Syrah and Shiraz: A classic love story.

Penfolds winemakers Ray Beckwith, Alf Sholz and Max Scubert
It’s our most lauded grape. It makes Grange and Hill of Grace. You could argue that this grape most defines our nation’s wine; such is its reputation far and wide. It is Shiraz, the all-conquering big red. Shiraz is also the name that very few of the world’s wine-producing countries use for this grape. For the most part, it is we Australians and the South Africans that use it to describe the rich, red varietal.

The rest of the world calls it, Syrah (pronounced Siraah). Over the last few years, perhaps even a decade, you may have seen Syrah appearing more frequently on Australian wine labels. But what’s the difference? Whether you’ve dipped your toe into the Syrah pool or not, this is something every Shiraz drinker should know about and any wine-lover should explore.

Syrah is the key red grape from the Northern Rhone in France, the driving force behind appellations like Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas. These wines tend to be much finer and more savoury than the Shiraz that has come to be the flag-bearer for the bold Australian example. If we assume that the two grapes are identical (or at least fraternal twins) and we don’t have to get into a discussion about clonal variation, the salient points for the differences are then relatively simple. The first point of call for variation is site. In Australia, to make a move away from the big wines of the Barossa, a cooler site is needed. The cooler the region, the harder it is for the grape to ripen. Cooler sites produce less ripe fruit, which in turn produces less black-fruited and high alcohol wines.

The second difference takes place in the winery. In many instances, locally named Syrah are whole-bunch fermented. This simply means the grapes are left on the stalk; they use the “whole bunch”, as it were. Common practice is to de-stem these bunches so that only the grapes themselves, often referred to as the berries, head for the fermenter. The stalk plays a number of roles during fermentation, but the most obvious and one that can be tasted is a possible green ‘stemmy’ character that brings a savoury element to the wine.

The key places in Australia for this Syrah movement are the cool regions; the Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and the Yarra Valley. These cooler sites are able to offer a fresher, brighter style of Shiraz, one that more closely resembles the Syrah wines from France. Although few are claiming their wines are the same as those of France, they certainly offer an alternative expression to the big, brooding, heavily-oaked expression that we have grown used to.  While Rosemount have been making Balmoral Syrah for many years, names like Ngeringa, Jamsheed, Syramhi, Lambert and SC Pannell are ones to look out for, to name just a few.

As in many cases with Australian wine labelling, there is no legal determination for what you call your wine made using Shiraz/Syrah grapes, which can lead to some confusion. However, if you do come across a wine with Syrah on the label, expect something different from what you may be used to. The best part about learning new things about the wine industry is all the tasting homework you have to do.

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