02/13/07 – March Madness (Syrah/Shiraz)

By Jesse on February 12, 2007

Last week was awesome, the games are underway and the competition is intense.  This week we turn to one of our favorite reds, the ever-exciting grape known as Syrah… and also as Shiraz.  Questions abound: the names are similar, but are they two different grapes?  Are they the same grape, resulting in two different types of wine?  Or is it just two terms that describe the exact same animal?

Genetically, Syrah and Shiraz are the same thing.  However, the words do have different meanings, because they relate to regional origin.  In France, where the classic examples of the grape are grown, it’s called Syrah.  In Australia, where the grape has gained huge international acclaim over the past few decades, it’s called Shiraz.  Producers in the US and elsewhere use both terms, although times a US producer will label his or her wine “Syrah” to denote that it’s made in attempt to replicate the French style, while “Shiraz” would err towards new-world Australian expressiveness.  As always, I recommend you check out Syrah at the Wine Varietals Index, a very fun and informative resource.  (Look out for “Petite Sirah” — although it’s related to Syrah, it’s a different grape.)

In France, Syrah is grown principally in the Rhone Valley.  Rhone wines, according to the Bible, are among the world’s “most untamed.”  It continues: “flavors dart around like shooting stars.  There are whooshes of sweet earthiness and surges of smoky black fruit.  The wines’ howling spiciness has no parallel.”  Although Syrah is grown all over the Rhone, it’s the appellations in the northern Rhone that use exclusively Syrah in their wine; the southern Rhone versions (such as Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape) often have majority Grenache, so please don’t bring one of those unless it’s clearly labeled as majority Syrah.  Stick to one of the northern villages: Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, or St.-Joseph.

Alternatively, feel free to bring a new world Syrah/Shiraz.  The grape is grown all over California, and may be labeled either Syrah or Shiraz.  The place where Shiraz has achieved its greatest “new world” success, however, is definitely Australia.  Shiraz is to Australia “what cabernet sauvignon is to Bordeaux — an icon.”  For those still struggling with the metaphor, try this one that I made up: it’s “what J.J. is to Good Times.”  Can you imagine Good Times without J.J.?  Didn’t think so.  Similarly, Shiraz has been essential to Australia’s success and recognition as a major wine nation.  Wine Bible: “the best of them have almost syrupy plum, boysenberry, mocha and violet flavors, with hints of spice and black pepper.  By comparison, they are much more saturated with fruit than their parents, the syrahs of the Rhone.”  Top regions in Australia include Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

We’ll be meeting at Maggy’s place at Cal State.  Maggy doesn’t have many wine glasses, so it might be wise to bring one along.  Grab yourself a delicious-looking bottle of Shiraz or Syrah and we’ll see you all on Tuesday at 9 PM.