An article about Shiraz, Exel? That big, blockblusting, clumsy, bullyboy bruiser of a red… the vindaloo of wine…?
Ah, you as well. We understand your point; we do hear that a lot. But not all Shiraz is like that. And Syrah very rarely is.
Syrah? Shiraz? Same thing, surely?
Yes and no. Yes, the same grape, but no, a very different style… it’s exactly the same story with Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. One is revered and regarded as elegant and classy; the other as … well, less so, and sometimes even a little … er … vernacular. Simply, the same grape develops in a different way because of different environmental factors – terroir, if you will – and is then handled differently in the winery in line with those differences.
So, "same-same, but different"? Do go on.
With pleasure. In the very simplest of terms, you could start with Syrah = French, Shiraz = Australian. But it’s more complex than that.
Syrah’s great origin is the northern Rhone valley – the home of the appellations of Hermitage, Cornas, Côte-Rotie, St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. We might think of that as a pretty warm spot, but (t)here Syrah is right on its margin of being able to ripen. Like the other great regions of France (most notably Bordeaux and Burgundy), it is exactly that slow, steady, just-about-making-it-to ripeness that makes for wines of such great quality … in the good years. Ever present, however, is the risk of a cool or wet year and with it ‘green’, grippy, under-ripe wines.
Fascinating. And the impact on the wines is … what?
Those great Rhone appellations - and other areas where Syrah just-about ripens (more below) - produce powerful-but-elegant reds famous for their bewitching perfume; a “heavenly, floral fragrance”, Oz Clarke calls it. That perfume? Smoke, minerality, herbiness and, in particular, pepper – overlying a potent-but-not-cloying blackberry/brambly fruitiness. The pepper thing is one of those weird flavour sensations about which some folk get most excited: it’s like the whole petrol/kerosene thing with Riesling. Indeed, there’s a great article on pepper in wine (especially in Syrah) in the current (February) edition of Decanter (www.decanter.com). Note also that alcohol levels in these wines are typically only 11.5 to 13.5% abv, except in the headiest of years.
So, that’s Syrah. And Shiraz?
Yes, yes. Now your Shiraz is altogether different: we are into very different aromas and flavours; ones that reflect much greater warmth and ripeness, with alcohol levels nearly always above 13.5% (and as high as 16% in extreme cases). Here the fruit is blacker – even straying into cassis/blackcurrant (more normally the preserve of Cabernet Sauvignon) – and altogether sweeter: ‘chocolate’ and ‘liquorice’ are two of the tasting keywords with Shiraz. As it ages, good Shiraz develops some proper age flavours – leather and treacle are classic tones.
Clumsy stuff, yes?
We’d leave you to judge, but we’d see that as a harsh verdict. Yes, there’s occasional clumsiness where winemakers get lazy and just allow over-ripeness and grape sugar levels to climb too high. Wines can become bloated and ‘flabby’, and, although fermented to dryness, lack any sort of acidity to balance out the palate and/or provide much refreshment. And that balance is lacking in many budget-level Shirazes; Shiraz is a wonderfully easy grape to grow, vinify and transform into a super-fruity wine … which explains its huge rise to prominence on supermarket shelves in the last 25 years.
We certainly note that plenty of Syrah fans are not fans of Shiraz. And vice versa. For the former, there’s a lack of refinedness and elegance: they see a carthorse lining up for The Derby. For the latter, there’s often just not enough ‘ooomph’’ or 'octane” for them in a Syrah.
We don’t really see the clumsiness thing. After all, vintage Port is 20% abv (+) and carries altogether more punch than the biggest of even Barossa Shirazes… yet very few folk knock it for lack of elegance. It’s just a style thing: Shiraz is typically a ‘big’ wine. Drink it cautiously and even sparingly, we might advise.
So, two wines for the price of one grape, then?
Yes, exactly. Perhaps more so than for any other variety. And its all down to the sensitivity of the grape itself. It may produce ‘big’ wines, but this is one sensitive variety.
We often think first of other grapes being highly sensitive to conditions and the champions of reflecting their terroir: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, certainly. But Syrah/Shiraz would have to be on that list. As we mentioned, the Northern Rhone is only just warm enough to ripen Syrah to a great wine; vineyards here have to be carefully sited to maximise their exposure to heat/sun and dodge the chilly Mistral. Yet, travel just 60 km further south into the Southern Rhone – home of Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Châteauneuf and Côtes du Rhone – and it’s nearly always too hot to get the best from Syrah, losing, as it does, acidity, florality and aroma. Here – and the same is true in the crus of Languedoc - Syrah vineyards need a reduced aspect to the sun, or, more normally, a site at higher altitude, to prevent that flabbiness. This explains some part of the blending of Syrah in these regions, where components lost to heat in the Syrah can be made good by the use of other varieties.
And the terroir point is interesting; Oz Clarke identifies five different terroirs in Australia’s McLaren Vale, revolving mainly around the great variety of soil types there. These terroirs produce greatly varying wines, from the peppery and spicy to the fleshy and the bold (we highly recommend Oz’s excellent “Grapes and Wines”).
You mentioned blending…
We did. Although it’s a variety that (quite clearly) makes amazing wines on its own, there’s more blending of Shiraz out there than you may think. Almost everything red from the Southern Rhone has some Shiraz in it, here adding some bite and darker fruit to the red-fruitness of Grenache, but often boosted by tannin and acidity from Mourvedre. This same classic ‘GSM’ trio is increasingly common in both Australia and California (home of the ‘Rhone Ranger’ movement). In many Châteauneufs, Syrah plays a very minor role in a blend that can contain up to 13 varieties! In Languedoc, Cinsault and Carignan are common, mainly for economy/bulking, but also to add aroma, fruit, colour and tannins.
In Australia, Shiraz is classically blended with Cab Sauv: the latter provides the structure, tannin and acidity while the Shiraz is employed to bring fruit to the mid-palate, an area where Cab Sauv can typically struggle.
Perhaps the oddest blend is the most famous of them all: with white Viognier, as still practiced in some of the finest Cote(s)-Roties, most notably those of Guigal. A few % of Viognier, co-fermented with the Shiraz, serendipitously boosts the perfume and silkiness of the wine, and, rather weirdly, even deepens the colour.
And that’s before we mention fizzy Shiraz.
Yup. And it demands respect. It’s a serious glass of wine, the best made via method traditionelle as for Champagne. Just because it’s a fizzy oddity doesn’t make it frivolous. There’s weight, body and tannin here. We were surprised, too.
Can we go back to the naming thing? So, Syrah in France, Shiraz in Australia?
As an approximation, yes. But, really, the name goes with the style nowadays, not the geography. Where the leaner, peppery, perfumey style is made – almost regardless now of location – it’s termed Syrah. The fuller, darker, chocolately style… Shiraz. Wines made in the latter style in Languedoc are appearing under the Shiraz banner; leaner wines made at altitude in Australia are emerging as Syrahs. From South Africa, California and Chile, one will see both monikers. New Zealand mainly trades as Syrah: being the cooler climate that it is (see below), the leaner style predominates here.
I suspect you’re now going to reel off an expose of your Syrahs and Shirazes from across the world to tempt me to buy some, yes?
Oooh, you cynic. But yes, we are.
We’ve drawn together those that have most wowed any or all of a) us, b) our shop customers, c) our internet clients d) those who have attended our tastings or e) Decanter in the last year. All are 100% Syrah/Shiraz (bar perhaps the odd few % of Viognier as above). All appear at the bottom of this page. Here goes…
From the Northern Rhone, Francois et Fils’ Côte-Rotie wowed Decanter (95 points for the 2015 vintage, Outstanding, topping the Feb 18 review: we are now onto the 2016) at a price of just £41 for this esteemed appellation and great vintage (2015 in the Northern Rhone scores 97 on Wine Enthusiast (WE)’s new vintage chart). We advise snapping this up before it all goes – Côte-Rotie opportunities like this come around very seldom. Jaboulet produce wonderful specimens from all of the Rhone appellations – a varying price points, the Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage 2014, the Grand Pompée St-Joseph 2016 (another tremendous vintage, 95 points with WE) and Les Jalets Crozes-Hermitage 2016 are a tremendous trio indeed.
Sticking to the Syrah style, we venture to New Zealand. The South Island is simply too cold for Syrah, but the North Island has two noted zones. Warm Waikehe Island (offshore of Auckland) is home to producers Man O’War, and their Dreadnought treads the divide between Syrah and Shiraz in glorious fashion. Hawke’s Bay, near Napier, is the new fortress of NZ Syrah, with a very Rhone-like climate regime. It was originally thought warm enough for Cab Sauv, but increasingly emerges as really only warm enough for Syrah, which thrives here. The famed Gimblett Gravels play host to some of the very best examples, and few are better than those of either Trinity Hill or Craggy Range: brilliant winemakers both, offering a range of price points.
The USA offers great examples of Syrah. From California, Truchard’s is a classic New World Syrah from cool Carneros that really impressed us at a recent producer tasting. In Washington State, the ebullient Charles Smith’s Boom Boom Syrah offers fantastic value (and a wacky label), while Château Ste Michelle produce two great examples: their ‘everyday’ Syrah, which represents awesome value at just £14, and their luxury Pundit (produced under their Tenet label) – again, an incredible £25 for such a boutique wine.
When we reach Australia, we’re deep into the Shiraz style and it’s immensely hard to pick our favourites. For sheer depth, with age already built in (prime drinking window now), Two Hands’ Coach House Block 2006 is hard to beat at the price, and enormously popular with customers who have taken the plunge. Shaw & Smith’s 2015 also landed a recent Outstanding 95 points from Decanter and is is real cracker.
We adore the work of Samantha O’Keefe at South Africa’s Lismore, and their Syrah 2016 is no exception. It manages to combine the power of a New World Shiraz with the elegance of an Old World Syrah, while the ever-excellent Thelema do a wonderful job with their 2014 at just ~£15 – this wine really ought to be priced more highly!
Last but not least, we visit Chile and two brilliant wines from two northern valleys where Syrah has become the trump card. Falernia’s Reserva Syrah 2012 from the Elquí valley has some great age development now, and is a great ‘pepper’ example, while the Caballo Loco Grand Cru 2014 from Limari is as opulent style of Syrah as you could hope to find and is now drinking beautifully.
And for the sparkling... look no further than the Peter Lehmann Black Queen...
Whatever you choose, happy drinking.