Lately I’ve been craving Syrah for two simple reasons: It pairs well with hearty meals and, best of all, it costs much less than other popular varietals. With so many options for wine lovers out there, one question I get from time to time is, 'what is the difference between Syrah and Shiraz?' Answer – Nothing! In the true spirit of Australian individualism, the Aussies planted Syrah and called it Shiraz. The two grapes are genetically identical, though in taste profile, you will find some differences.
Since Roman times Syrah has been grown in the a Rhône region of France. Hence, it is commonly referred to as a Rhône varietal. Syrah has seen a surge in popularity and is now grown in California, Washington, South America and South Africa. You can find it in just about every region, though those listed are most popular. Despite these new challengers, I prefer Australian and French Rhône wines. Syrah from these regions offer intense richness and a full-body.
French Syrah comes from the Rhone Valley, which is divided into the Northern and Southern Rhône. Northern Rhône wines command a high price and produce some of the most sought after and long-lived Rhône wines. Northern Rhône wines are made primarily from Syrah, though in some areas a small percentage of white can be blended in. Familiar appellations in the Northern Rhône include: Côte Rotie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas.
The Southern Rhône produces much more accessible wines in that they are priced affordably and made for much earlier consumption than Northern Rhône wines, which can take decades to mellow. The freshness of Southern Rhône wines is a result of blending Grenache with Syrah, as well as a myriad of other grapes, including Carignan, Cinsault and Mourvedre. In fact, Grenache is considered the dominant grape in the Southern Rhône and Syrah is often added to beef up the blend with powerful tannins and flavor (a practice also followed in Australia). Familiar appellations include: Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Côtes du Rhône and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Northern Rhône Syrah offers leather and spicy black pepper qualities coupled with intense tannins and a higher natural acidity than its Shiraz brother. Complex flavors lead to a long wonderful finish worthy of contemplation. Southern Rhone wines, having a smaller percentage of Syrah and different growing conditions, are much softer, though still providing some spicy, earthy notes.
Notable Producers: E. Guigal, Jean-Luc Columbo, M. Chapoutier, Chateau Beaucastel
Australian wines are booming and winemakers have made huge strides understanding which varietals grow best in each region. Australian Shiraz is planted in several areas, but the best come from the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Coonwarra (also noted for its Cabernet Sauvignon). These areas experience high temperatures resulting in very ripe fruit with lower acidity. The ripe fruit coupled with Australian winemaking techniques create luscious, silky, mouth-filling wines. The Barossa Valley in particular excels in the Aussie style offering round tannins and dark fruit flavors, accented with chocolate notes. Thirsty yet?
Notable producers: Penley Estate, Penfolds, Hewitson, Tait, Peter Lehmann
Delas St. Esprit Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2007 ($9.99). Contains soft tannins with smoky aromas of black pepper and burnt brown sugar. Pair with roast chicken. A steal at $9.99!
Tait The Ball Buster 2007. Luscious dark fruit with cocoa nuances. Pair with steak or roasted lamb.