As if ordering and tasting wine at your favorite restaurant isn’t anxiety-provoking enough, many wine drinkers still haven’t the slightest idea what the difference is between Shiraz and Syrah.
Let me tell you: They both are made from the same grape. The Syrah grape.
If all the past confusion about your favorite red wine has now got you into a heated tizzy, you can set your blame on James Bubsy, a young British Viniculturist who settled in New South Wales, Australia, in the early 1830’s. With him, he brought vines of the Syrah plant from France, intent on planting them in the fertile soil of the land down under.
In Busby’s book, Journal of a Recent Visit to the Principal Vineyards of Spain and France,” published in 1833, he references the book “Oenologie Francaise,” stating, “… The name of this grape is spelt Scyras; and it is stated that, according to the tradition of the neighbourhood, the plant was originally brought from Shiraz in Persia, by one of the hermits of the mountain.”
That the Syrah grape was brought to France from Persia, however, is just legend.
In 1999, when Dr. Carole Meredith, head of Viniculture and Enology at The University of California, Davis, performed DNA testing on the Syrah grape, she proved that it is actually a genetic mix of two different grape varieties: Dureza, a dark-skinned grape, and the Mondeuse Blanche, a white-skinned grape, both hailing from the Northern Rhone Valley in the southeast of France. They found no genetic linkage to Persia.
Syrah was becoming the dominating grape variety in Australia, and it wasn’t long before it became referred to as its name of supposed historical origin, based on the books Busby was publishing in Australia at the time regarding viniculture and winemaking. One likely reason was to differentiate it from the French wines which the grape bears its original geography but differs greatly concerning flavor and body when grown in the Southern Hemisphere.
A major part of this difference is due to Australia’s warm climate. Shiraz wines give way to intensely deep, bold, fruity flavors, quite different from the traditional French Syrah wines which have a much drier and lighter body. This designation has come in handy since Syrah is now grown all over the world. You might find a California winery that produces Syrah and Shiraz. Both grapes are grown and treated differently to express the flavors of the traditional French Syrahs and the more modern Australian styles.
Now, you may be wondering, “What the heck, then, is Petite Sirah?”
Do the Aussies call it “Petite Shiraz?” Why isn’t it called Syrah?
The creator of what those outside of France call Petite Sirah, was a French Nurseryman named Dr. Francoise Durif, who was trying to breed Syrah grapes with the Peloursin variety to create a grape that would be resistant to mildew. What was born was a grape he named after himself: The Durif grape.
While this grape is hardly grown anymore in France, it’s grown frequently in Canada, The United States, and Australia. It become known as Petite Sirah after a Californian vintner in the late 1800’s renamed it after noticing it was a much less vigorous plant than its relatives. Ironically, Petite Sirah tends to be even bolder and more full bodied than Syrah or Shiraz.
Now that you’re armed with the understanding of the difference between Shiraz and Syrah, I think it’s time to head to the local wine shop to strut your expertise!