The Shiraz grape boasts a storied history — and some of it may even be true! The legend claims that the grape originated in exotic Persia and was spirited away by a passionate French knight. While this is probably wishful thinking, there”s no doubt that Shiraz grapes have gone on to achieve cult status in Australia.
The fruit, known as the Syrah grape in Europe, is also quite important in French wine-making.
The Tangled History of the Syrah-Shiraz Grape
First, to cut through the confusion, Syrah and Shiraz wines are essentially the same, with the former produced in France”s famed Rhone Valley and the latter from various regions of Australia. All contain the same variety of grape.
But one sound-alike which doesn”t belong in the Syrah-Shiraz family is the California-produced Petite Sirah, which comes from an entirely different grape. Wine history buffs may be interested in knowing that the reason the names are so similar is because when a French breeder sent a mildew-resistant variety of grape to the United States in the 1880s, California growers somehow believed it to be a Syrah variety. It took 100 years for the mistake to be corrected with a simple ”i.”
Speaking of naming confusion, if you”re wondering why a wine from Down Under sports a name straight out of the Arabian Nights, there”s a logical hypothesis, if not solid proof. The city of Shiraz, in what is now modern Iran, boasted some of the earliest vineyards known to man. If the story of the French knight is credible, the Shiraz grape arrived in France in the Middle Ages.
Certainly the grape used for the Hermitage wines are the same grape used for the French Syrah and Aussie Shiraz wines, but so far no concrete evidence exists that they bear any genetic link to the Persian Shiraz grapes.
Although the red grape originated in the Rhone valley, Australians proudly lay claim as the primary producers of the wines most often called Shiraz. (Its growing popularity, however, has spawned American versions of the wine.) Generally believed to have reached Australia around the 1830s, the Shiraz is now the country”s most-grown wine grape.
Syrah vs. Shiraz: The Varieties
If you”re confronted by a choice between French Syrah and Australian Shiraz, some rules of thumb do exist. Shiraz often finds itself labeled as younger, less subtle, higher in alcohol and sweeter than the more smoky, subtle and aged Syrahs from the Rhone Valley.
But that”s not a hard and fast rule, since Australian vintners increasingly produce more high-quality Shiraz wine. Your best bet may be to ask your wine merchant which of the wines fall into the fruitier, lighter category, and which are aged, heavier on the tannins and spicier.
In addition, Australian winemakers prefer using American oak barrels rather than French, which lends a hint of spice and vanilla to their wines.
The Shiraz grape, as opposed to the wine that takes its name from it, is remarkably versatile.