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Que Sera, Syrah...Shiraz?

Comparing Syrah (Rhone wines use a lot of Syrah in the blend) and Shiraz Labels
Comparing Syrah (Rhone wines use a lot of Syrah in the blend) and Shiraz Labels

by Mike Supple
published: 08 Jan 2009
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For those of you with short attention spans, I'll make this really easy: for all intents and purposes, there is NO difference between Syrah and Shiraz - it's the same grape.

The Syrah grape is rapidly becoming the next big international varietal (with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot of course leading the way for reds). Though grown in just about every major wine producing country, Syrah is arguably at its best form in the South of France where it is planted extensively (the most famous ones coming from the Northern Rhone). Depending on the region and style, French Syrahs can range from lighter bodied quaffers for just a few dollars up to heavy, meaty, brooding tannic bad boys that need decades in a cellar to show their true colors (and require a second mortgage to buy a case).

Common characteristics of Syrah wine are that it is generally full bodied with smoky, meaty and gamy characteristics notes along with raspberry and blueberry fruits, and a spicy white pepper kick. Of course, any one Syrah could exhibit none of these or all of these and more - this is where the vineyard site and wine making comes in to play.

The term Shiraz comes from Australia. Genetically the grapes are the same, but the style of wines produced in Australia is often quite different from those produced in the South of France. While the French Syrahs tend to bring out the smoke, mineral, meat and earth qualities of the grape, Australian Shiraz is best known for being bold, in your face, jammy and hedonistic. Some of the highest alcohol table wines produced in the world are Australian Shiraz (for example, the expensive 2006 Two Hands Ares Shiraz which comes in at a whopping 16.0% ABV on the label, and they're allowed at least 1% margin of error). Compare this to your standard Rhone, which averages 13.5% - 14%. Doesn't seem like too huge a difference until you have a bottle before dinner: operating a grill is suddenly much more complicated.

Of course more alcohol isn't always bad, as long as the wine is built to handle it. You never really want to taste the alcohol in a wine, so as long as there is enough fruit, oak, tannin and acid to pull everything together then it's game on.

The rest of the world seems to adopt whichever term the winery feels best describes the style of its wines. Those who wish to present their wines as restrained, more elegant and aim to truly deliver a sense of the place where the grapes are grown tend to call their wines Syrah, while those who prefer the abundant fruit and power go with Shiraz. Nobody monitors this, and I've had more than one Syrah that will put hair on your chest, and a handful of Shirazes with beautiful understated balance.

Which brings me back full circle to my first point: Syrah and Shiraz are the same thing. Experiment, try several (restaurants are great for this with drinks by the glass [click here for Ask Mike Episode 2 - Attack of the Fancy Restaurant]) and see what style does it for you.

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