Syrah grape / The Shiraz grape
Despite our proximity to France, here in the UK the Australian name, Shiraz, is the better known name of this black grape variety; this is partly because France has historically not labelled its wines with the grape variety and partly because in the late 1990s and early 2000s Australia, which proudly names the grape on its wine labels, encouraged by the UK's bulk wine buyers and supermarkets, flooded the UK market with simple, value-for-money Shiraz which was very popular for a number of years; you can read more about the rise and fall of these wines in my blogpost on Australian wine.
In fact France produces more Syrah or Shiraz than Australia, largely in Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Rhône regions. These two countries have by far the most Shiraz vines but there are plantings in many countries including the USA, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Italy and Portugal etc. Shiraz remains the 6th most widely grown wine grape variety in the world despite the fall in popularity of the entry-level Australian Shiraz and this is partly because many Australian Shiraz wine producers have upped their game, partly because it is a vigorous grape variety and partly because the grape blends well with several other grape varieties.
There has been much debate about the origins of the Syrah grape but it has been proved by DNA profiling to have originated in France, a cross between two lesser-known French grapes, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. There is a top quality, small-berry version known as Petite Syrah - but this is not to be confused with the Petite Sirah grape also known as Durif and found in the Americas.
Hermitage is another name for the Shiraz or Syrah grape in Australia but it is also a synonym for other varieties so its use is confusing and therefore rare. Whilst Syrah used to be largely the old world name for the grape and Shiraz the new world name, now the names are increasingly used to differentiate between two styles of wine – Shiraz for the big, juicy, warmer climate wine and Syrah for the more refined, cooler climate wines – but this is not an official definition and I use the terms Syrah and Shiraz interchangeably in this blogpost.
Shiraz / Syrah styles of wine
Syrah or Shiraz is a very versatile grape and this is reflected in the different styles of wine produced from it across many wine regions. It can be found as a single-varietal, i.e. 100% Shiraz or as part of a blend of different grape varieties.
Even as a varietal wine Syrah can produce different styles: think of the smooth classics of the Northern Rhône like Crozes Hermitage, Cornas, Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, the typically full-bodied spicy Barossa Valley Shiraz wines and an increasing number of fine examples from South Africa which generally sit somewhere between the above two styles.
Shiraz from generally warm-climate areas such as Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia and the more sheltered parts of Stellenbosch in South Africa are generally:
darker in colour,
with more obvious, sweeter tannins and
higher alcohol (c. 14%+ ABV)
Cooler climate Syrah or Shiraz from areas such as the Northern Rhône and New Zealand tend to be:
more perfumed and
have more acidity and
as is often the case, Syrah produced in cooler climate regions tends be more age-worthy as the grapes retain more acidity despite being ripened over a longer period.
Increasingly in cooler climate areas of Australia wine makers are successfully also achieving this more elegant, lighter style of 100% Shiraz – so much so that as mentioned above some prefer to label their wine as Syrah to differentiate it from warmer climate, juicy-fruit style Shiraz wines.
Syrah is often seen in blends. In Australia, the USA and South America it is often paired with the more austere and tannic grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, to soften the wine and give it a more rounded structure and a smoother texture. In the Southern Rhône Syrah is the “S” in the famous GSM blends (with Grenache and Mourvèdre) like the classic Châteauneuf du Pape and Côtes du Rhône. It gives structure and age-ability. Sometimes a splash of white grape Viognier is also added for its perfume and silkiness, producing a really elegant, feminine style of wine.
In answer to the question, can you get good Shiraz, yes, and increasingly so these days. Producers of the mid to top price range Syrahs are looking towards the more elegant style and experimenting with terroir to …
What does Syrah or Shiraz taste like?
One of the key characteristics of most Syrahs or Shiraz is its distinctive pepper flavour and aroma which comes from alpha-ylangene, a molecule also found in peppercorns; apparently 20% of people are unable to smell it however so don’t be too surprised if you can’t. But in a blind wine tasting pepper is often the first clue, to those that can smell it, that the wine is a Shiraz.
Other typical flavours and aromas are black fruits, liqourice, leather and sometimes tar. Warmer climate Shiraz will have ripe black fruit flavours like blackberry and blueberry, spice and chocolate flavours. Flavours of cooler climate Shiraz tend to include more herbs, olives and more pronounced pepper and spice with some meaty aromas and still some black fruits but less ripe fruits. Younger Syrah tends to have floral aromas like violet and hints of red fruit though black fruits dominate. As the wines age they develop the more savoury aromas like leather and game plus chocolate and liquorice.
Food Pairing tips for Syrah / Shiraz
As per my food and wine-matching tips, look first at the intensity of the food and find a match, heavier, more intensely flavoured wines with stronger-flavoured foods and lighter styles with more delicate flavours.
Warmer climate Shiraz or Syrah with its fuller-body, more obvious, sweeter tannins, higher alcohol (c.14%+) and bold flavours will match stronger flavours such as:
red meats and cured meats - the fruits complement the sweetness of the meat and the tannins help break through the protein and cut through any fat e.g. grilled or roast beef, barbecued pork, venison, rich stews
sweet & sour sauces e.g. in Asian cuisine as long as the wine is not too young
cheese generally but especially strong-flavoured soft cheeses; again the tannins will cut through the fat of the cheese and seem smoother
non-leafy vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms
Cooler climate Syrah or Shiraz with its generally lighter style suits more delicate foods such as:
lamb generally and spiced lamb
peppery food and warm spices such as cumin, cloves and allspice - a good match for Syrah's distinctive pepperiness
If you like Syrah or Shiraz, you might also like…
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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.