Wine: What’s the difference between Shiraz and Syrah?

Jacques Lurton makes terrific Syrah wine on Kangaroo Island.
Jacques Lurton makes terrific Syrah wine on Kangaroo Island.
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Shiraz and Syrah may be basically the same grape, but their personalties differ, writes Christine Austin.

Who would have thought that wine drinkers in the UK were so set in their ways? “Normally we call this wine Syrah, but we are experimenting with putting Shiraz on the label for the latest shipment to the UK,” said David Roper, winemaker at Villa Maria in New Zealand. “The wine is exactly the same as before but we feel that the UK is more used to the name Shiraz.” This was just one of the snippets of news I picked up during my recent trip to New Zealand, of which more in this column in a few weeks, but his comment did make me think about this almost universal grape with two names.

There is absolutely no difference between Shiraz and Syrah grape varieties.

There is absolutely no difference between Shiraz and Syrah grape varieties.

There is absolutely no difference between Shiraz and Syrah grape varieties. It is the same as in the song – “to-may-to” and “to-mah-to” – the difference is all in pronunciation. While there are differences between wines, there is nothing in the grapes themselves that distinguishes between an Australian Shiraz and a New Zealand Syrah. The only variables that create different tastes are the usual factors of location, climate, soil and winemaking.

Generally you will find the Syrah grape called Shiraz in Australia while the rest of the world calls it Syrah, but because of the style of Shiraz versus Syrah, there is some crossover of the names depending on the taste of the wine.

I like to think of this grape as two distinct personalities. While Shiraz is the chap you might find leaning up against a bar in the local pub, somewhat loud, brash and full of character, you will find Syrah dining in a restaurant, still with bags of personality, but he takes some time to get to know. Winemakers around the world decide whether their wine is the guy in the bar or the one in the restaurant depending on the style of the wine they have made. I like both, depending on my mood and the occasion.

The whole origin of the Shiraz/Syrah grape has taken some time to unravel. At one time it was thought to be connected to the city of Shiraz in Iran, or even Syracuse in Sicily, but now it has been traced to a cross between two French grapes, Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza, with Pinot as one of its great-grandparents and Viognier as a close relative.

It settled into the Rhône valley, becoming the only red grape grown in the Northern Rhône, and from there it has spread around the world, particularly to Australia. At some point it has been known as Scyras, Syrah or Hermitage but eventually the name has become Shiraz, generally pronounced by most Australian winemakers as a mumbled Shi–rah.

Syrah vines were probably taken out to Australia in the mid 1800s and it happily put its roots down and the grapes were made into reds and fortified wines. Despite a programme to uproot old, less productive Syrah vines in the 1980s, there are still some pockets of vines planted a century or more ago. Langmeil Winery in the Barossa Valley reckons that it has the oldest, with a small patch of gnarled, twisted vines still producing grapes at around 170 years old.

Syrah has spread to other parts of the world, particularly South Africa, Chile, Argentina and Washington State but most places that are warm enough will try planting this rich-tasting, flavourful grape. The flavours of Shiraz and Syrah vary according to the place it comes from and the price you pay. Here are some of my favourites.

The Astronomer Shiraz 2015, De Bortoli, Australia, Majestic, £6.99, down to £5.99 on a mix-six deal: A definite Shiraz wine with masses of dark red fruits, sprinkled with white pepper and a rich, long finish. Big enough to line up against sausages and burgers.

Porcupine Ridge Syrah 2015, South Africa, Waitrose, £7.99: You can buy this wine with Shiraz on the label at Sainsbury’s and as far as I can tell it is exactly the same wine. Both are robust and full of bramble and black cherry fruit, layered with spice and black pepper.

Syrah Terre di Sicilia, Passo del Tempio 2015, Italy, Field & Fawcett, £8.30: Made by two New Zealand winemakers, who work two harvests a year in both the Northern and Southern hemisphere, this is a vibrant, lively wine, full of black fruit with structuring tannins and a long, food-friendly finish.

De Morgenzon DMZ Syrah 2013, Stellenbosch, South Africa, Halifax Wine Co, £10.50: A top-notch South African estate that is definitely hitting above its price point. This is definitely Syrah in style with floral notes on the aroma, ripe red plum fruit and white pepper, dusted with cinnamon and clove on the finish.

Waitrose Reserve Shiraz, St Hallett 2015, Barossa Valley, Australia, £11.99: Made by the renowned St Hallett winery in conjunction with Waitrose, this is a classic, big-hearted Shiraz, packed with ripe red fruits, layered with spice and chocolate. Big enough to partner a steak, preferably when it comes straight off the barbecue.

The Islander Kangaroo Island Shiraz 2015, Australia, Marks & Spencer, £13: From the beautiful, pristine, somewhat blowy Kangaroo Island, just off the coast of South Australia, this is made by French winemaker Jacques Lurton, who has gained experience in vineyards around the world. The wine is full of soft, supple fruit with light elegant tannins, dusted with gentle spice. It declares as a Shiraz, but tastes more like a Syrah.

Quarter Acre Syrah, 2014, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, Marks & Spencer, £16: Winemaker Rod McDonald has decided to call this wine Syrah and I can understand why. It is just 13 per cent alcohol, and while it is packed with peppery spice, the red fruit is almost lightweight and juicy. A perfect wine to go with roast duck or lamb.

Shaw and Smith Shiraz 2013, Adelaide Hills, Australia, Majestic, £30, down to £27 on a mix-six deal: An Australian Shiraz that really tastes like a European Syrah. It comes from the cool-climate region of Adelaide Hills and it has generous blackberry and cherry fruit, with clear freshness on the finish and a sprinkling of black pepper.