Che Syrah, Shiraz

In our recent piece about blends, we noted that the protea Red is a combination of Cabernet  Sauvignon (65 percent), Merlot (30 percent) and Shiraz (5 percent). This led to an inquiry: “Why does protea use Shiraz instead of Syrah?”

Now there’s a question that brings to mind that great line from Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”!

syrahProtea Red is indeed made with a dash of Shiraz – winemaker Dawie Botha says it gives the wine a bit of a “plummy, smoky earth character” that he likes. But here’s the thing: Shiraz is Syrah, and Syrah is Shiraz.

As the authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine states: “Shiraz, the Australian (and South African) name for the Syrah grape…”

That the words are synonyms for the same grape is pretty widely known (although clearly not universally understood) by now. What’s perhaps more interesting is the persistent question of whether any insight into the style of a particular wine can be gleaned from a winery’s decision to use one term over the other.

Shiraz has come to be identified overwhelmingly with Australia, and Australian Shirazes have gained a reputation as big and ultraripe, to the point of being almost sweet. Syrah, meanwhile, is often associated with its Rhone Valley incarnations, which in general terms tend more toward meat and smoke and earth.

This simple distinction, however, is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Syrah/Shiraz, which has enjoyed a big boom in the past twenty years. For one thing, it ignores Shiraz from South Africa, which as in the case of the 5 percent that goes into protea Red is more akin to what comes out of France. It also ignores the vast spectrum of Syrahs (and a few Shirazes) that made in California, which can range from relatively austere cool-climate versions to blowsy wines from hotter locales.

By the way, the name Shiraz was long thought to derive from a connection between the variety and Persia, but alas, no such connection exists. According to UC Davis, “The true origin of Syrah has been shown through DNA testing to be a cross between two French varieties, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.” The scientists say that Shiraz, a large city in what is now Iran, thus joins “previous myths of origin” for the grape that include Roman importation into Gaul; Syracuse (Sicily); and Syrah Island, Greece. The Oxford Companion to Wine suggests the Aussie term for the variety is linked to the name it had in 1832 – Scyras – when it was brought to  he country by James Busby.

Syrah/Shiraz image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a comment