Is there a difference between shiraz and syrah? Whatever your native tongue, the same grape produces wines that can be world’s apart.
Genetically, shiraz and syrah are one and the same – shiraz is simply an anglicised synonym for syrah. But a bold, brash Barossa shiraz is poles apart from a medium- weight spicy syrah from the northern Rhône, which is the genetic home of the variety.
Syrah is predominantly grown in a strip of vineyards to the south of Lyon in France, with styles reflecting their particular appellations, from the elegant, perfumed Côte-Rôtie (with a splash of the white grape viognier) to the tight, concentrated styles of Hermitage and the bold, licorice-laden syrah of Cornas.
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Australia adopted the variety more than 180 years ago and shiraz is now our most planted grape variety. In contrast to France, we make shiraz across all our regions, with an astonishing diversity of styles, such as brash, “drink me now” styles and black-fruited, firmly structured and long-lived shiraz (think Henschke Hill of Grace, Penfolds Grange and their vinous peers).
Australian shiraz reflects its site, with medium-weight, red-fruited, spicy styles from cooler regions such as the Yarra Valley in Victoria, Orange in NSW and the Adelaide Hills. The aroma of freshly ground pepper is the hallmark of shiraz from the Grampians in Victoria, with more sweetly spiced styles (cinnamon and star anise) produced in the Great Southern region of Western Australia.
If you like a potent, earthy shiraz, the Hunter Valley and Mudgee in NSW and the Clare Valley in South Australia will deliver the stuff in spades, while blackberry, bitter chocolate and licorice are descriptors of McLaren Vale and Barossa shiraz, both from SA. A new tradition is emerging from the Canberra district, with Clonakilla making subtle, spicy shiraz with a drop of viognier in an echo of Côte-Rôtie.
As for the rest of the world, they choose to stick with the French spelling. California has embraced syrah only in the past 30 years, as has New Zealand,
where warmer spots on the North Island, such as Waiheke Island and Hawke’s Bay, are producing quality syrah to rival France and Australia. Chile and Argentina are escalating plantings, as is South Africa. In Europe, Italy has small plantings and Spain is potentially a big producer.
Whatever the spelling, Australia has some of the world’s oldest shiraz vines, dating back to the 1840s. A glass of shiraz is full of vinous history and, as fans are well aware, it can be dangerously drinkable, too.