Tomato or tomahto? Potato or potahto? Syrah or shiraz—what’s the difference? There seems to be confusion when it comes to the syrah and shiraz varietal, as well as the different blends from the U.S., Rhone and Australia, so let’s take a look.
Syrah originates from the prestigious Rhone valley, particularly Northern Rhone, where it produces long-lived, tannic and spicy red wines. Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas are the best known appellations of the region. These wines need to be aged and pair best with wild game and big, rich meats. It was in the steeply sloped communes of Rhone that the practice of blending in a small amount of the white grape, viognier, originated; it softens and adds aromatics to the syrah wine. Prized for its power of spice and dark fruit, syrah possesses a perfect balance of fruit, floral, gentle smoke and spice quality. In Southern Rhone, syrah is used more often as a blending grape. Southern Rhone is known for its blending of many grapes, such as the famous appellation, Châteauneuf du Pape, where they can blend up to 13 different grapes.
The syrah grape is a heat-lover, and as a result, has adapted well to both the warm venues of California, Southern Oregon andWashington State. Syrah hit the mainstream when its popularity and success in Australia was marketed very well to the U.S. and European markets. Although it is the very same grape varietal, syrah is known as shiraz in Australia, and has been so successful that even some American wine companies switched the syrah name to shiraz. Due to Australia’s very warm climate, it is very fruit-driven, yet still possesses certain amounts of tannin and characteristic peppery Shiraz’s combination of rich character and approachability in youth can largely be credited with securing Australia’s global presence. This fruit-forward style appeals to newer wine drinkers and has captured a large part of the market share.
In Australia, shiraz also is used in many popular blends such as cabernet-shiraz and ‘GSM’ (Grenache/shiraz/Mourvèdre). Unfortunately, the Australian shiraz has suffered in terms of quality due to so much initial success, that the market got flooded with inexpensive, poor-quality wines. Producers such as Yellow Tail did a great job of capturing the lower-priced end market, but many producers followed suit and relied on creative labeling (ie: stick some cute animal on the label) in order to sell it. The segment that remains strong is the mid-priced ($10-$20) shiraz where people know the quality will likely be there.
Today, syrah is grown all over the world in warmer wine-growing regions. Made purely as syrah or used for blending, it adds color, tannins, structure, spicy notes and works well with other big red varietals in the blend.
Both the NewWorld and Old World versions tend to be full-bodied, dark fruit-driven, have spicy/pepper notes and higher alcohol. Ever have purple teeth? Syrah is one grape that will do this quickly, as it has a purple hue. On a more positive note, it has high levels of phenolics, the naturally occurring chemical compounds in grapes known to help protect against heart disease. Sometimes you’ve got to take the good with the bad. And whether it’s syrah or shiraz, it’s pretty much all good—it’s just a matter of taste.
Syrah and shiraz wines are high in alcohol content. How do you determine alcohol in wine? Have you ever heard someone say, Check out the great legs on this wine. Many people look at the wine’s ‘legs’ (the tears that fall down the side of the glass after swirling) and assume big ‘legs’ signify quality. This is a myth—the bigger the ‘legs,’ the higher the alcohol/sugar content.
Try a Shiraz from the Barossa Valley and then one from McLaren Vale, and taste the difference. Then experience syrah from France. Northern Rhone can be on the expensive side, but certainly worth it. Southern Rhone will be Grenache-based but find one with a good percentage of syrah.
Stanley Browne is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators, and the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves. He is a 30-year veteran of the restaurant, hospitality and wine industry.