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Saint or Sinner? How to pick a good Shiraz wine

Australia’s signature grape, Shiraz, holds a secret. It’s an old variety from France and it’s the grape behind the famous Hermitage and Cote Rotie wines in the Rhone. Known as Syrah in France, this prized black grape has hundreds of years of history. Capable of producing beautiful blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Mourvedre; Shiraz also stands proud as a single variety wine in its own right. Here’s how to pick a Shiraz that suits you from the different styles available across the globe . . .

Shiraz Syrah
Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape

The difference between Shiraz and Syrah

Technically there is no difference between Shiraz and Syrah – they are both the same grape which produces deeply flavoured, full bodied, fruity wines. However styles vary from big, bold and brazen on one side of the spectrum to mellow, fine tuned and rich on the other.

Wine makers using this grape have more than a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to expressing its characteristics and you’ll need to know where the wine comes from to be able to tell what style it is. As a rule of thumb if a wine is labelled as Shiraz it hails from the New World – eg Australia, South Africa, California; if it’s labelled Syrah it’s from the Old World – eg France, Italy, Spain.

The difference in styles between New World Shiraz and Old World Syrah in general is that:

  • New World Shiraz is more powerful than Old World Syrah with intense fruit flavours, a higher alcohol content and firmer tannins.

    grapes
    Shiraz / Syrah grapes
  • Flavour profile: sweet blueberry, boysenberry, mulberry, black olives, tar, liquorice, charcoal, dark chocolate, black pepper, cloves. Fruit forward, tannic and intense.

  • Old World Syrah is a slightly lighter style with rich, ripe flavours and softer tannins. Most of these wines age well and are often hailed as being ‘more elegant’ than their New World rivals.

  • Flavour profile: blackberry, dark morello cherry, cassis, smoke, sweet anise, spice, herbs, leather, black pepper, mocha, savoury undertones. Mellow tannins, seductive aromas with a long finish.

If you like big, bold wines with tannin, pick Shiraz. If you like full bodied wines that pack a softer punch, pick Syrah.

Languedoc Roussillon - Shiraz's second home
Languedoc Roussillon – Shiraz’s second home

That’s all well and good when your bottle of wine has either Shiraz or Syrah printed on the front label but France has the added complication of labelling its wines by region rather than grape variety. The wine regions in France that produce both 100% Syrah and Syrah blends are in the south east of the country: the Languedoc Roussillon and the Rhone.

The Languedoc Roussillon – Syrah’s second home

  • Syrah has found its second home in the Languedoc Roussillon with the grape thriving in the well drained, rocky soils. Single grape variety wines are produced throughout the region with some lovely 100% Syrahs coming from the vineyards along the Herault river, the Gard and l’Aude.

The Rhone - Syrha's birthplace
The Rhone – Syrha’s birthplace

The Rhone – Syrah’s birthplace

Syrah’s birthplace is in the northern Rhone and Hermitage is famous for it. So much so that Hermitage’s Syrah was added to Bordeaux Clarets in the 18th – 19th centuries to improve the Bordelaise blends. It was done in times when there was a particularly poor vintage (this was also common practice in Burgundy).

  • Hermitage – Primarily 100% Syrah. Officially wines can also made with the white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne added to a Syrah based blend. This is no longer common practice and most red Hermitage wines are pure Syrah.

  • Cote Rotie – Many wines are made with 100% Syrah but up to 20% of the white grape Viognier can be added a blended Syrah based wine. This style has a beautiful fragrance.

  • Cornas – 100% Syrah.

Crozes Hermitage from Paul Jaboulet Aine’s flagship Domaine de Thalabert in the northern Rhone.
Crozes Hermitage from Paul Jaboulet Aine’s flagship Domaine de Thalabert in the northern Rhone.

Syrah blends

We are increasingly seeing New World Syrah blended with other grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Tempranillo and Sangiovese but its been used in blends in France for centuries. It’s traditionally blended with Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault in France – as well as the white grapes Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane in the Rhone.

Rhone blends using Syrah

  • Crozes Hermitage and Saint Joseph – Syrah is the dominant grape here with blends being allowed to contain up to 75%. The remainder is made up with 15% of the white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne.

  • Chateauneuf du Pape – Grenache & Syrah blends (with lesser amounts of Mourvedre, Vaccarese, Counoise, Cinsault, Piquepoul Noir, Muscardin and Terret Noir. Small amounts of white grapes can also be added to the red wine blend.)

    Chateauneuf du Pape from Domaine Roger Perrin in the southern Rhone.
    Chateauneuf du Pape from Domaine Roger Perrin in the southern Rhone.
  • Gigondas – Grenache & Syrah blends (with a minimum of 15% Syrah in the blend).

  • Cotes du Rhone – Most blends here are based on Grenache, Syrah or Mourvedre with smaller amounts of Carnignan, Vaccarese, Counoise, Cinsault, Piquepoul Noir, Muscardin and Terret Noir.

Languedoc Roussillon blends using Syrah

Like the southern Rhone, the Languedoc Roussillon uses Syrah in its blends. Light bodied Grenache is king here but Syrah is next in line, lending power, structure and a hit of front loaded flavour to Grenache based blends.

Fitou – Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre and Syrah blends.

Corbieres – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan blends.

Minervois – Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (60% of the blend) and Carignan, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Bourboulenc.

Faugeres – Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre blends.

Saint Chinian – Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre blends.

Costières de Nîmes – Grenache, Carignan, Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvedre blends.

la poulardiere red small r
La Poulardiere, Cotes de Rhone

Syrah’s lineage

Syrah’s parents are the rare French grapes Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Dureza is a black grape and comes from the Rhone Alpes region. It had practically disappeared but thanks to the discovery that it was the parent of Syrah pioneers in the Rhone have reintroduced it in the Saint Joseph AOC. Mondeuse Blanche is a long forgotten white grape and is also the ancestor of Viognier. It comes from the Savoie region, north of the Rhone.

Syrah or Shiraz – the legend of its name

There are two legends as to how Syrah/Shiraz acquired its names; both tell that the grape hailed from foreign climes, perhaps, thanks to Syrah’s seemingly exotic flavours (one of the local Italian nicknames for the grape is ‘Balsamina’ . . . perhaps a reference to Balsamic vinegar given ithe condiment’s sweet/sour, fruity smoke infused taste?).

Rocca Maura ‘Cuvee 1737’ Cotes du Rhone
Rocca Maura ‘Cuvee 1737’ Cotes du Rhone

The name ‘Syrah’ is supposed to be derived from ancient Syracuse in Sciliy. Syracuse was a powerful city during the ancient Greek rule in 400 BC and the grape was thought to have been brought to France either by the ancient Greeks or by the legions of the Roman Emperor Probus some time after AD 280.

The name ‘Shiraz’ comes from the old city of Shiraz in Iran where the legend has the grape originating from. The ancient city produced a well known Shirazi wine and tradition has it that the grape was brought from Shiraz to France by a wandering hermit.

Syrah is the perfect Winter red
Syrah is the perfect Winter red

Warming Wines

With Winter’s cold snap tightening its grip on the UK you’ll see sales of Syrah/Shiraz shoot up – this is a warming wine. It’s big flavours and hearty body are perfect for raising the spirits on cold frosty evenings and for enjoying with rich winter dinners. We have been exploring Syrah’s potential and have some new discoveries coming onboard soon so keep watching www.bordeaux-undiscovered.co.uk for our new arrivals!

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