By Charles B. Rubinstein
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo & Juliet
Every so often somebody asks me “What is the difference between Syrah and Shiraz?” The answer is simple. There is no difference. They are one and the same black grape used to make many outstanding red wines.
Syrah is the name commonly used in France, the rest of Europe, in South America and by all but a few producers in the United States. Shiraz is the name commonly used in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. To add to the confusion of the grape having two names, there is another grape that has a related name. It is called Petite Sirah or Petite Syrah or Petit Syrah. This grape is neither petite (small) nor is it Syrah, but it is a somewhat distant relative. More about that later.
Syrah/Shiraz has a long history often intermixed with legend. There was a school of thought that believed Syrah/Shiraz originated in the Middle East, specifically in Persia where there is a town named Shiraz that has made wine for centuries. Evidence does not exist for this hypothesis nor is there any hard evidence to back up another hypothesis that the grape originated in Egypt and was later transported by Roman legions from Syracuse to Gaul. Recent research places the grape’s origin in the Rhône Valley.
Whatever its origin there is no argument that its fame arose from its hometown on the Rhône, namely Hermitage and its eponymous wine made from Syrah. There was a time that Hermitage carried a higher price tag than the fabled wines of Bordeaux and attracted the attention of Thomas Jefferson, but the relative pricing is not the same now.
As is the practice in other appellations and regions in France there is no varietal labeling for fine wines. Instead it is the place name that appears on the label. Côte Rôtie, Cornas, Crozes Hermitage and St. Joseph are among the other fabled names of wines made from Syrah in the northern Rhône. Syrah is also an important part of many blends in the southern Rhône, including Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As a general rule Syrah is a big, full-flavored wine. The exact flavors depend on the climate and where it is grown. In the warm climate of the Rhône there is usually a preponderance of blackberries, leather and pepper. In a cool climate, as found in the Santa Ynez Valley of California, the flavors are predominately that of red fruit, including raspberries, cherries and cranberries. On the other hand, Australian Shiraz is usually a big, full-flavored wine with high alcohol. Grange Hermitage, now called just Penfolds Grange because of European Commission objections, is arguably Australia’s finest wine. It is made solely from Shiraz, and it certainly belongs among the fine wines of the world. Shiraz is grown in many areas of Australia. It is the most widely planted red grape in the country with over 60,000 acres of vines. South Australia boasts many old Shiraz vines, some 100 years old. California has about 20,000 acres of Syrah, and the McDowell Valley in California has Syrah vines dating back to 1913.
Petite Sirah, along with all of its aliases, is a grape now found almost exclusively in California. It was widely planted in California in the early ‘80s and many growers believed it was indeed Syrah. That hypothesis lost out to the belief that the grape was really the Durif, a nondescript grape of the southeastern part of France. Dr. Durif propagated it around 1880. The grape has completely disappeared from France, but there still are bottlings of
100-percent Petite Syrah in California. It now turns out that the earlier hypothesis in California that the grape was Syrah was not far wrong. DNA analysis has shown that Petite Sirah is a cross of Syrah and an obscure French grape variety called Peloursin. In other words Petite Sirah is related to Syrah in that half of its genes come from Syrah.
There is an organization of about 200 wineries in the United States, most of which are based in California, called the Rhone Rangers. They are dedicated to promoting American Rhone-style wines made from one or more of the 22 grapes that flourish in the Rhône Valley. Their stated mission “is to educate the public on Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America and to promote the production and enjoyment of these wines.” A Rhone Ranger wine must contain 75 percent of one or more of the 22 traditional Rhône grape varieties including Petite Syrah/Durif. Syrah is arguably at the top of the 22.
With so many examples of Syrah, Shiraz and Petite Sirah available my advice is to try a few from different regions and pick your own favorites.
If you have questions or comments about wine write to me at The Two River Times™ or email me at email@example.com
Pick of the Bunch
2008 Nickel & Nickel Syrah Darien Vnyd., Russian River Vly ($45)
2009 Alban Vineyards Patrina Syrah, Edna Valley ($48)
2009 Two Hands Shiraz Lilys Garden, McLaren Vale ($50)
2009 Delas Hermitage Domaine des Tourettes, Rhône ($75)
2008 d’Arenberg Shiraz The Stump Jump, McLaren Vale ($10)
2008 Girard Petite Sirah, Napa Valley ($27)