Culinary Arts

Learn About Syrah Wine: Grapes, Regions, 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 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.

Are Syrah and Shiraz the Same Thing?

Both syrah and shiraz refer to the same type of grape, as well as the red wine produced by that grape. When the syrah grape was introduced by France to Australia, where it became the most popular red wine grape, its name gradually changed to shiraz. (Note that historically, the name refers to a completely different wine produced around the city of Shiraz in Persia, or modern-day Iran.)

Over time, thanks to terroir, American and Australian shiraz have taken on a slight difference from syrah, and winemakers opt for one name or another to signify the style of their wine.

Generally speaking, wineries use shiraz to suggest 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 Does Syrah Taste Like?

Syrah wines have distinctive flavor, body, and color.

  • Full body. Syrah is known for being dense and full-bodied, heavy and powerful but still smooth and drinkable.
  • Dark color. When processed, syrah becomes one of the darkest red wines available, almost to the point of being purple.
  • Deep flavors. The syrah flavor profile is primarily characterized as: meaty with black pepper, dark fruit, violets and notes of blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, licorice, chocolate, herbs, and olives.

What Is the Origin of Syrah Wine?

Syrah wines have their origins in France and the grapes can still be found growing throughout the Rhône valley. DNA analyses confirm that the Northern Rhône region in particular lays claim to birthing syrah. Some of the most famous Syrah wines come from these appellations in the Northern Rhône:

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

While wines in these locations are usually made with 100% syrah grapes, they often follow the European tradition of being labeled according to where they were made, rather than the type of grapes used. In Southern Rhône areas like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, syrah is often blended with other grapes, like cabernet sauvignon.

a map showing the northern rhone where they grow syrah

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What Are the Characteristics of Syrah Grapes?

Aside from its deep red hue, the syrah grape 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 decades. However, 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.
  • Syrah grapes prefer dry climates and soils that permit deep root penetration (hence their popularity in Australia). The syrah grape is very sensitive to frost and over-cropping.
  • Syrah is known as a “workhorse grape” or a “chameleon grape” for its ability to combine well with other grapes, including Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsaut, Bordeaux, and Viognier.

What’s the Difference Between Old World Syrah and New World Syrah?

For many years, syrah was produced only in Europe, primarily in France (but also Greece, Italy, and Spain). After European explorers like Christopher Columbus discovered the so-called “New World,” syrah production spread to the Americas, along with Australia and Africa. Today, syrahs produced in these areas are known as new world syrahs.

Due to regional differences in terroir, old world syrahs from Italy and France are more acidic, and feature earthy tones and herbaceous aromas. New World syrahs, meanwhile, tend to be fruit-forward with hints of spice.

What’s the Difference Between Syrah and Petite Sirah?

Although the names are similar, petite syrah and syrah are two completely distinct grape varietals.

  • Petite syrah is a cross between syrah and peloursin grapes. 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 syrah and shiraz wines come from the following wine regions:

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

What Foods Pair Best With Syrah?

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

Want to Learn More About Wine?

Whether you’re just starting to appreciate the difference between a pinot gris and pinot grigio or you’re an expert at wine pairings, the fine art of wine appreciation requires extensive knowledge and a keen interest in how wine is made. No one knows this better than James Suckling, who has tasted more than 200,000 wines over the past 40 years. In James Suckling’s MasterClass on wine appreciation, one of the world’s most prominent wine critics reveals the best ways to choose, order, and pair wines with confidence.

Want to learn more about the culinary arts? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master chefs and wine critics, including James Suckling, Chef Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, Massimo Bottura, and more.

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