I’ve always considered it neatly ironic that Shiraz, one of the world’s greatest red grape varieties, takes its name from a town in Iran. Ironic because Iran is not exactly a wine drinker’s paradise these days. In my more romantic moments, I like to imagine Omar Khayyám, Persia’s greatest poet and a lover of wine, sipping a glass of Shiraz some time in the 11th century.
To the French, Shiraz (wherever it may have originated) is a misnomer for Syrah, the leading grape of the northern Rhône. In fact the two are synonyms. Producers around the world tend to use one or the other to reflect New or Old World sympathies. Australians prefer Shiraz, while the French stick with Syrah. However, there are leading producers in South Africa and California who prefer to call their wines Syrah. And in France some winemakers in the Languedoc have opted for Shiraz. A case of que Syrah, Syrah perhaps?
Perfume is Syrah’s strongest suit. In the Rhône (and chillier New World vineyards), pepper and raspberries are the tell-tale aromas; elsewhere you can find plums, blackberries and liquorice, among other things. The grape has a natural affinity with oak, whether French or American, and has the structure to age well. It is not as tannic as Cabernet Sauvignon, but it has more oomph and staying power than Pinot Noir. As it develops in the bottle it can resemble Pinot Noir. Mind you, with a gamey note, sometimes described as ‘sweaty saddles’ in Australia’s Hunter Valley, this can be an acquired taste.
Syrah is a good match with food. The weightier and more alcoholic the wine (Aussie examples can have 15 per cent alcohol or more), the bigger the dish should be. It’s great with grilled meat, casseroles and stews and also good with harder cheeses. Pinot is a more adaptable grape, but you could try Syrah with a ‘meaty’ fish like tuna or swordfish. Down Under it’s the barbecue wine par excellence.
Shiraz is a well-travelled grape, increasingly so given the growing popularity of so-called Rhône-style wines in the New World. There’s even a movement in California called the Rhône Rangers, led by ‘Mr Rhôneleyhearts’, the iconoclastic, pun-loving Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. It’s also grown in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Italy, New Zealand and Spain, performing equally well in cool and warm climates.
Australians can point to patches of gnarled Shiraz vines from the mid-19th century, but Syrah’s real (adopted) home is the northern Rhône valley. South of Lyon, the celebrated vineyards of Hermitage, mostly planted with Syrah, cover the steep slopes. From here, the grape’s influence follows the river Rhône to be sea and westwards along the Mediterranean coast. It is, to many, the quintessential southern French grape.
Its credentials as a blending grape are impeccable; it is a minor, but important, part of most Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds and a vital component of Australia’s Cabernet/Shiraz partnering. But in the red wine appellations of the northern Rhône (Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and St-Joseph), Syrah gets solo billing. The exception is Côte Rôtie, the most fragrant, where producers used to blend a little bit of (white) Viognier with their Syrah. Some still do, but the tradition is dying out. Some wine lovers prefer Hermitage and Cornas, both of which produce thicker, denser wines with greater tannic structure, but Côte Rôtie occupies the Syrah summit for many wine lovers, this one included.
At the top of the Côte Rôtie slopes (metaphorically at least) is Marcel Guigal, a quietly determined man who produces three of the most expensive single vineyard Syrahs in the world: La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne can set you back £300 a bottle more. Fortunately for those of us on a budget, Guigal also makes a cheaper Côte Rôtie that sells for under £30. Other celebrated names of this region are Chave, Jaboulet, Jamet, Jasmin, Clape, Rostaing and Chapoutier.
The New World equivalent of Guigal’s top wines is Penfolds’ Grange. This quintessential Aussie Shiraz has become a legendary, even iconic wine. But when Grange was first made in the 1950s, its reception was so damming that its creator, Max Schubert, was told to stop producing it. But he disobeyed and made the 1957, 1958 and 1959 Granges in secret. By 1960, the wine was on the way to becoming Australia’s most famous red with a price tag and auction status to prove it.
Penfolds make plenty of cheaper Shiraz too, such as Bin 389, Bin 28 and Magill Estate. It has a particular style with (usually) lashings of vanilla and coconut-scented American oak and colour and flavour to spare. Producers making similar, warm climate styles include John Duval (who used to make Grange), Torbreck, d’Arenberg, Charles Melton, Rockford, BRL Hardy (especially its Eileen Hardy), Jim Barry and Wolf Blass. Australia also produces peppery more Rhône-like Shiraz in cooler regions. Look out for Mount Langi Ghiran, Clonakilla, Plantagenet, Shaw & Smith, Dalwhinnie and Cape Mentelle.
France and Australia are facing increasing competition from other Old and New World sources. South Africa has put on a spurt with Eagle’s Nest, Mulineux, Haskell, Saxenburg, Sadie Family and Boekenhoutskloof. Chile has Matetic, Errázuriz and Montes. New Zealand Craggy Range, Man O’War, Trinity Hill and Stonecroft and Spain Marqués de Griñon, Finca Sandoval and Castell d’Encus.
California’s successes, meanwhile, are Qupé, Joseph Phelps, Wind Gap and Randall Grahm’s Bonny Doon. Grahm is a poet and philosopher, whose pastiches of TS Eliot and Edgar Allan Poe are hilarious. I don’t know if he’s ever had a go at Khayyám’s Rubáiyát, but now might be the time. There could be no better tribute to Shiraz. Or Syrah, if you prefer.
- SMELLS AND TASTES OF: Black pepper, liquorice, clove, blackberries, blackcurrants, plums, raspberries, redcurrants, black olives, wood smoke and (for older bottles) game, leather and even sweaty saddles. It all depends on where it’s grown.
- GOES WITH: Red meat, cheese and pasta. French examples are very good with game. Aussie examples, which tend to be more full-on, are good barbecue wines or worth trying with a winter stew.
- COSTS: Anything from £3.99 for a basic IGP from the south of France to £300 for a bottle for one of Marcel Guigal’s top single vineyard wines in Côte Rôtie.
- DO SAY: ‘I’m getting sweaty saddle on this old Hunter Valley Shiraz.’
- DON’T SAY: ‘Syrah and Shiraz are two of my favourite grape varieties.’