First of all, this is the same grape – a dark grape with thick skin that needs a lot of heat to ripen. It just has a different name, depending on where the grape is grown, but because of the impact of the land, weather, altitude, soil & winemaking style of where the grape is grown, the use of Syrah or Shiraz has become indicative of the style of wine you will get.
It’s unclear where the grape originates, but it was first cultivated in France’s Rhône Valley. Red wines from the Northern Rhône (Hermitage, Côtes Rôtie, St. Joseph & more) are mainly (up to 100%) Syrah (with up to 5% Viognier “to make things more interesting” Jens says). They tend to be higher-end, require aging (due to the level of tannins) and are known for flavors of dark fruit, black olives and a notable gaminess. We don’t carry many Northern Rhône wines are they tend to be pricy and not easily accessible, but if you get the urge to try them out, they are wonderful, lesser-known examples French Syrah.
The vineyards of E. Guigal, Côte-Rôtie, Northern Rhône
Reds from the Southern Rhône also have Syrah, but as a blend of Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre/Cinsault. These wines are more accessible, a little juicier but still with a lovely, soft earthy spiciness, building from a nice, $12 straight-forward, bottle of Côtes du Rhône to a big, fuller-bodied, old world style Chateauneuf, which is full of liquorice, herbs, and meaty flavors. Jens said that some of the old Chateauneuf houses are starting to produce a New World style which is super fruity, super oaky … and a big disappointment if you’re a traditionalist and like wines to taste like where they’re from.
Vines growing next to rosemary (Baumes-de-Venise, Southern Rhône)
Australian Shiraz is a big boy due to the hotter climate of the regions where it is grown, most famously the Barossa Valley (although it must be noted that many of the more nuanced (and often not available in Seattle) wines are from lesser-known, less hot areas. Jens was in Australia last Februrary, a guest of the Australia Wine Commission for a tour of Victoria Pinot Noir country, but he still had the pleasure of visiting several areas growing top notch Shiraz, e.g. the Giaconda Winery located in Beachworth, north-east Victoria (note the photo – top). For Shiraz (available in Seattle) that show off big, well-balanced wine with the nuance of minty herb that can be Australia’s lovely touch, try: D’Arenberg 2008 Laughing Magpie or for a splurge D’Arenberg 2006 The Dead Arm Shiraz, both from the McLaren Vale Valley & both with a touch of Viognier. An excellent example of 100% Shiraz from the Barossa Valley is John Duval 2007 Entity Shiraz.
South Africa is making some notable Shiraz as well. Still big and dark, they use a yeast additive in fermenting that gives the wine a special smoky flavor. Neil Ellis (known for his Pinotage) makes a tasty, as well Boekenhoutskloof (calling it Syrah) makes a beautiful 100% Syrah.
Last, I will end with the wonderful & varied Syrah coming out of our home state. Washington State sits at the same latitude as the Rhône Valley, so it enjoys many of the same growing conditions, and its Syrah is known for its dark fruit flavors of black currant & blackberry with some nuance of black pepper, licorice, clove, thyme, sandalwood & cedar. WA growers don’t seem to differentiate style by the use of Syrah vs Shiraz on the label, but both styles are readily available (usually called Syrah), from what could be called the “hedonistic pleasure bomb” (as quoted from our friend Catherine Reynolds) style. Wonderful examples of this style are Chris Sparkman Darkness Syrah, Mark Ryan Lost Soul Syrah, Owen Roe Ex Umbris, Darby The Dark Side Syrah. In the other camp you have a leaner, more subdued, arguably more complex wine, with notable examples including Efeste Syrah Jolie Bouche & wines by Chuck Reininger.
Other notable around the world Syrah: California offers up some excellent examples of Syrah. Darioush is perhaps the best known. We currently serve one by the glass at the bar: Qupé. As well Novy has, through the years, produced a nice quaffable, well-priced Syrah. Argentina, while known for Malbec, has several producers offering up exceptional Syrah, try: Benegas 2006 Syrah from Mendoza.
It’s the time of year for these wines, so come pick out a few and go exploring!