Though two different names, the grapes are indeed the same.
What’s in a name? Well, in the case of syrah/shiraz, more than you’d think.
Over time, the words have come to differentiate the grape stylistically, though those two styles are in flux today. Syrah denotes Old World in style: fragrant/savoury, high acid, high tannin, black pepper and dark floral notes. Shiraz as a name lends itself to fruitier examples of style: New World plump ripeness, soft tannins, earth, and black licorice. Nomenclature aside, this grape is late budding, very deep in colour, and high in anthocyanins, indicative of texture, longer ageing and making ready friends with oak. Syrah particularly loves granite, especially when it’s well-draining and clinging to a slope.
The grape itself is ancient. Syrah is the offspring of the varieties dureza (father) and mondeuse blanche (mother), from the Ardèche and Montpellier regions of southeastern France. DNA typing has concluded syrah originated from the Northern Rhône, though the date of first plantings is unknown.
In the year AD 77, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia about the wines of Vienne (today’s Côte-Rôtie), where famous and prized wine was made from a dark-skinned grape variety that had not existed some 50 years earlier, in Virgil's age. For centuries it has been recognized that the spiritual home of syrah in the northern Rhône are the wines of Hermitage, the hill above the town Tain-L’Hermitage. There is a little hermitage (chapel) built on the top that you can still hike up and visit today, and where the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg is reported to have settled as a hermit after his crusades. The chapel was built in honour of Saint Christopher and today is owned by the negociant Paul Jaboulet Aîné.
Syrah is one of the star grapes of the Okanagan Valley, duking it out with abernet franc for current gold podium placement. The grape is well suited to the dry desert climate and rocky, sandy soils of the South Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. You may increasingly hear people volley about the term “cool climate syrah” to differentiate the wine’s structure and freshness from the backlash against flabby, warm climate (sorry Oz) Australian shiraz of old. Today, Australia is one of the leaders for fresh, high altitude, new attitude shiraz, which just goes to show that whatever will be, will not always be. Que syrah, syrah.
Here is a supersized top 10 of recently reviewed wines that clearly shows how well the grape excels around the world, and here at home.