Culinary Arts

Learn About Syrah and Shiraz: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Tasting Notes

Written by MasterClass

Jan 25, 2019 • 4 min read

One of the best known and loved wines in the world, syrah is also one of the most confusing. From its name—syrah, sirah, shiraz—to its origins, syrah can seem like a mystery to novice wine drinkers.

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What Is Syrah?

Syrah is an international red grape variety used to make high-quality wine. Though it originated in southern France from the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche grapes, syrah now grows around the world, from Chile to South Africa, Argentina, and Washington State.

Syrah is the sixth-most grown grape in the world, with vines covering nearly 500,000 acres.

What Are Qualities of the Syrah Grape?

Besides its deep red hue, syrah has several other distinct qualities:

  • Syrah grapes are small and range from round to a bit egg-shaped.
  • The grape is sturdy, but is susceptible to coulure, a weather-related hazard which causes shattering after flowering. It is also vulnerable to attacks from mildew and oidium.
  • The grapes have a short ripening period, so picking syrah is a delicate process requiring strong human oversight and know-how.
  • The tannins in the skin of the syrah grapes allow it to age well in the bottle, for up to many decades
  • Syrah grapes are picked at peak maturity, so the wine doesn’t necessarily need to age for decades to get the full body and flavor. Most syrah wines are ready to drink after only a few years.

What Kind of Climate Is Best For the Syrah Grape?

Syrah prefers dry climates and soils that permit deep root penetration (hence its popularity in Australia). It’s very sensitive to frost, so syrah is best at home between 60° and 68° F. The main danger to syrah, however, is over-cropping.

What Are the Characteristics of Syrah Wine?

When processed, syrah becomes one of the darkest red wines available, with a smooth palate and pleasant mouthfeel.

Full body. Syrah is known for being dense and full-bodied, heavy and powerful but still smooth and drinkable.

Dark color. Syrah is dark to the point of being purple.

Balanced blends. For its ability to combine well with other grapes, enhancing both, syrah is known as a “workhorse grape” or a “chameleon grape.” The dark and heavy palate lends itself well to balance and rounding out with the following grapes:

  • Grenache
  • Mourvèdre
  • Carignan
  • Cinsaut
  • Bordeaux
  • Viognier

Deep flavors. The syrah flavor profile is primarily characterized as:

  • Meaty
  • Black pepper
  • Dark fruit
  • Violets
  • Blackberry
  • Blueberry
  • Boysenberry
  • Licorice
  • Chocolate
  • Herbs
  • Olives
a map showing the northern rhone where they grow syrah

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History of Syrah

Syrah wines have their origins in France and the grapes can still be found growing throughout the Rhône wine region. The Northern Rhône region, in particular, lays claim to birthing syrah (DNA analyses confirm the claim).

Some of the most famous and historic Syrah wines come from these other appellations in the Northern Rhône:

  • Côte-Rôtie
  • Hermitage
  • Cornas
  • Saint-Joseph

Wines in these locations are usually made with 100% syrah grapes. They often follow the European tradition of being labeled where they were made rather than the type of grapes used. Moving South in the Rhône, to places like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, syrah is more often blended with other grapes like cabernet sauvignon.

What Is the Difference Between Old World and New World Syrahs?

For many years, syrah was produced only in Europe—France, first and foremost, but also Greece, Italy, and Spain. When European explorers like Christopher Columbus searched for new lands, they referred to what they found as the ‘New World,’ despite the regions often being inhabited by indigenous peoples. In wine culture, this nomenclature continues, with European wines being classified as Old World and those in America, Australia, South America and Africa known as New World wines. What’s the difference?

Old World syrahs from Italy and France are more acidic and feature earthy tones and herbaceous aromas. New World syrahs are fruit-forward with hints of spice.

Are Syrah and Shiraz the Same Thing?

Shiraz is a synonym for syrah (or sirah)—both words refer to the same type of grape, as well as the red wine produced by that grape. Syrah is a French word, but when the grape was transported to Australia—where it’s the most popular red wine grape grown—it was given the name of shiraz.

Over time and thanks to Australian and American terroir, shiraz has taken on a slight difference from syrah. Winemakers opt for one name or another to signify the style of their wine. Generally speaking, a producer selects shiraz to denote that their wine is a little more rich, lush, ripe, and fruity than the traditional French syrah, which is a bit lighter on the fruit factor.

What’s the Difference Between Syrah and Petite Sirah?

Although the names overlap, petite syrah and syrah are two completely distinct grape varieties. Petite syrah is a cross between syrah and peloursin, a third grape variety. Petite syrah grows in Australia, California, and France, and is also popular in the United States. Petite syrah is a small grape, but it produces a rich, thick flavor that’s described as inky.

Which Countries Make the Best Syrah?

The world’s top syrahs come from:

  • France: Côtes du Rhône: Cornas, Hermitage, St. Joseph, Côte-Rôtie
  • Australia: Barossa, McLaren Vale, Limestone Coast
  • United States: Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Napa, Sonoma, Columbia Valley (WA)
  • South Africa: Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek

What Pairs Well With Syrah?

Because of its strength in character, syrah complement meat particularly well. Recommendations for pairings include:

How to Start Drinking Syrah

There’s a lot of Syrah out there, and it’s worth picking up some of the best to begin your tasting journey. Here are some first-rate Syrah brands to enjoy:

  • France: Delas, Domaine de Verquière, E. Guigal, Jaboulet, Jean-Luc Colombo, Mason Nicolas
  • United States: Bonny Doon, Charles Smith, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue, J. Lohr, Klinker Brick, Michael David, Red Diamond, Shafer Vineyards, Tablas Creek, Qupe
  • Chile: Falernia, Merino