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Varietal Overview: Syrah and Shiraz
History and Cultivation
While Syrah and Shiraz are both produced by a grape that is genetically identical, there is a reason that winemakers have given two different names to the wine produced from the same grape; the wines produced are certainly not identical! The history behind the grape that produces these wines is somewhat of a legend. However, genetic tracing has linked the origin of the grape to somewhere in the southeastern wine region of France close to the Rhone. Further research showed that the Syrah/Shiraz grape we know today is the result of a cross between two varietals that are mostly obscure today and grow almost exclusively in that region.
Although botanical genetic research has conclusively found France to be the origin of this grape varietal, other legends have been told that links the secondary name of wine produced by this grape, Shiraz, to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. In this legend, Shiraz grapes were brought over to the Rhone region of France and it is these grapes produce modern-day Old World French Syrah. This tale is not backed up by scientific evidence, however, which is why wine experts now almost unanimously agreed that this grape varietal originated in France.
In the Rhone region today, Syrah continues to be the main grape varietal grown, and is used to produce wines such as Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. These grapes have thick and deep red skins that translate over to the dark ruby-red to purple color of the wines they produce. Growers tend to cultivate these grapes on high ground with limited soil and ample drainage. Some like to say that Syrah likes to “reach for the sky” due to the vines’ affinity for mountainous terrain. The grapes have a tendency to be late-ripening, and can be harvested as early as September but also are picked well into Autumn. Climate-wise, these grapes have been successful in a variety of temperature ranges worldwide and in most of the world’s premiere wine-growing regions such as in Australia, the United States, Greece, and Portugal.
Tasting Profile and Pairings
So obviously one grape variety with wines of two different names must produce a spectrum of flavors. This is indeed the case with Syrah and Shiraz, but more importantly these terms are used to distinguish Old World from New World bottles. French bottles will be names “Syrah”, while Australian wines of the same grape will be labelled “Shiraz”. Although these names originated as simply nominal differences for the same wine, they have evolved to form characters of their own and carry with them a connotation of much different flavor.
Old World Syrah is frontloaded in flavor, massive, and masculine. It is one of the deepest and boldest reds in existence, and as such has a strong tannic presence, medium acidity, and a heavy feel on the palate. Fruit is evident in this wine, but these fruit flavors are deep and dark, and balanced by non-fruit notes such as tobacco, smoke, chocolate, vanilla if oaked, allspice, and even bacon (for some!). Among the fruits that can be detected in a French Syrah are blackberry, blueberry and boysenberry. As a bold wine, Syrah pairs well with equally bold foods, and one of the best ways to do this is by having a bold dish that incorporates flavors from Syrah’s native Rhone home, such as fennel, lavender, or thyme. Obviously this deep dark red can handle well with rich, fatty meats such as a New York strip, or even barbeque spareribs. For a vegetarian twist, try a grilled veggie burger!
New World Shiraz, particularly that which is produced in Australia, is typically more syrupy and fruit forward. Make no mistake, however, this is still a rich wine! Fruit in this wine is typically ripe and jammy, such as plum, and often has a hint of pepper. Some can even detect savory flavors such as leather and dry earth in Shiraz as well. Barbeque spareribs are also a great choice to complement this wine, but try adding a bit more spice such as anise and clove.
Try This Recipe with a Bold French Syrah
12 ounces eggplant, cut into 1x2-inch wedges
12 ounces yellow squash or zucchini, cut into 1x2-inch wedges
12 ounces sweet peppers, cut into ½-inch strips
1 pint cherry tomatoes
6 cloves garlic, smashed
12 leaves fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon Espelette pepper or fresh-ground black pepper
2 cups fine-grated Parmigiano
Position rack in upper third of the oven and heat to 400˚F.
In large bowl, combine eggplant, squash, sweet peppers, cherry tomatoes, garlic, basil and thyme. Drizzle with oil, and add salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Mound in 2-quart baking dish, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Place on large rimmed baking sheet, and bake until vegetables give up some juices, about 30 minutes. Uncover and cook until vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes.
Remove pan from oven and heat broiler. Salt, to taste. Sprinkle cheese on top in thick layer. Broil until cheese is deep golden brown and crusty, 5–7 minutes. Cool at least 5 minutes before serving.