Que Syrah, Shiraz

When asking for a complimentary red wine to go with your meal, the sommelier will likely begin listing their Cabernets, Merlots, and Pinots as well as their corresponding blends. While you are trying to pair your varietal origins with the region of the bottle and brand, you are likely to allow the euphonious Syrah vintage float right by your ear. Indeed, the soft sounding name is somewhat at odds with this full-bodied and complex grape, and missing this wine as a compliment to your roasted lamb might be a regret.
The Syrah grape is a true representative of nature and nurture. Its flavor notes can be as varied as the regions that produce its vine, so knowing the grapes birth can be very important. This introduces the subject alluded to in the title of this article: Syrah or Shiraz? The simple truth is that they are the same grape in origin and in that original state only vary by the country in which they are produced. Because of this, across both labels, you will find the wine full-bodied with a nice pepper bite and often blackberry or dark chocolate/cocoa flavors. Outside of that basic profile, the bottles can be as different as the two primary nations that produce them: France (Syrah) and Australia (Shiraz.)
It is believed that the Syrah grape originated in South Eastern France as the offspring of the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche varieties. There are subtextual legends of origins in Iran, leading to the eponymous naming of the grape as a Shiraz, but DNA analysis pins the birth of the Syrah/Shiraz variety in the Northern Rhone Valley region. There are two top-name appellation d’origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin) for Syrah in France, the Hermitage AOC and the Côte-Rôtie AOC. Of the two, the Côte-Rôtie is the more celebrated (and can fetch a hefty price, $500 and up,) often featuring fruitier (blackberries, tart cherries) and aromatic wines. Hermitage wines are more acidic and more tannic, making certain bottlings ideal for aging.
The Shiraz of Australia is a much younger wine (dating back to an introduction in 1832.) In recent years the wine has surged in popularity, making it one of Australia’s most produced grapes varieties. Because of the vastly different climates found on the continent, Australian Shiraz is used as much as its own varietal as it is used for blending with Grenache and Viognier to add more fruit depth in the wine. A major player in the Shiraz market is the Penfolds “Grange,” which is a highly desirable (read: expensive, another $500 plus bottle) and ideal aging wine. While it is not a pure Shiraz, often containing a small blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, it is still a flagship wine to represent the depth of flavor and aromatics achieved by Australian winemakers. For my money, the Yellow Tail Shiraz and Shiraz-Grenache are excellent representatives of the grape and only for about $7 a bottle.
Aside from France and Australia, the Syrah/Shiraz grape is also produced in South Africa (Shiraz,) the U.S. (Syrah,) Argentina (Syrah,) and Chile (Syrah.) Portugal also produces Syrah as a varietal, though to a much lesser degree. However the proximity to the ocean and natural variants in geography allow for a heavy variation in profile from many other producing regions.
When choosing a Syrah or Shiraz to compliment your plate, keep in mind that the heavy pepper and bold tannic flavors will do well to offset otherwise gamey meats or poultry. Lamb with rosemary or mint spices will bring out the anise flavors and balance the pepper in an Australian Shiraz or a new Hermitage, but would likely over power the more balanced and sweet Côte-Rôtie. The Côte-Rôtie would pair well with a prime-rib or aged filet-mignon.
No matter the region, the Syrah or Shiraz is an intriguing wine. It’s depth and diversity are part of its charm and allow for the enthusiast to always be surprised and refreshed. Ask your sommelier for the Syrah/Shiraz varieties by name, and start with their recommendation. With a diverse grape, there is no wrong place to start.

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