Common synonyms: Shiraz, Sirah, Syra, Schiras, Sirac, Syrac, Petite Syras
Syrah is one of the oldest varieties we know. Just think – Julius Caesar may well have enjoyed a glass of Syrah just as much as we do today.
There’s some confusion about the name. There was a time when many believed that Syrah came from ancient Persia, so they named the grape for its capitol, Shiraz. Now, DNA fingerprinting indicates that it’s the offspring of a couple of very ancient varieties of southeast France called Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. It made its home in the Rhone Valley before becoming a world traveler. So, Syrah and Shiraz are two different names for the same grape.
Not so, with Syrah and Petite Sirah. They are each their own entities, although Syrah has recently been identified as a parent of Petite Sirah along with a relatively obscure grape from southern France called Peloursin. With such longstanding confusion about its identity Petite Sirah was looked upon as kind of a lesser step-child of Syrah, but has gained respect and popularity in recent years, almost exclusively in the new world.
All wine grapes express themselves a little differently, depending upon where they come from, but Syrah seems to be more of a chameleon than most. The classic descriptions include a relatively big wine with great pigment, and a meaty, smoky character and peppery spice along with the black fruit. If you treat yourself to a glass of Syrah from the Northern Rhone and compare it to an Australian Shiraz you’ll notice a marked difference in flavor profiles. That’s soil and climate at work, of course. In our own experience at Goosecross, we’ve made Syrah that was grown on the South Coast that had a lot of meaty Rhone-like character and also from here in the Napa Valley, where it makes a much more fruit-driven wine – two different, but equally delightful styles.
Syrah from the northern Rhone tends to be nearly 100%, although it’s common to blend in a little Viognier for aromatics and to help fix the pigment. But, Syrah takes well to blending and, in the southern Rhone, it’s a player in what can be a rather large ensemble. In Chateauneuf du Pape, they’re allowed to blend as many as 13 varieties together! The Australians make pure Shiraz and have come up with a variety of popular Syrah blends. Here in California you’ll find varietal (minimum of 75% Syrah) representations and Rhone-style blends.
It’s an easy variety to grow, with good vigor and disease resistance. It’s late to bud in the spring, decreasing the chance of frost damage and not too late to ripen, so most years it comes in before the rain. It’s adaptable and can grow in various conditions but it needs a good amount of heat to fully ripen. This explains why some of the most famous Syrah of France comes from the Cote Rotie, which literally means the “roasted slope”, and also why you’ll find very nice Syrah from many different regions here in sunny California.
Syrah can be very long-lived and, when serving a young one, decanting is a good idea. It’s usually a substantial wine, so it pairs well with hearty foods, like grilled steak or sausages. True to its origin, it’s a natural with Mediterranean cuisine – wild mushrooms, garlic, olives, lots of herbs and olive oil. The slight gamey character and hint of smoke make a very good partner for venison and game birds. Aged, dry cheeses are the best match for Syrah. You can find delicious recipes to pair with Syrah or any other variety in Colleen’s Kitchen.