The Difference between Syrah and Shiraz is principally in the nomenclature. To paraphrase Shakespeare, What’s in a name? That which we call Shiraz is just the Australian title of France’s Syrah.
The Syrah wine grape, named Shiraz in Australia, is indigenous to the Rhone Valley, in southeastern France, where it can still be found. Syrah and Shiraz wines are made from the same grape variety but, as is true of any wine, the taste is very much dependent on the various terroir and winemaking methods used in its production. Even in the Rhone Valley itself, there is an enormous difference separating the way Syrah is produced in the northern and southern wine-producing regions.
Northern Rhone reds are typically made from 100% Syrah grapes and generally described as being powerful, manly, meaty, leathery, strapping, vigorous, serious, peppery, bold, and so on. They are dark, intense, and masculine wines which usually call for years of aging to tame their hardy tannins. This is specifically true of the Syrahs from the Hermitage appellation, which are said to be some of the world’s best wines.
The typical Southern Rhone red is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the most well-known Southern Rhone appellation, permits the use of 13 separate grape varieties, but the most important are the three aforementioned grapes, especially Grenache. These are also full colored and sturdy reds, but these wines are more approachable than those produced in the north, and personally, I tend to favor the Southern Rhones as they are more food-friendly.
The Australian version of Syrah, Shiraz, is the country’s most important red wine grape. It’s also the most widely planted, with over 100,000 acres of vineyard dedicated to it, which means that Australia is the world’s 2nd greatest producer of Syrah/Shiraz, following France. Australian Shiraz runs the gamut in terms of both value and quality. It not difficult to find some very drinkable Shiraz and Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon blends below $10.00. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Penfolds Grange. This is Australia’s one genuinely iconic wine, and it can be as costly as a top tier Bordeaux or Burgundy. After doing a fast Google search, I found the Penfolds Grange 2005, the most current release at time of writing, at prices varying from $360.00 to $550.00 a bottle, and some of the classic vintages can run thousands of dollars to make part of your wine cellar. This is also a big, masculine wine (generally 100% Shiraz, but blended with a modest amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in some vintages) but it’s quite distinct from Northern Rhone Syrah due to the diference in terroir and, in no small part, the fact that Penfolds Grange is aged in new American oak barrels.
California, with approximately 20,000 acres of Syrah vineyards, is the other important producer of Syrah varietals and blends. Of course, quite a few superb Syrahs are vinified and produced in Napa Valley and Sonoma, but lately it is a big player in the Central Coast region–particularly in Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County. In fact, Wine Spectator named a Paso Robles wine, Saxum Winery’s James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles 2007, its wine of the year for 2010. Being a mix of Grenache, Mourvdre and Syrah, it’s created very much in the Southern Rhone style. Two Santa Barbara County Syrahs also won places in the top 100 list: Tensley’s Syrah Santa Barbara County Colson Canyon Vineyard ’08 and Zaca Mesa’s Syrah Santa Ynez Valley 2006, at no. 17 and 29 respectively.
The Syrahs made Washington State have also lately been gaining a lot of praise, both from wine critics and wine drinkers. The remaining major Syrah producing countries are South Africa (in which it’s usually known as Shiraz, but labeled Syrah for wines created in the Rhone style), Argentina and Chile. Simply to make the issue a lot more confusing, there’s another varietal, grown almost exclusively in California, referred to as Petite Sirah or Petite Syrah which is really not Syrah, but instead a hybrid of Syrah and an obscure Rhone grape called Peloursin. The hybrid was discovered in 1880 by a French botanist, Francois Durif, who named the new variety after himself. It’s now referred to as Durif in Australia, and Petite Sirah in California and Israel.
If you are interested in finding out more about different wine varietals, especially California wines, or are interested in wine tours in Santa Barbara County, then drop by Eric Hilton’s site, at http://santabarbarawinetours.org.