Nov 09 2009

Que Syrah, Shiraz?

By Maggie Smith

Are you one of the many confused wine drinkers that doesn’t understand why some wines are labeled Shiraz yet some are labeled Syrah? Lets do some myth busting and work this out!

Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape, just different styles. Syrah has been around for…let’s just say forever; and then comes this Shiraz character, first appearing in the early Nineties. It was a new, exciting and cool-sounding grape type that burst onto the scene, and people have been talking about it ever since.

Let’s look at Syrah first. Syrah traditionally comes from the Rhone Valley in France (due south of Burgundy). The Northern Rhone Valley in France is where Syrah has it’s spiritual home. You may not know it, but when you pick up a bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages or up the dollar amount and get a Saint-Joseph or Hermitage, these wines are made from of the Syrah grape (not traditionally 100%, but most wines aren’t–they just don’t say it on most labels). These names are all regions in the Northern Rhone in France. Just like most places in the old world (France, Italy, Germany, Spain), the Rhone Valley names their wines after the area it comes from; the grape type is not as important as the wine’s origin.

If you pick up a bottle of Cotes-du-Rhone or Villages (typically ranges from $15-$25), you can most likely expect a medium-bodied Syrah with mainly red fruit characteristics with a smoky, black peppery spice. It’s a great every day drinking wine and goes great with lamb dishes. If you decide to pick up a bottle of the more expensive and rare Hermitage or Cote-Rotie, then you will experience something completely different. These regions are known for the best Syrahs in the world–and have the price to match. The Hermitage region produces Syrah that is probably the most “manly” wine of France. These are a much deeper, darker, leathery, gamey, earthy, tannic Syrah with a spice box in between all that goodness. These wines should be aged to get the most out of your purchase, or decant them for a couple of hours before you drink them to calm them down. Think teenager with a brand new Corvette–all over the place and pretty wild. Decanting will turn this teenager into a more refined adult that knows how to express themselves with much more direction. Syrah also is wonderful when grown in the Central Coast, California region and in Washington State. A different expression, of course, but Paso Robles or Santa Barbara are probably the closest you can get to those earthy meaty Syrahs of the Northern Rhone.

Now, the Aussies! Sure they have been growing “Shiraz” since the early 1800’s, but we never really saw any of their wine in the U.S. till the late Eighties. There are a couple myths on how the name Shiraz came about; one is from the ancient city of Shiraz in Persia, where the famous Shirazi wine was produced; but Shiraz as we know it today cannot actually be traced to this. There are documents of other countries calling the grape “Shiraz,” but it was the Aussies that made it famous. Australia, being a much hotter climate then the Northern Rhone and even the Californian Central Coast, creates a much different style of this grape type. It is commonplace now to call your wine Syrah or Shiraz, to let the consumer know what style of wine you are getting. Australian Shiraz is a very diferent animal then what is described above. It’s a much more jammy, rounder, plumper, blackberry-filled, plummy, chocolatey–but still peppery–style of wine. So when you are shopping around town, pay attention to what the winery labels the Syrah/Shiraz you are about to purchase; they are giving you hints to what style of Syrah/Shiraz is in the bottle.

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