An Ode to Syrah

Syrah, Northern Rhône Syrah, Australian Shiraz

Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is one of the world’s classic winemaking grape varieties. Why do I love Syrah? And why is it so damn delicious? First, and foremost, Syrah is an incredibly versatile grape. You’ll find its wines in a full range of style, from dry, full-bodied red wines to sweet sparkling wine. Whether you are drinking Hermitage Syrah or Barossa Valley Shiraz, there is so much to love. Second, in my experience Syrah is often a much more interesting match for big meaty-earthy dishes than Cabernet Sauvignon. Lastly, in terms of acreage, Syrah is amongst the world’s most planted grape varieties. Why? Because this grape can adapt to a variety of different growing conditions and do it well.


So where does Syrah come from? The delectable grape’s origin is still disputed. However, many experts agree the variety started popping up in 20AD. Moreover, writings from Pliny the Elder specifically mention a grape called “Scyra” presumed to be the same varietal. Syrah is a crossing of two nearly extinct grape varieties, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanc. Plus, some scientists still believe the city of Shiraz in Iran is the grape’s ancestral home. However, genetics testing implies the grape originates in France’s Northern Rhône. In fact, Syrah’s genetic parent, Dureza, proves to be native to the Northern Rhone region. While there are numerous stories which seemingly justice Persian origins, most lack concrete historical evidence. 

History & Classic Production Regions

Whether it’s truly the historical home of the Syrah grape or not, the Rhone region of France undoubtedly put the grape on the international map. Syrah is often bottled as a single varietal in the Northern Rhone. It also makes an appearance as the dominant varietal in blends. Whereas in the South it is traditionally blended with a higher percentage of Grenache.  

Some of the most famous singular vineyards in the Northern Rhone grow in Hermitage. The vineyards were named for a famous knight, Gaspard de Stérimberg. He took up residence and planted the first vineyards in 1224. Gaspard committed himself to the life of a Hermit after he grew tired of fighting in the Crusades, hence the name.

Syrah from Hermitage is particularly long lived and usually bottled as a single varietal wine. Although the regional laws allow up to 10% Marsanne and Rousanne within the blend.  The wines of Hermitage are austere in their youth with soft notes of tart red fruit. Black pepper, meat, and earth flavors dominate these wines. Additionally, the region’s notable producers are J.L. Chave, Delas and Jaboulet.

Best AOC’s for Syrah

Hermitage is arguably the most famous region of the Northern Rhone next to Côte-Rôtie. The wines of Côte-Rôtie, or “The Roasted Slope,” are traditionally blended with aromatic Viognier. The light and lively floral tones of Viognier give lift to heavy Syrah, creating a unique, complex, seductive and aromatic profile.  The wines of Jamet, Guigal, Gangloff, Rene Rostaing and Yves Cuilleron are the some of the most celebrated in the region.

Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie take the spotlight and have the price tag to match. Yet the wines from the neighboring towns of Cornas, St, Joseph, and Crozes-Hermitage are no less formidable. Wines of Cornas, tend to be dense and serious and are by law 100% Syrah. Similar to Hermitage, the appellations of St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage allow the addition of Marsanne and Roussanne.

Across the board the wines of Northern Rhone are savory, herbal, meaty, and earthy, with a finish of black pepper and spice.  On the palate, acid, alcohol and an angular tannic structure strike a harmonious balance with acidity. The piquant acidity of the grape cuts through the fat of even the  richest A5 Waygu beef. While the earthy tones also pair perfectly with game meats, such as quail and deer.

Australian Shiraz

Syrah flourishes in many other regions of the world with the wines of Australia and the USA being both the most commercially available and distinct.  Interestingly enough Syrah, or Shiraz as the Aussies call it, was brought to Australia by James Busby in 1831. This variety remained the most important grape in Australian viticulture. Unaffected by the hazardous Phylloxera root louse, Australia also boasts the world’s oldest, own-rooted Shiraz vines planted in 1843. You’ll find these old vines in the Langmeil, “Freedom” Vineyards in Barossa Valley.  

Best Regions for Shiraz

Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley and McLarenvale in South Australia also boast rich and concentrated Shiraz. The classic styles of Heathcoate, and Bendigo in Victoria are worth seeking out as well. Internationally recognized producers include Henschke in Eden Valley, d’Arenberg in McLarenvale, and Penfold’s. While smaller wineries, such as Gargariste and Vanguardist, appeal to a new generation of quality conscious wine drinkers.

Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria are also turning out noteworthy Shiraz from a slightly cooler climate. Some of these wines are easy drinking and fruit forward. However, the best are reminiscent of a quality Cornas. For some, quality winemaking isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Australian wine. On the other hand, it’s reputation for mass production wines likeYellow Tail is misleading. But the last decade brought a changing of the guard. With easier international travel and more access to the global wine market, Australia has seen an influx of young, well-traveled winemakers focused on quality.

Due to the overall climate, the wines of Australia tend to be more opulent than their French wine counterparts. Yet neither are lacking in intensity. Australian Shiraz bursts with black fruits, cherry cordial, cassis, chocolate, eucalyptus, black pepper, and coconut. The structured palate has higher alcohol, elevated acid, and velvety tannins.  Classic food pairings include barbque, roast lamb, hearty oxtail stews, and even blue cheese!

Syrah in the USA and Beyond

Syrah was brought to the USA in the 1970’s. It flourished first on the Central Coast before quickly spreading to Northern California and Washington. The USA boasts Syrah in a variety of styles with the grape quickly becoming an international hit. A Syrah from Powerline Estate in Walla Walla Valley even landed at No. 2 on Wine Spectator’s 2017 Top 100.  Memorable Syrah producers in California include Tablas Creek, Bonny Doon, Qupe, Pax/ Wind Gap, Saxom, and Red Car. In Washington State, Cayuse, Memaloose and Gramercy Cellars are worth a look. 

Countries like South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile are making great strides with Syrah. Thus, further providing evidence of this grapes rise to prominence on the global wine market. Reyneke in South Africa and Craggy Range’s Gimblet Gravels from New Zealand are excellent and unique examples.

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