You say potato, I say potato. You say tomato, I say tomato. You say Syrah, I say Shiraz. Let’s call the whole thing off! Well is Shiraz just the same as Syrah by another name? Yes but no. Hugely distinct according to the conditions it is grown in Syrah and Shiraz can be completely and diametrically opposed to each other in expression. And yet they can be one of the most astounding and noble wines on the planet.
Syrah grown in cooler and more temperate locations are generally made in a more reticent style. It typically smells like ripe but cool blue and black fruits. Think blueberries and cassis. There is savory-ness to the wine, something almost vegetal or herbal; green even— sage, tobacco and even pepper come to mind. It will also have a facet of minerality or earthiness. And although Syrah easily reaches higher alcohol levels, in cooler climes, Syrah can be balanced with refreshing acidity and shows balance. In warmer microclimates, Shiraz can be jammy, hedonistic, fruit rollup and medicinal. It can be astoundingly intense, loud, full-bodied and unapologetic. Think full-throttle and masculine. No matter where it is grown, there is always significant tannin which gives structure, longevity and makes it perfect for pairing with meat: roasted, grilled, stewed and the like. And the more aromatically scented herbs in the preparation, the better.
Syrah’s hearth is in the northern Rhone valley of France. Here, Syrah reaches its apogee. It is undeniable that the Syrahs from the appellations here are the envy of all Syrah producers. Hermit-age, Côte Rôtie and Cornas are the Trinity in the pantheon of Syrah. Here the heat of the sun is tempered by the Mistral wind, which results in a Syrah that marries ripeness with freshness. Planted on complex soils over granite bedrock, these are some of the longest-lived and most highly coveted wines in the world. No discussion of the best Syrah on the planet will be complete without mention of J.L. Chave Hermitage. The Chave family has been producing some of the finest Syrah since 1481. Sommeliers including myself and collectors go ape when a bottle of Chave Hermitage is opened. There may be equals but there is none better. Other greats from the Rhone include Jaboulet’s La Chapelle, Guigal’s single vineyard Côte-Rôtie, Chapoutier’s l’Ermite. And both Clape and Allemand Cornas are unquestionable reference standards.
Shiraz in the southern hemisphere is championed by Australia. Here the warmth of the sun combined with sandy and loamy soils give rise to wines that are hedonistic and intoxicating. There have been two examples that have stood above the rest. Penfolds Grange (once called Grange Hermitage) and Henschke’s Hill of Grace. Although both have a different path both wines arrive at the same pinnacle of quality. Penfolds Grange has always been a blend of the best fruit within the Penfolds vineyards. They can come from young as well as old vines and from different sub regions within South Australia. These components blend to create an astounding array of flavors and intensity that Grange is renowned for. Henschke’s Hill of Grace is a single copse of ancient “grandfather” vines in Eden Valley planted in the 1860s, making them 158 years young! Both wines are kaleidoscopic in flavor especially after a couple of decades in bottle—truly worth the wait.
California is home to Syrah legends such as Saxum in Paso Robles, John Alban in Edna Valley and Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non already. And there are other pockets of potential still fomenting with exploration. Walla Walla Washington is ripe with excitement for their production. Reynvaan Vineyards and Rôtie Cellars are names to watch. But whether it is Syrah or Shiraz, you will certainly be getting a deep red with plenty of richness—and perfect for a hearty dish, no matter how you say it.