The variety originated in southern France and made its home along the banks of the Rhone River where it is usually blended with Grenache and Mourvedre, both black grapes and also, somewhat surprisingly, with a little of the white grape Viognier.
It was the Australians who put brought the variety to public prominence. Their inexpensive and excellent wines sold as varietals quickly became popular, and whereas Shiraz was written on their labels, French wines of the time didn’t mention grape varieties, just the region where they were grown. But it’s not only inexpensive wines. Australia has the world’s oldest Shiraz vines and some vineyards are on their own roots as they are in a phylloxera free area. Such wines are greatly prized and ferociously expensive.
In California a group of winemakers wanted to move on from the northern French varieties, such as Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, that most were growing. They championed the southern French varieties and became to known as the ‘Rhone Rangers’. They struggled to capture the essence of the French wines and realised that the only thing they did differently was not making the wine with Viognier. The Californians used science to discover that by fermenting Syrah along with around 5% of white Viognier caused a chemical reaction that deepened colour and enhanced flavour.
Scientific examination has shown that Syrah/Shiraz did originate in France. Many romantic stories were told how the grape came from around the ancient Persian (now Iranian) city of Shiraz, carried in the packs of Roman legions or traders. The variety is a cross of two other, now almost vanished, varieties Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. These are natives of southern France and thus it is evident that so too is Syrah.
The popularity of this generous tangy wine has seen plantings increase all over the world with wines labelled as either Syrah or Shiraz. Winemakers often use the names to suggest the style of the wine, Syrah for a more restrained French style and Shiraz for a bigger, more alcoholic Australian style wine.
But how come the variety has two names? In the 1800’s the name was written as Scyras and by putting on a French and accent we can see how that mutated to Syrah in France, where the last letters of words are frequently not pronounced and by trying to say Scyras in an Australian accent we soon get Shiraz.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.