“What’s in a name?” When it comes to Shiraz/Syrah grapes, it’s worth exploring. There have been questions over the years as to whether these grapes are the same, and the simple answer is: Yes, they are. So why do they go by different names? The grapes are called by a certain name when they are grown in a certain place. When grown in Australia and in selected corners of the New World, they go by Shiraz. The grape is the cornerstone of Australian viticulture — by far the most planted in all of Australia. When grown in the Rhone and in other specific locales, the grapes go by the name Syrah.
Though the two are genetically identical, there are definite differences in style between the two in terms of winemaking — differences that are pronounced enough to separate them into their own distinct varieties.
The term Shiraz is also a bit older, having its roots in New World winemaking. It has a rich and proud wine making heritage and is known for its bright, pleasant fruity flavours. Wine tasting enthusiasts often report flavours like blueberry, black cherry, and black currant along with distinct secondary notes, like chocolate, black pepper, and spice. Together, all the flavours create a full-bodied texture that is signature to the type.
When looking at wines made between the 1990s and early 2000s, many Australian Shiraz varieties were characterized by very ripe, highly extracted wines that captured the attention of wine critics all over the world. Some of those critics heralded the style of the wines, directing attention to their bold, rich flavours. Others criticized the lack of subtlety in those flavours.
Even amid those sometimes-harsh criticisms, wines from Shiraz grapes won over many consumers, and the Australian Shiraz varieties flourished. Numerous expressions of the Shiraz style were being exported around the world to enthusiastic wine connoisseurs with a particular appreciation for the bold and bright nature of the wines.
There was, however, a noticeable shift in the way many varieties of Australian Shiraz were made between 2000 and 2010. Cool-climate grapes began to dominate, and the differences in them actually gave birth to a whole new generation of wines. Slowly, Australian Shiraz was inching toward the elegant, spicy Syrah styles of the Northern Rhone.
Both Syrah and Shiraz are often blended with Mourvèdre and Grenache, creating what has come to be known as GSM. GSM features the rich chocolate cassis of Australian Shiraz with the addition of the sweet richness of the Grenache and the almost gamey and very earthy power of the Mourvedre. Some consider the resulting vintages as opulent in their presentation and their interaction with the palate.
Unique and Popular Blends
An interesting use of Shiraz that is unique to Australian applications is blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon, which was unheard-of in Old World winemaking. Today, however, the blend has gained so much popularity it now represents a considerable proportion of the wine blends coming out of Australia. Another popular Shiraz blend emulates the wines of the Côte-Rôtie with the addition of small amounts of Viognier to the wines. Australian expressions of Shiraz-Viognier have gained a respectable international reputation with some of the best expressions fetching triple-digit prices.
As for the Syrah name, purist wine enthusiasts know it when they taste it, but many winemakers outside Australia have now adopted the Shiraz moniker, even in areas that used to use Syrah. The Shiraz name is common throughout South Africa and in North and South America. You can find wines marketed under either name in Israel, with very subtle, almost undetectable differences between the two in many cases.