If you’re a wine lover, you’ve probably heard of Shiraz and Syrah. But do you know the difference between the two?
If not, don't worry - you're not alone! Many people are unsure about the difference between these two types of wine.
In this blog post, we'll discuss the differences between Syrah and Shiraz, and delve into some stylistic differences, key regions, and how the two terms are used by Australian winemakers today.
Are Syrah and Shiraz the same grape?
In a word - yes.
Syrah and Shiraz are actually just two different names for the same grape variety.
In Australia, this red grape variety is called Shiraz, and that's the term we Aussies are most familiar with.
Syrah is originally a French word, but also in the rest of the world, this variety is called Syrah.
So is there no difference between Syrah vs Shiraz?
This is where things get complicated. There is definitely a difference between Australian Shiraz and French Syrah, and if you ever tried them side by side, you'd realise that despite being made from the same grape, the varietal character can differ greatly due to a number of factors like soil, climate, and winemaking style.
What are some main differences between Australian Shiraz and French Syrah?
Very broadly speaking, Australian Shiraz is full-bodied, higher alcohol, fruit-forward wine with lighter tannins and flavour notes, predominantly of red and black fruits, dark chocolate, and baking spice notes from new French oak being used for ageing.
French Syrah, by comparison, is medium-full-bodied, has lower alcohol, and has notes of black pepper, cured meats, and dried herbs with fruit notes like dark cherry taking a back seat.
The variety is not grown in any notable quantities in Europe outside of France.
This is, however, an overgeneralisation, as both countries have hot climates, cooler climates, and moderate climates, and the climate the grapes are grown in is the number one factor in the final style of the wine.
A note on the use of the term "Syrah" in Australia
You will indeed find some Australian wines labelled as Syrah instead of Shiraz, like this fantastic Syrah from Henty, Victoria. This is because the term is occasionally used as an unofficial style indicator.
An Australian winemaker making a Syrah/Shiraz wine in a more French style as described above might call their wine Syrah as a way of letting their customer know what to expect.
This is not a hard and fast rule though. A European winemaker making wine in Australia might call their wine Syrah no matter what the style, and an Aussie winemaker making Syrah/Shiraz in one of our cooler climates like the Yarra Valley might still call their wine Shiraz, despite having all the grape varietal characteristics of a French Syrah wine.
What are some famous regions for Australian Shiraz?
Shiraz is one of the most popular grape varieties among Australian winemakers, and is grown in every state (except the Northern Territory), but here are some best-known regions for their Shiraz.
Barossa Valley, South Australia
Barossa Valley, a few hours north of Adelaide, is possibly the best-known of all Australian wine regions, especially for Syrah/Shiraz.
Big, bold, dark fruited and aggressive is the classic style of the Shiraz wines here.
Due to the popularity of this region-grape variety combination, the wine here ranges from entry-level Shiraz to some of the best wines in Australia (the famous Penfolds Grange Shiraz is mostly made of Barossa grapes).
It has become the template for warm climate Shiraz in Australia, and for many wine drinkers, it is the reference point for what they consider to be the classic Shiraz taste.
It's also not uncommon to see the Shiraz grape blended with Cabernet Sauvignon here (often called simply Shiraz Cabernet or Cab Shiraz).
McLaren Vale, South Australia
Just south of Adelaide and right on the coast. This is another place well-known for its warmer climate Shiraz, but now with a more maritime influence from the St Vincent Gulf on which it lies, and the Indian Ocean beyond it.
The Syrah/Shiraz from this wine region is similar to Barossa Valley Shiraz wines, though usually not as broad and with a bit more inkiness and salinity.
Hunter Valley, New South Wales
The Hunter Valley is the birthplace of Australian viticulture, so it's no surprise it's also well-known for growing the Shiraz grape. It is located a few hours inland from Newcastle, and is one of Australia's warmer regions.
The Syrah/Shiraz wine made here is typically full-bodied, though perhaps not as aggressive as its South Australian counterparts, with notes of leather and dried herbs, and sometimes a bit more of an almost dusty texture.
What are some famous regions for French Syrah?
The Northern Rhône Valley, France
The Northern Rhône is the ancestral home of Syrah/Shiraz. In fact, all reds from this entire region are made almost exclusively of Syrah grape varietal wines.
The most famous villages or sub-regions of the Northern Rhône, namely Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and Cornas, all have Syrah grapes as their most planted grape.
The different villages produce wines that vary somewhat in style, some being more masculine and earthy and others being more elegant, but they have more in common than not.
The Syrah wine here is typically aged in older French oak and has a distinct purple hue that's often a dead giveaway in tastings.
In terms of style, this is exactly the kind of Syrah grape varietal wine we were talking about earlier. Structured, meaty, peppery, and sometimes even a bit floral, with higher tannins and the dark fruit character being more subtle.
The Southern Rhône Valley, France
The other major player in Syrah-based wines is the southern part of the Rhône Alpes region. Unlike in the Northern Rhône, in the south, the Syrah grape is used as a blending grape along with Grenache and Mourvèdre.
This is a style we often emulate in Australia in what is referred to as a GSM blend (an acronym for Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre).
This part of the Rhone Valley produces much more wine than the north, and much of it is bottled under the regional Côtes du Rhône classification. There are also some well-regarded villages, or sub-regional wines, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas.
The wines here tend to be more medium-bodied and smooth, with some higher-end examples being fuller-bodied with some earth and spice notes.
Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
Despite being very far from France, this is one of the Syrah world regions really worth mentioning.
Most people don't generally associate New Zealand with red wine unless it's Pinot Noir, but Syrah is made in Hawke's Bay, particularly its sub-region of Gimblett Gravels.
Good examples of Syrah from this region generally come across as French Syrah-style wine, and sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. These Syrah wines do however tend to be a bit more fleshy and a bit less tannic than their French Syrah counterparts, often with distinct black olive flavour notes.
I've also heard of Petite Sirah. What's that?
Petite Sirah (also spelled as Petite Syrah sometimes) is a red grape that actually has little to nothing to do with Syrah and Shiraz beyond the fact that they're both originally French grape varieties.
Apart from that, they're not even from the same part of France and don't appear to be closely related.
One interesting tidbit is that Petite Sirah is actually not this grape's French name - it's the American name it was given when it was transported and planted in the US. The French name of this grape is Durif.
Under the name Durif, this grape actually is grown in Australia, pretty much only in one region: Rutherglen, Victoria. There it makes a full-bodied, mouth-filling wine with distinct notes of blue plums, and alcohol levels that often go up to 16%!
It's also sometimes used in Rutherglen to make a fortified wine similar to Port which can be delicious, although if you're watching your waistline or are on a keto diet, might be worth skipping because of the high carb calories per glass it contains!
The final word on Syrah vs Shiraz
Syrah vs Shiraz are two words for the same grape, and just like many words in the wine world, they can mean different things to different people.
Shiraz and Syrah can either simply be the way different countries refer to the same grape, just like lots of different grape varieties have different names in different countries. Or, they can signify an unofficial stylistic classification attempted by the winemaker.Luckily, there are excellent bottles of Australian wine labelled as both Syrah and Shiraz, and unless you're really adamantly into only one style or the other, it's probably best to branch out and see what both Syrah and Shiraz have to offer.
And try some non-Australian examples of the Shiraz grape to broaden your experience of this well-loved grape. Though those will probably be called Syrah... Cheers!