Que Syrah, Shiraz
Old world and new world choices from around the world.
Syrah is my favorite grape and one that I want to share. The best way to do that is to take you on a quick journey around the world exploring the many different ways the grape is used in wine. We’ll focus on France and Australia, the biggest producers and best examples of Old World and New World versions of the wine.
Due to climate, soil, natural influences, viticulture practices and winemaking style, syrah, like many other grapes, can produce notably different wines when grown in different countries or regions—another reason for our world tour.
Yet, there are important similarities among syrah grapes and wines despite the conditions for production. For example, one grape-growing nugget is “Syrah likes a view.” That’s because syrah grapes grow best planted at the top of hills where there’s less soil, yielding fewer grapes but with more concentrated flavor.
Deeper in color than most other grapes, syrah has small, thick-skinned, dark, almost black berries. In fact, when held up to the light, it’s hard to see through the wine. Syrah is also notable for high anti¬oxidant levels, dark fruit flavors, medium+ tannins and a front-loaded blast of flavor that tapers off to a spicy, pep¬pery finish. With bottle aging, notes of leather and truffle develop. Most syrah can age for five to ten years, though some well-made examples will easily age for two decades.
Syrah grapes are made into many different types of wine in addition to its namesake, including blends, rosés, fortified wines and sparkling wines.
Old World Overview
In general, Old World syrah from France, Spain and Italy has higher acidity and tannin levels (producing a mouth-drying feel) and more earthy, herbaceous, smoky and savory notes. These wines tend to be lower in alcohol and more elegant in style.
I would pair these styles with roasted or braised chicken, veal and beef, stews and cassoulet. Try using roasted peppers or herbs de Provence with your dishes. Hummus, olive tapenade and harder, earthier cheeses, such as Gouda and smoked Gruyère, work well with the flavors in the wine.
In Italy, you can find single-varietal examples of syrah with berry and olive notes from Cortona DOC and Syrah Tarantino IGT (DOC and IGT are regional designations with quality standards) as well as blends with sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon from Tuscany and with Nero d’Avola from Sicily. In Spain, syrah is often blended with tempranillo, garnacha or monastrell into juicy wines.
But the real Old World star of syrah is France, where over half the syrah grapes are grown.
Syrahs from France
Syrah is grown throughout the Rhône valley in southeast France, where it has grown since at least Roman times. In the southern Rhône valley, syrah is a key ingredient in two different regional blends with grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, the inexpensive and easy-drinking Côtes-du-Rhône wines, and the powerful and pres¬tigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. The crus of Lirac, Vinsobres, Rasteau, Gigondas and Vacqueyras produce excellent blended wines from syrah that are fun to explore, too.
In the northern part of the Rhône valley, syrah is grown on steep terraces along the Rhône River and is used to make serious, single-varietal wines that are the ultimate Old World expression of the grape. Good examples can easily age for as long as a Bordeaux. The wines made there vary greatly due to differences in soil type, quality, slope, climate, sunlight and elevation, but all are elegant and very complex with sun-ripened black fruit flavors and distinctive olive and black pepper notes.
Wines from Côte-Rôtie, the “roasted slope” in the far north of the Rhône valley, are richly fruity and perfumed due to the intense sun the grapes receive on the steep, southeast-facing vineyards. An even more perfumed character can result from adding up to 5% viognier in the blend.
Farther south, in Saint-Joseph, the vineyards are east-oriented, resulting in less sunshine and ripening of the grapes. These wines are lighter and faster maturing.
In Hermitage the slopes are south-facing, and the heat-retaining granite soils help encourage ripening. The source of some of the highest priced syrahs, Hermitage wines are very dark and tannic with structure, minerality and superb concentration of flavors, including blackberry bramble and smoked meat.
Crozes-Hermitage, encompassing the vineyards surrounding Her¬mitage, is the largest appellation in northern Rhône, producing wines that are softer than those from Hermitage, due to richer soils, and have lots of spice. Nearby Cornas has south-facing vineyards on granite soils and produces elegant, near-black, tannic wines that challenge Hermitage in intensity.
New World Wines
In contrast, New World syrah from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, South America and South Africa tends to be char¬acterized by jammier fruit and more spice, licorice, chocolate and black pepper notes. These wines are usually higher in alcohol, more fruit-forward, and less tannic.
I pair these styles with smoked sausage, barbecue ribs, grilled steaks, hamburgers or game meats. Marinate meats with anise and clove to bring out those spices, or add caramelized onions to accent the bold, sweet notes in the wine. Softer, stinkier cheeses—such as Abbaye de Belloc, Port Salut and blue cheeses—combat tannins and match the bold flavors of the wine.
Syrah Becomes Shiraz
Syrah is Australia’s most planted grape variety, and Australia is the second largest producer behind France. Here the bottles are labeled shiraz (think pinot gris and pinot grigio), further delineating the differ¬ence in style.
These New World wines are rich and potent with distinct dark choc¬olate notes in addition to black pepper, spice and eucalyptus. The majority of shiraz production is in the state of South Australia, which produces most of the country’s wine and has some of its oldest vines, untouched by the phylloxera out¬break that affected vineyards in most of the world. The hot and dry climate produces fully ripe grapes and dense, bold wines.
The Barossa Valley is considered king for excellent Australian shiraz, though McLaren Vale produces fantastic, powerful examples as well. In the cooler regions, such as Hunter Valley and Margaret River, shiraz is made into medium-body, earthy and still age-worthy wines that lean more towards black pepper.
Shiraz is also frequently blended in a Côtes-du-Rhône style with grenache and mourvèdre—for what are known colloquially as GSM blends of the three grapes—or with cabernet sauvignon. Recently, some producers, following in the footsteps of their Côte- Rôtie counterparts, have been adding up to 4% viognier to their shiraz wines to add apricot notes and a brighter, more floral finish.
In addition to the two major sources, New Zealand produces wonderfully concentrated single-varietal and Bordeaux-style blends with rich fruit that balances the tannins. In the United States, in warm regions like Napa, the grape is often blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot or Rhône varieties, while in mountainous or cooler regions, like Washington, powerful varietal wines are produced.
South American syrah is very bold and fruity with riper black cherry and blueberry fruit and is sometimes blended with cabernet sauvignon or petit verdot. In South Africa, where the wine is also generally known as shiraz, the grape produces smooth, ripe, fruity wines with spicy flavors and oaky notes of vanilla and cinnamon.
Syrah is also grown in Switzerland, Portugal, Morocco, Bulgaria and Turkey, although wines from these countries are harder to find in stores. But do keep an eye out for these unique wines!
With your newfound knowledge of syrah styles, impress your friends by hosting a syrah tasting! Find examples from as many regions as you can, contrasting Old World and New World wines. See how many differences you can discern, and find a favorite.
I hope you fall in love with this bold, fun and versatile grape, too!
Kayleigh Thompson has worked in the wine industry for over seven years and has earned the Certified Specialist of Wine certification from the Society of Wine Educators. She works as a Wine Specialist at the Fine Wine & Good Spirits Premium Collection store in King of Prussia, on DeKalb Pike. More at FineWineAndGoodSpirits.com.