One of the questions most asked by customers on a Perfect Day Tour is “What’s the difference between Shiraz and Syrah?” With so many cellar doors and wineries offering one or the other, it is a topic I would like to explore, and hopefully demystify.
As both wine styles emanate from the same grape, the differences can include climate, elevation, oak regimes, alcohol content, harvesting / picking times, and even marketing trends and opportunities – to name but a few.
It is understandable that many winemakers in the cooler regions are keen to draw a distinction between the warmer climate ‘Big Aussie Shiraz’ – and their own more subtle offerings.
The first thing to be aware of is that the so called ‘Spiritual Home’ of Syrah is on the majestically high, stony and severely steep hills of the Northern Rhone, south of Lyon, France.
Traditional thoughts on the origins of Syrah are that the noble grape may have it’s origins in Syracuse, Sicily – or Ancient Persia.
According to The Oxford Companion to Wine – a more likely theory is that Syrah may in fact be indigenous to the Rhone Valley. As a direct descendant of the local Vitis allobrogica, this vine is known to have produced fine wine since Roman times.
Two of the most famous villages in the Northern Rhone for producing strapping Syrah are Hermitage, and more recently Cote Rotie. Likewise the appellation of Cornas produces long lived wine, which like all great Syrah, should not even be considered for drinking for at least 5 years after bottling. Less concentrated wines can be found in Saint Joseph. Finally, Crozes – Hermitage, at the bottom of the hill, produces the largest volume – but least concentrated wine of these five major appellations.
An important fact to remember is that in the cooler and hillier Northern Rhone, Syrah is seldom blended (with the exception of an occasional splash of Viognier). The warmer and much flatter Southern Rhone however, has an increasing amount of Syrah under vine – and it is always blended. It is usually added to Grenache and Mourvedre. The warmer Southern Rhone, with it’s traditional Cotes-du-Rhone blend, has inspired the South Australian regions of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale amongst others, to release their own version of these three blended grapes, colloquially known as G.S.M. (Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre).
It is understood that in 1832, the botanist James Busby brought Syrah cuttings from France to Sydney, New South Wales, where it soon took a liking to the warm area of the Hunter Valley. In little time it became known in here as Shiraz.
Traditionally in Australia, Shiraz has been planted in warm areas – as it requires relatively high sunlight hours to ripen fully. This has led to the typical ‘Aussie Shiraz’ being high in alcohol (14 – 16%), full bodied, often smelling and tasting of blackberry jam and strong vanilla. The Australian Shiraz model has often been matured in newer American oak barrels – adding a strong overlay of ‘Cherry Ripe’ – sweet fruit, chocolate and sometimes coconut.
In the cooler regions of Australia, and indeed New Zealand, many winemakers are leaning more towards the classical, elegant Syrah style. These wines are always matured in French oak barrels, to avoid obvious vanillin/oaky influences on the wine. The barrels may be only 30% new, with the balance being second and third use, to avoid the oak dominating the wine. The best producers are able to make medium bodied wines, with a savoury edge. The dark fruits are part of the story, but do not dominate with over ripeness or jamminess. Sometimes, particularly in cooler years (like 2017), a wonderful whiff of black, white, or green peppercorns can be detected. Some of my favorite Victorian Syrah producers include the Yarra Valley wineries of Warramunda Estate, Oakridge Wines & Giant Steps. From the Mornington Peninsula – Yabby Lake Winery make a wonderful Syrah.
One of the most fundamental advantages of cool climate Shiraz / Syrah, is that due to the slower, longer ripening period, the wines can maintain more of their natural acidity. Natural (tartaric) acid from the grapes helps makes the wines refreshing and delicious with a wide range of food. Yum.
As with most things in a complex world, there is nuance and exceptions to the rule. Many traditional cool climate producers have been making wonderful Shiraz for decades – long before Syrah was a word used in Australia. The Victorian Shirazes from Best’s – Great Western, Scotchman’s Hill – Bellarine Peninsula, Seville Estate – Yarra Valley & Knights Granite Hills – Macedon Ranges (among many others), are all long standing makers of beautiful, elegant, cool climate Shiraz.
In a nutshell – I would contend that Syrah is pretty much cool climate Shiraz. Or would it be more correct to assert that Shiraz is simply warm climate Syrah? Either way, the main differences are as follows.
Syrah Style in Australia.
Usually from cooler areas including Southern Victoria. The Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Geelong / Bellarine Peninsula produce high quality Syrah style wines. Tasmania is becoming recognized for the style as well.
Matured in French oak.
Savoury aromas, including pepper, smallgoods / charcuterie.
Usually has minimum, or no added tartaric acid.
Medium alcohol (12.5 – 14%).
Traditional Australian Shiraz Style in Australia.
Often from a warmer climate, such as South Australian – Barossa Valley, Mclaren Vale.
Matured in American Oak.
Often has added tartaric acid to balance to wine.
Aromas and flavours may include – very ripe blackberry / blackberry jam.
Sometimes strong aromas of toast and vanilla.
High in alcohol (14 – 16%).
I hope this has helps in clarifying the difference between these 2 wonderful wine styles. And by the way – you are free to enjoy both! It is not a competition, so now you know the difference, you will get even more pleasure from your Shiraz / Syrah.
Happy drinking – and don’t forget to book a Perfect Day Tour to explore our wonderful cool climate wines.
The Oxford Companion to Wine – edited by Jancis Robinson
The World Atlas of Wine – by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson