Understanding Syrah/Shiraz

  • By Mattia Cianca
  • 20 Dec 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Syrah grape - Credit : Vins Rhone

Syrah is undeniably one of the most distinctive and recognizable red grape varieties that the world has to offer. Its deep-coloured, sometimes impenetrable juice is able to offer a great variety of styles from the easier-drinking fruit-forward styles to some of the most ageworthy and collectable bottles. 

Today there are more than 140,000 hectares of Syrah vineyards worldwide, with the most important countries when it comes to plantings being France, followed by Australia, Argentina, South Africa, California, Chile, New Zealand, and Mexico.

Syrah’s Origin Story

There have been many hypotheses about the origins of the Syrah variety, one of the most commonly recited being that it came from the town of Shiraz in Iran, with another take being that it came from the town of Siracusa in Sicily. 

Other theories include Egypt, Greece, Albania, and Cyprus. However, DNA analysis has discovered that Syrah was originally native to the Northern Rhône valley and is considered the child of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. 

Dureza has been grown for many centuries in the northern Rhône,and has appeared in old French literature, as well as producing wines that are deeply coloured and spicy. 

Mondeuse Blanche is a variety from the Savoie region of France, east of the Rhône Valley, and today has almost disappeared. 

In Roman times, Pliny the Elder described an important new grape variety in the area of Vienne, now known as Côte-Rôtie. He wrote that this grape was bringing considerable fame to the vineyards in the region of Vienne, and based upon what other writers had written about 50 years previously, this variety did not exist half a century earlier. With this in mind, it is now accepted that the variety emerged in the 1st century BC.

The Northern Rhône

Syrah is the iconic (and only) red grape variety permitted in the northern part of the Rhône, and is occasionally blended with Viognier in the deeply coloured wines of Cote-Rotie, where south-southeast-facing vineyards produce long-lived, spicy, full-bodied wines with soft and plush tannins.

Further south is the appellation of Saint-Joseph. The vineyards are mainly east-facing, leading to gentler sun exposure and therefore easier-drinking wines marked by less dark fruit, with a peppery and more restrained style, so much so that locals often view Saint-Joseph as the Rhône's answer to Beaujolais. 

Just across the Rhône river, the south-facing hill of Hermitage produces some of the most collectable and ageworthy reds on the planet. Generally considered the most full-bodied wines of the Northern Rhône, combining intense black fruit with sweet oak spices and smoky elements. 

The most important appellation in terms of volume is Crozes-Hermitage, producing lighter wines from the flatter sites in the south, and more concentrated, richer, and darker-fruited styles from the steeper vineyards to the north.

The southernmost and warmest region of the northern Rhône is Cornas, Syrah’s undisputed territory in both law and spirit. This is the only appellation in France where Syrah must make up 100% of the wine. New oak barrels are not the norm, and those muscular, meaty, sometimes dusty wines are as pure as it gets when it comes to this variety.

Australia: From Syrah To Shiraz

The first written evidence of this grape in Australia was in 1830, but the first significant plantings were made in 1832 by James Busby upon his return from Europe, having collected vine stock from the Rhône’s Hermitage. 

Busby’s phonetic spelling of the grape was “CIRAS”, but he also referred to it as “SCYRAS”. It was planted in Sydney’s botanical gardens, and then transplanted to the Hunter Valley. In 1839 Ciras/Scyras was also planted in the botanical gardens of Adelaide in South Australia. 

According to Dr AC Kelly’s “The Vine in Australia”, by 1861 “Shiraz” was already recognized as a grape variety of enormous importance and suitability; for the last 160 years it has managed to fend off challenges from all other varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The very old vines that are found in Australia (Langmeil’s 1843 vines in the Barossa Valley being the oldest) are still around as they never had to really deal with Phylloxera thanks to both the abundance of sand-rich soils and Australia’s strict quarantine procedures for plant material.

Today, French Syrah and Australia’s Shiraz provide two expressive counterpoints of this variety, and the choice of using either name (Syrah/Shiraz) by individual producers in other countries around the world speaks to their inspiration/philosophy relating to these two styles. 

Let’s Talk About Rotundone

Rotundone is an aromatic compound from the sesquiterpene family, found in the grape skins and totally absent from the pulp and seeds. It is associated with the aromatic perception of black pepper and is responsible for the spicy notes in a number of red wines, including Syrah/Shiraz. According to numerous studies, its detection threshold in red wines is around 16 nanograms per litre, and around  20% of the population is unable to detect it on the nose. 

In 2008 the AWRI (Australian Wine Research Institute) conducted a study looking at the links between rotundone and Syrah/Shiraz wines. Studies also showed significant concentrations in other varieties such as Gamay, Négrette, Prunelard, Mondeuse de Savoie, Fer Servadou, Duras, and Pinot Noir. 

Rotundone’s concentration increases from the onset of ripening, then throughout maturation until reaching a plateau of concentration at harvest.

Syrah grape - Credit : Vins Rhone