Syrah

Karen Frazier
A vineyard in the Rhone region of France

Some of France's most popular wines are made in the Rhône from Syrah. The popularity of the grape expands beyond Old World-style wines in France, however, and includes New World wines, as well. Syrah is popular around the world. It grows in multiple regions, including Australia where it is called Shiraz. Whatever it's called, wines made from the Syrah grape are bold, spicy, fragrant, and delicious.

About Syrah

Syrah is considered one of the classic red grape varietals. The thick-skinned Syrah grape makes wines that are dark, potent, rustic, and lively with jammy fruit, earth, spice, minerals, and a peppery spirit. Syrahs are primal with lush with intense flavors in the mouth.

Origin of the Species

You can find Syrah in both hemispheres. Its theoretical origin can be traced to France's northern Rhône Valley, and from there it expatriated to the rest of the wine world, with the most noteworthy destinations being the United States and Australia. Oddly, in Australia and South Africa, the grape underwent a name change and is called Shiraz. While stories exist claiming the grape's origin was from ancient Persia near the city of Shiraz or that the Romans brought it to France from Sicily, no genetic differences exist between Syrah and Shiraz. In the late 1990's, two scientists determined through DNA testing that Syrah's parents were two obscure French grapes. Since Syrah and Shiraz are genetically identical, a different distinction has arisen between the two. Wines labeled Syrah tend to mirror the Old World style of wine production, with elegance and structure. Shiraz reflects a New World style with lush, accessible fruits and an appealing jaminess.

The Rhône Valley

Syrah is the principle player in many of the great red wines from the French Rhône Valley. The Northern Rhône's Syrahs are dramatic and flavorful with blackberry, blueberry, and cassis fruit, violets, exotic spice, earthiness, and white pepper. While nuance and finesse may not be a common thread with other Syrah-based wines, it can often be found here in an Hermitage or a Côte-Rôtie. Vignerons and negociants in the Southern Rhône use it in a different way; they blend it with an assortment of other Rhône varietals, such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignan. Syrah adds structure, balance, boldness, and flavor to these wines. Appellations include Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du Pape, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, and the basic Côtes-du-Rhône. Wines cross the full spectrum from high quality to low, but in general are rustic and hearty with bright acidity.

The Rest of the Wine World

Syrah's popularity continues to grow in other winemaking regions. The United States, Australia, and South Africa have made a considerable commitment to this varietal. There are some modest changes to the grape as it claims new territories. This is logical, especially if one believes in the concept of terroir and the influences of climate and soil conditions to a specific spot on the globe. Therefore, by extension, a Syrah produced in the Russian River Valley California will be different than a Shiraz in the Barossa Valley in Australia, and likewise be different from one in the Côte-Rôtie in France.

  • California: There has been a building tide of Syrah coming from California. In the 1980's, a few winemakers started bucking the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay trends by experimenting with Rhône-style varietals. They planted Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignane in Napa and Sonoma County, as well in the Central Coast region of the state. In 1997, sixteen of these formed the Rhone Ranger organization to educate and promote these varietals and wine style. The California rendition is fleshy, rich, complex, bright, supple, and can have deep and compelling character. A danger in the Golden State is excessive ripeness that robs the grape of its exuberance, as well as excessive tannins that may encourage imbalance in structure and inhibit lengthy maturing. Because of its ripeness, these wines tends to have higher alcohol content than other wines, upwards to 15%. It's a challenge to invoke the adjectives of elegance and finesse with most California Syrahs. If you are looking for that, it might be easier to look for it in the Northern Rhône.

  • Australia: The varietal has been cultivated in Australia since the 1830s. Since then, Shiraz flourished in the country, and the wine has put the country on the wine map and made them a competitive force in the world. An Australian Shiraz is easily recognized as big, full-bodied, berry-rich, and sturdy tannin reds. Sometimes it's difficult to associate these big saturated wines with those distant relatives in France, but Australian Shiraz has its own allure. Still, there are berry and plum fruit, spice, and pepper aromas and flavors to remind one of its origins. It's always easy to find an easy-quaffing Shiraz at a value priced as well as top-end, concentrated reds that hold their own with the French Hermitage legend.

Food Pairing

The versatile wine doesn't go with everything, but if you can't figure out what to have with pizza, grilled meats, stews, soups, pastas, vegetarian dishes, cheese, poultry, mushrooms, spicy dishes, or even a cracker, try a Syrah. As a rule, the Rhône wines are the easiest to match with food because of their good acidity. Those big jammy California Syrahs and Australia Shirazes are more problematic and matching needs to be calculated with more care. You can also enjoy them with nothing else besides good company.

Top Regional Producers

The following is a partial list of top Syrah/Shiraz producers or negociants from the different regions.

Northern Rhône

  • Domaine Jean-Louis Chave-Hermitage
  • Paul Jaboulet Aînè-Hermitage

Southern Rhône

  • Domaine Du Vieux Telegraphie- Châteauneuf-du Pape

California

  • Fess Parker Winery
  • Bonny Doon Vineyard

Australia

Whether you try a Rhône wine or an Australian Shiraz, there's much to like with this wine. Its spicy flavors make this a wine with growing popularity around the world.

Syrah