Shiraz vs Syrah: What’s the difference?
Let’s start off assumption-free - no bowties, bulls*!t, or patronising glares. The same grape is used to make wines labelled ‘shiraz’ or ‘syrah’, the differences are purely stylistic. But whose style - and what?
For starters, it’s not so much ‘shiraz vs syrah’ as it is ‘shiraz and syrah are both worth exploring’. Especially the undefined area where they meet in the middle.
Syrah and shiraz are just the same thing, right?
It’s one of those “yes and no” answers, the pinot gris versus pinot grigio debate all over again, and that’s all - what you want to call it is purely an unregulated style marker.
Syrah originates in France, while Australia adopted the term ‘shiraz’ for the same grape variety. Climate differences led to distinctly different styles. Cooler climate Aussie makers started using syrah for their shiraz, and chaos ensued. There are some guidelines, but they can get fuzzy. And in the fuzziness often lie the best wines.
So "syrah" is originally French...
Syrah originates from France - and nothing to do with the Persian city of Shiraz (although there were wines made near the city of Shiraz in ancient times, they were white, and there’s no genetic relation to the shiraz grape).
Syrah, by contrast, came from a (probably natural) brief liaison/crossing of two native French varieties; dureza and mondeuse blanche. So syrah’s home country is actually France. Glad we cleared that up.
As its home country, the styles of wine from this grape that come from the south France tend to be, naturally, from cool to moderate climates. This gives French syrah lower alcohol, somewhat lighter tannins and more flavours of pepper, blue fruits and herbaceousness than its warm climate counterparts.
... but found a new home in Oz as "shiraz"
The grape originally made its way here in 1832 as part of James Busby's collection, and shiraz as we know it generally came to mean more tannin, higher alcohol, and more flavours of plum and black fruit.
Due to its higher flavour intensity it was able to handle more oak flavour, and tended to go hand-in-hand with associated flavours of vanilla, coconut and dark chocolate. The Barossa Valley is synonymous for big, muscular examples but that approach is now being softened by some.
Check out: Torbreck The Struie Shiraz 2021
With a little French influence, elegance is a prerequisite from cool climate regions like the Yarra Valley, and fundamentally that’s the key – it’s the climate that is differentiating the style produced. In a nutshell – syrah is all elegance with softer spicy fruit, lovely perfume and savoury feels whereas shiraz is often more lush and riper, radiating more fruit intensity.
So what’s the difference?
Winemaker of one of Australia’s most consistently beautiful Yarra Valley syrahs, Giant Steps’ Steve Flamsteed, says cool climate syrah differentiates from shiraz in warmer climates due to the cooler nights maintaining a beautiful perfume in the grapes. The key for him is to use whole bunches in the ferment - “the more the better,” he says. Flamsteed is a firm believer in keeping whole bunches and whole berries intact, which enables carbonic maceration (aka ‘cab mac’) to occur. Think of it as thousands of fermentations, one in every berry all inside one big fermentation. Cab mac aids in the release of the gorgeous perfume often seen in cool climate syrahs.
Keeping all this in mind, there are numerous examples from cool climate regions around Australia producing wines labelled shiraz – think Coonawarra, Canberra, Granite Belt, Grampians, Heathcote and Orange to name a few, and a Tasmanian ‘shiraz’ even won the coveted Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy back in 2010.
Check out: Sidewood Estate Shiraz 2020
Over the ditch, Australia’s Kiwi cousins have gone down the syrah path with enthusiasm, with top-notch cool climate versions coming from Hawke’s Bay in particular. Names aside, shiraz in coolish to moderate climates may just have the best of both worlds, nearing the fruit intensity of warm climates while borrowing a bit of the pepper and perfume of cooler climates thanks to those cool nights.
As with gris versus grigio, where to draw the line between syrah and shiraz is the fuzzy part, but also has some of the most interesting wines. Embrace the fuzz and get some shiraz in your glass, whatever it says on the label.