Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape with two different names. Syrah is the original name while Shiraz is how it became known in Australia and the Americas. The terms have become associated with a particular style of wine.
Syrah is the term that is associated with the Old-World expressions found throughout Europe. It is lighter in body and alcohol, with finer tannins. Shiraz, on the other hand, refers to New World, intense wines, which are generally richer, with riper aromas and fuller in both body and alcohol.
The distinct styles first emerged as a natural consequence of the different growing conditions and microclimates. The grapes in Australia have the potential of having higher levels of alcohol and more aromas than their European counterparts.
The varietal is believed to have originated in the Rhône region of France. Some winegrowers in the northern Rhône distinguish between a small-berried, more concentrated version of Syrah, referred to as Petite Syrah, and the larger-berried Grosse Syrah.
Until the 1970s, French Syrah plantings were mostly concentrated in and around the vineyards of the northern Rhône valley. Since then Syrah has had an extraordinary surge in popularity throughout southern France and has become France’s third most planted red wine.
Australia’s history with the grape began in the 1830s. It flourished and was quickly adopted by New South Wales and from there to the whole country, eventually becoming Australia’s most planted variety. The country makes a range of styles, the most recognisable is the distinctively rich, ripe styles from both traditional Barossa Valley and newer Heathcote regions.
There is now a growing trend towards more subtle, elegant, cool-grown Rhône style wines that are less concentrated and have a lighter touch. These are often labelled as Syrah instead of Shiraz. These wines are most likely to be found in the Adelaide Hills region.
The grape was introduced to California in the 1990s. A group of vintners, known as the “Rhône Rangers”, eagerly promoted the grape as being equally suited to California as Cabernet Sauvignon. Californian winemakers consistently produce very vibrant, refined wine.
In addition to California, Washington State also produces Syrah. Further afield, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay are producing interesting varieties. It is worth noting that some of those who make the finest South African examples label them Syrah.
There are some noteworthy Syrahs found in Italy, the Castilla-La Mancha region of Spain and the Alentejo region of Portugal. Another unexpectedly successful site for mature, concentrated Syrah is the Valais in Switzerland, particularly around the upper reaches of the Rhône valley.
Some Canadian wine makers are growing the Syrah grape as well, though the cool climate limits the growing season and thus the intensity of the flavour. Some winemakers label their offering as Syrah while others choose Shiraz. While some would argue that British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley has a long, hot growing season that supports the Shiraz style of wine, most of Canada’s wine regions cannot. Wines made in the majority of the country only truly support the Syrah style of wine.
One of my pet peeves is to see an Ontario winemaker labelling their wine as Shiraz and not Syrah. I pity the unexpecting consumer who purchases a Shiraz, expecting the bold peppery flavour of a true Shiraz. Unfortunately, the wine will not live up to its name.