Today is International Shiraz Day and to celebrate we want to answer some burning questions about Shiraz and its twin varietal Syrah. Where did Syrah come from? Why is Syrah grown in Australia called Shiraz? What’s the difference between the two? The short answer: it’s complicated. As with most history, there isn’t a black and white story that is considered fact. But wine scholars have a reasonably good grasp on the origins of this iconic grape. Legends from the Rhone Valley suggest that the Syrah grape was first brought to the region from Shiraz, the capital of the Persian Empire at the time in modern-day Iran. As far back as the early 1800s, there are written accounts that Syrah was brought to France by hermits from Persia. Other histories suggest the Romans could have spread it across Europe from the Sicilian city of Syracuse, and the grape was named after the city it was from. There’s even writing from Pliny the Elder where he mentions Vitis Syriaca or ‘grapes from Syria’.
While these are all plausible explanations, modern science has a different story to tell. DNA profiling of Syrah vines in the Rhone Valley shows that the variety was created by cross-breeding two less popular grapes. A Southern France variety called Dureza was crossed with the Mondeuse Blanche grape from the Savoie region in the French Alps to create the Syrah that we recognize today. In the 18th century, it became the most prominent variety of fruit grown by winemakers in Rhone, and it has been the main red grape of the region ever since.
No one knows why Syrah produced in Australia is called Shiraz. Still, the most common theory is that it was merely a mispronunciation by the British man who first brought the grape to Australia in the mid 1800’s. Regardless, what’s important today is that the name Shiraz differentiates warm weather New-World Syrah from the traditional Syrah of the Rhone Valley. Shiraz starts out with fruit that is identical to Syrah, but thanks to key differences in climate and winemaking techniques, the finished product is completely unique.
Think of Syrah and Shiraz as identical twins, separated at birth. One grows up in France, where the traditions of the Rhone Valley combined with cold winter months create a classically subtle and nuanced personality that is tempered by a cool climate. The other is raised in Australia in the constant heat and develops a bold, straight-to-the-point character. Which isn’t afraid to get in your face. When the twin varieties are reunited and compared side-by-side, it would be ridiculous to suggest they are still identical. This isn’t a perfect metaphor; after all, winemakers love nothing more than defying rules and tradition to try something new. Not every Shiraz will have crazy bold fruit flavors, and not every Syrah will be made in the traditional French style, but chances are most bottles you buy will fit into those conventional archetypes.
Shiraz has enjoyed critical acclaim and commercial success for years, and for a good reason. It’s incredibly versatile, with everything from drinkable wines for backyard barbeques to age-worthy vintages with cult followings. With world-renowned producers like Three Rivers, Torbreck, and of course Penfolds. There is certainly no denying the power and talent coming from the Australian wine world. Whether you’re in the mood for Syrah or Shiraz, Benchmark Wine Group has you covered. Check out our wide selection and experience the nuanced history of this iconic grape today!
Shop our entire collection of Syrah and Shiraz here.
Established in 2002, Benchmark Wine Group is the leading source of fine and rare wine retailers, restaurants, and collectors around the world. Based in Napa Valley, we acquire the most sought-after wines from private individuals and professional contacts. But only when provenance can be verified by our team of acquisition professionals. Our staff draws on decades of industry experience and is dedicated to providing exceptional service to all of our clients. Benchmarkwine.com offers 24-hour access to our cellar, displaying inventory in real-time.