What is the difference between Syrah or Shiraz? Many people are confused by these two terms. The issue is clouded by many legends, myths, and just plain misinformation. In reality, the only real difference between these terms are the countries that they came from. Both terms refer to a particular species of dark-skinned grape grown all over the world, used to produce full-bodied red wines. It is called a Shiraz in Australia, and is considered the finest red wine grape grown in that country. It is their most widely cultivated red wine grape. In most of the rest of the world, it is known as Syrah.
DNA profiling in 1999 showed that the syrah grape is a hybrid of two very obscure species from southeastern France, the Dureza, and Monduese Blanche. Dureza is a very dark-skinned species from Ardeche region of France that has just about disappeared from the vineyards. Preservation of rare and obscure varieties such as this is a specialty of Montpellier. Monduese Blanche is a white grape that was cultivated in the Savoy region, and can still be found in small amounts. The hybridization most likely occurred shortly before 77 AD, where the grape was described by Pliny the Elder in his book Naturalis Historia. He wrote about a wine made from a grape species from Vienne (now Cote-Rotie) that was unknown just 50 years earlier.
In Australia, this popular grape was known as Hermitage, but the name was also a French Protected Designation Of Origin. It was causing some problems with their export marketing, so in the late 1980s, they adopted the name used in South Africa and Canada, Shiraz.
This is where some of the confusion starts, because there is a city in Iran called Shiraz that produces a popular wine called Shirazi, but it does not use Syrah grapes. The similarity of names spawned many wild legends about the grape being brought to the Rhone region of France from the Middle East by Roman legionnaires, traveling hermits, and even one returning crusader, Gaspard de Sterimberg. There is no documentation, or physical evidence to support any of these legends, but they make for some great stories to tell while sharing a bottle.
To add further confusion, there is another species of grape called Petit Sirah, a distinctly different grape exclusive to California. They produce completely different wines. With all of this, it is little wonder why so many wine-lovers ask, "What is the difference between Syrah or Shiraz?" It's a miracle that anyone can find the wine they want. But somehow, we manage…. And it gives us a great excuse for Wine Tastings.
The Syrah grape eventually made it's way to the New World, staring in 1878, when the first plants were cultivated in California. US growers realized that both weather, and soil conditions in much of California were very similar to famous wine regions in France. Unfortunaly, by the 1890s, the entire crop had been devastated by the phylloxera root louse. In 1959, the Christian Brothers of Napa Valley planted 40 acres of Syrah grapes as an experiment. The plants flourished, and in 1974, Joseph Phelps produced the first 100% bottling of Syrah wine in California. It was slow to catch on, but California Syrah got its big break in the 1980s, when US wine lovers were searching for an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. California Syrah quickly became the fastest growing domestic varietal wine in popularity, and the trend continues today.
In France, Syrah is traditionally used as a blending agent in classic wines, such as Hermitage, Cornas, Cote-Rotie, Chateauneuff-due-Pape, Gigondas, and Cotes-du-Rhone. In the US, Australia, and other countries, it is often bottled as varietal red table wine.
Wines made from Syrah are full-bodied and very powerful-tasting. There is nothing subtle about this wine. Like a good Marine, it shows up and takes charge, with no nonsense or fanfare. Like most grapes, it produces a wine with a wide range of flavors and characteristics, depending on where it was grown, weather and soil conditions, and how it was handled after the harvest. Compared to other reds, it is dark purple and "Inky". The bouquet can range from floral, berry-like, chocolate, espresso, and even black pepper. The most often encountered nose is blackberry, or black pepper. With a little aging, these primary notes mellow, and get supplemented with secondary notes from the wine-making process, such as storing in oak barrels, or various yeast procedures. Tertiary notes appear with earthy, musky overtones such as leather, and truffles.
Syrah wines have a big flavor that makes a good alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon, with plum, blackberry, smoke, truffles, and spicy characteristics that go well with most hearty foods. My Rule of Thumb is that Big Wine demands Big Food, and vice-versa. 100% Syrah wines are excellent with roast beef, roast pork, elk, moose, deer, goat, grilled steaks, pasta with marinara, baked ziti, cannelloni, ravioli, enchiladas, chili, meatloaf, rellenos, tamales, jambalaya, gumbo, ettouffe, barbecue, and more. As a cooking ingredient, Syrah wines are outstanding with full-flavored foods, as a marinade, baste, or sauce base. Syrah can make wonderful piquant salad dressings, and is my wine of choice for making gourmet mustards, and steak sauces.
To reach their full potential, 100% Syrah wines require some aging. As they mature, the tannins mellow somewhat, and the wine takes on a silky mouth-feel. Many wineries market a blend of Syrah, which produces a fruitier, lighter wine that can be enjoyed much younger, while still retaining much of the characteristics of true syrah. Most wine-makers recommend 4-10 years aging for a full syrah wine.
Next time you are feeling adventurous, be bold. Give syrah wines a try. And while you are reveling in the heady bouquet, and the full-bodied flavor explosion that excites every single tastebud in your mouth, go ahead and feel a bit superior to the masses, because you have become one of the Enlightened. You know the answer to, "What is the difference between syrah or shiraz?"