Syrah/Shiraz – Potato/Potahto?

/ Updated on July 14, 2021

What’s with those folks from Down Under? Can’t they just go with the flow and call a Syrah by its proper name? Why confuse everyone by inventing a new name for an old grape and add  confusion in the already much too confusing world of wine?

Well, when I say potato and you say potahto, the pronunciation difference doesn’t tell us that there is a difference in style of potato. But Shiraz versus Syrah does in fact do that, as even though Shiraz and Syrah are in fact the same grape, their styles are usually somewhat or even significantly different. What a wine consumer-friendly thing to do!  In actuality, the grape in Australia got the name Shiraz because in the 1700s it was mistakenly thought to be a grape that originated in Shiraz, Persia. But you still have to give the Aussies credit for sticking with the wrong name thereby telling us that Shiraz tastes different than Syrah! Truth in advertising at its best. Maybe other wine producers should take a cue from that and call different styles of the same grape by different names: Chardonnay vs. Chardonoak to distinguish between oaked and non-oaked Chardonnay … naahh, never mind. Ahem … moving right along, lets explore the differences between these two interpretations of the bold and beautiful Syrah grape.

The epicenter of some of the world’s best Syrah is in the Northern Rhone valley in France. When visiting this incredible wine region, one is struck by the beautiful rugged terrain and you wonder how you can possibly tend to vineyards planted on precarious narrow terraces perched on these steep slopes. Ahh, the beauty of incredible Syrah begins here. These well-drained and perfectly positioned slopes allow the thick-skinned Syrah grape to ripen to perfection and bring forth the powerful majesty of Syrah. I mention the thickness of the grape skin because this results in a key characteristic of Syrah: its deep ruby color and intense flavors (common sense correctly tells us that thick skinned grapes like Syrah and Cabernet result in wines of deep color and more intense flavors, while thinner skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are lighter in color and less intensely flavored).

What are the great Syrah wines of the Northern Rhone and what are they like? Since, unlike the U.S., the best wines of France are named after the place (appellation) where they come from rather than the name of the grape, the classic Syrahs from this region go under the following regional names, divided by me into two categories of affordability.  The two “hold onto your wallet” Syrahs are: Hermitage and Cote Rotie (the latter of which, amazingly, is sometimes blended with a bit of the key white grape from this region, Viognier). These can be truly stunning wines and can rank with the best wines of the world. Some of the more affordable Syrahs from the Northern Rhone are Crozes Hermitage, Cornas, and Saint-Joseph. Regardless of the price point, Syrah from the Northern Rhone tend to have deep dark fruit and a gamey, smokey flavor with varying amounts of pepperiness.

Moving to the world of Shiraz from the land down under, the Men at Work there tend the vineyards on less challenging topography than their counterparts in the Northern Rhone. The most well-known region for Shiraz in Australia is the Barossa Valley. Other Shiraz-producing regions in Australia include the McLaren Vale and Heathcote. And in Australia, being a New World wine region, the word Shiraz will usually appear prominently on the label and under that you will find reference to the particular region from which it hales. While Australian Shiraz does share some of the same dark fruit, meaty, smokey characteristics of their Syrah cousins, look for more ripe intense fruit and jammyness (sometimes almost port-like) from Australian Shiraz.

Both Shiraz and Syrah wines are great with meat and game and grilled foods with the ripe fruit jamminess of Shiraz going particularly well with barbecue and meats that might have been prepared with a fruit-based marinade.

One of my favorite producers in the Rhone Valley is E. Guigal who makes some of the most stunning (and sometimes most expensive) wines in the Northern Rhone Valley. Two more affordable Guigal wines are their Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (both under $30).

One of my favorite producers in Australia is Molly Dooker who also makes stunning wines (along with some stunning prices). One very affordable Shiraz from Molly Dooker is The Boxer (about $30).

Potato/Potahto, Tomato Tomahto! Hope you enjoy your next Syrah/Shiraz.

Cheers!   Cuvée Ray

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Cuvée Ray Kurz

About the Author

Cuvée Ray Kurz is a sommelier, wine consultant and wine educator. He has been awarded his sommelier certificate and his Certified Specialist of Wine by the Society of Wine Educators and is now working on his Diploma Level 4 Certification which is the recognized final step before applying to enter the Master of Wine program. Ray was the owner of Cuvée Ray Wine Bar and Restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. He owned a “virtual winery” offering wine under his “Social Cluster” label and recently launched Cuvée Ray Wine Academy which conducts educational wine tastings, dinners, and similar events at restaurants and for private groups at homes, clubhouses and other venues. View all articles written by Cuvée Ray Kurz

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