What Is Shiraz?
The Syrah or Shiraz grape is a dense, thick-skinned black grape, whose origins are in the northern Rhone valley region of France. A versatile, prolific and well-travelled grape, it has made Australia its second home, where it has become the national grape, known as Shiraz.
If you are looking for subtle, delicate restrained reds, then the Shiraz grape is not for you. It’s ebullience, wildness, and richness packs a punch, but at the same time produces some of the finest, most complex red wines in the world, from the 100% Syrah wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie in the northern Rhone, to the iconic Penfolds Grange Hermitage from South Australia.
Syrah and Shiraz - the two names sound different, are often viewed as different, but are identical; they have just adapted to the climates in which they are grown.
Syrah’s spiritual home is the northern Rhone, where is produces some of the most complex, deep, and long-lived wines in the world. Here, on the steep slopes of the Rhone River, they produce the dense, inky world- renowned Hermitage and Cote Rotie. Syrah dominates the entirety of the northern Rhone, with the reds almost entirely 100% Syrah. It is also the one of the dominant grapes in the southern Rhone, where it partners the Grenache, as the 2 main grapes in the majority of the main appellations and villages wines. In this area, it delivers incredible value for money, with rich, spicy, yet early drinking and approachable wines, when blended with Grenache and often Mourvedre.
In its birthplace, the Rhone, Syrah is rarely mentioned on the label, as the wines are labelled by appellation; in the southern Rhone, as part of a blend, which is not a cotes du Rhone Villages registered appellation, its name may appear on the label. In Languedoc and other regions of Southern France, where the Syrah is widely grown, producers have switched on to the power of simple to recognise varietal names, and there is an increasing amount of ‘Syrah’ labelled wines, on the market.
However, it is as Shiraz, that this grape is better known internationally. Taken to, and Planted in Australia by the early settlers, it is now firmly established as the national grape of Australia, where its original, and probably natural home, is the Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide, but which is grown throughout most of the wine producing regions. It suits Australia, as it is a grape that can cope with the heat, and indeed, flourishes in it, producing some of the most complex, long-lived and intense red wines in the world.
From finding fame in Australia, the Shiraz is now the 2nd most popular red grape variety in the world, producing high quality wines throughout the globe, and especially the New World, from South Africa to Argentina. In California, it is performing superbly, with a large number of producers championing this grape variety, not just as an entry level, or blend option, but as an extremely high quality performer.
Whilst it’s a superb single varietal, it’s one of the best grapes for use in a blend, mingling happily with many other red grape varieties – in Australia the classic is a Shiraz- Cabernet blend, in South Africa Shiraz- Pinotage works; and there are many other successful options.
A relatively new- labelled wine is the GSM – often seen on some of Australia’s top quality wines – GSM has almost become a brand in itself – it stands for Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and represents the style of the traditional wines made in the Rhone, but with a bit of New World oomph! This has been done extremely successfully in Australia, but its pioneering supporters are in California – the ‘Rhone Rangers’ as they are nicknamed, who champion the shiraz and the natural blend with Grenache and Mourvedre – Bonny Doon winery is a leading exponent of this.
Another popular blend is the Shiraz-Viognier – a full bodied, textured, aromatic red, with a small percentage of the white Viognier grape added to the mix. This mirrors the traditional northern Rhone blend, where the richly fragrant and fruity Viognier succeeds in adding an extra level of quality to some of the great Rhone reds.
What Does It Taste Like?
The Syrah has many guises in terms of style, but its trademark characteristics are its richness, power, intensity, and high alcohol potential.
In the northern Rhone, where it reigns supreme, it’s powerful, inky and brooding, with dense black forest fruits, tar, licorice and sweet spice.
In the Southern Rhone, it is used as part of a deliciously rich, yet approachable blend, packed with ripe, velvety, sumptuous blackberry and cinnamon spice characters.
In southern France and Europe, as a single varietal, it offers rich, black fruit and spice flavours – intense, yet often soft and generous, with a dried fig, blackberry and mocha character – soft and attractive. It is grown very successfully in Sicily and southern Italy, as well as southern France.
In Australia the national success of Shiraz is due to its upfront, bold chocolatey attractiveness. Back in the 90s, the wines could be accused of being too forward, too obvious, too rich, too brash, and indeed some were. The hot climate and the resulting super ripe grapes led to big, bold wines, which could lack subtlety. The benefit of the hot climate and the ripeness is the fact that the wines are softer, and more approachable at an early age, without the inky tautness that defines some of the northern Rhone Syrah. In the last 10 years, the style of Australian Shiraz has changed, moving to more subtle, long-lived wines at the top of the scale, more reminiscent of some of the top Rhones – big, brooding, restrained, yet with that trademark generosity of fruit, and sweet spice.
Shiraz from Chile, South Africa and other New World countries follow a similar style, and are frequently blended, offering attractive, approachable, berry fruit styles of wine.
Where Is It From?
The Syrah’s historical home is the Rhone valley, but over the last 200 years, it has been planted throughout the world, most notably Australia, where is effectively their national grape, and known as Shiraz.
What Does It Go With?
Syrah and Shiraz are great food wines – think meat, think strong cheeses as a starting point.
In its northern Rhone guise, its brooding depth and complexity works well with braised meats, steak and venison. Further south, the softer blends are ideal with barbecued food, and hearty casseroles.
The New World styles of Shiraz, especially those from the sunshine land of Australia are the perfect barbecue wines, with their rich, super ripe flavours. But similarly they will also work with stews, and simple fare such as meaty pasta, steak pie.
Shiraz is also great with spiced Asian food, beef in black bean sauce, and mild beef curries.