Shiraz – named after a city in Iran of all places. It’s also known as Syrah, which is the name of the grape. The name Shiraz is courtesy of our Australian friends and it used to be that they were about the only ones who used the term. But American vintners have seemed to have started riding the Australian coattails because they have been really successful in calling it Shiraz and we Americans certainly will ride any successful marketing coattails. So now you’re seeing such wineries as Beringer, Francis Coppola and Geyser Peak marketing their Syrahs as Shirazes. I predict that the trend will continue to accelerate. In fact, I think that Syrah will eventually be the rarity. The French refuse to budge though because they are known as the premiere bottler of Syrah in their Rhône region (named after the great river which runs through it). No new world marketing trend will change that fact.
The Aussies also pronounce Shiraz a little differently than the rest of the world. They pronounce it Shir- AZZ, whereas we pronounce it Shir-OZ. The latter is the more “correct” pronunciation, if you are trying to pronounce the name of the city. The latter is what you will hear mostly in the US unlike you’re like me, who likes to pronounce an Australian Shiraz the way the vintners pronounce it. I use the American pronunciation for Shiraz produced anywhere else. But that’s just me.
So, what is Syrah/Shiraz?
The grape comes from hardy rootstock which is late budding but doesn’t ripen too late. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, it is “conveniently late-budding and not too late ripening”. According to the same reference, “Its deep, dark, dense qualities are much reduced once the yield is allowed to rise and it has a tendency to lose aroma and acidity rapidly if left too long on the vine”. This explains the wide price variation between, say, Penfold’s Grange (at hundreds of dollars a bottle) and their Thomas Hyland Vineyard wine (which only costs tens of dollars). Another good example is Hermitage (please pronounce it air-ma-TAHZE, as the French do). This is one of the most expensive bottlings of the great Rhône region. It’s only a 311 acres region in the Northern Rhône and there are a handful of producers who produce it. However, Syrah is the predominate grape in all Rhône regions, from Côtes-du Rhône to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. You will also obviously find it in the famous “Rhône Rangers” of the West Coast, like Tablas Creek of the Central Coast.
So how would you describe Syrah/Shiraz? Well, to me, it’s similar to Cabernet Sauvignon in terms of body. Full-bodied and dark, it’s more fruit forward” and juicy. It’s usually firm and well-structured and not quite as tannic as Cab Sauv. It’s got lots of dark fruit, especially fruits like blackberry, plum and black cherry, and they tend to be fairly spicy. They can be peppery or chocolatey or both; they can have clove, licorice and vanilla. Leathery notes aren’t uncommon.
Cool climate Syrahs tend to be more “elegant” with a richer flavor profile (read Northern Rhone, coastal and higher altitude California and the extremely rare Australian boutiquey vintner), while warmer climate-grown Syrahs are generally “bigger”, “jammier” with some “lighter” fruit flavors like blueberries and raspberries. This is the predominate style of Australian producers due to the fact that their growing regions tend to be hotter.
West Coast producers have generally followed the australian model, since they are the most familiar to the US consumer, but there is an increasing trend to go after the Northern Rhône style. Since California has both types of climates available to it, the vintners there can produce according to their geographic and topographic constraints. Syrah works in both warm and cool environments, and each offers advantages that should be factored into the production. Cool climate Syrahs have been more of a challenge because US consumers have been conditioned by the success of the Aussies as well as the fact that more people can afford to drink wines from the southern Rhône and are more familiar with the style.
Australians probably grow the highest percentage of Shiraz to the rest of their output. It’s ubiquitous. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because there is plenty to choose from. It’s bad because yields are often too high and the varietal loses some of its character and it can be flabby, “underspiced”, overcooked in hot years, etc. Look first to established producers like Penfolds, Wolf Blass and D’Arenberg. This isn’t to say that others aren’t good, but these producers tend to be pretty consistent within their various niches. However, if you want to hit a home run virtually every time, look to Mollydooker (usually one word but even the winemakers make it two words on occasion). The name is Aussie slang for a left hander (and can be used to describe a “left hook”) and that’s what the wine will give you. Big, juicy, spicy and never “flabby” or tired, the various bottlings have never failed to satisfy. They are certainly “in-your-face” but never in a bad way. The winemakers, Sarah and Sparky Phillips, they first became well-known outside of their home country with the famed brand, Marquis Phillips. The Phillipses are clever marketers, creating memorable names for each of their specific blends, and they tie a cartoon version of the name on the label. Some of their most famous offerings are “The Blue-eyed Boy”, “The Boxer” (there’s that left hook thing working for them), “Two left Feet”, “The Maitre D’ “, and “Carnival of Love”. If you’d like more info on this up-and-comer, here’s their website where you can click on each of their offerings and the labels and bottles.
They have various blends of Shirazes and Cabernets, so you might need to google the specific wine that interests you, since it’s hard to find specifics on some of the wines at the Mollydooker site itself.
So, what should we pair Shiraz/Syrah with?
Think Cabernet Sauvignon. You want to pair the average Shiraz or Syrah with fatty meats, stews, lamb, game, etc. Obviously, if you know your various styles, you can fine tune it even further. For instance, you might not want to pair a big jammy Australian Shiraz with a rare tuna steak, while you might handily recommend an Hermitage or Cornas (a region close to hermitage in the northern Rhône) because the jamminess won’t overwhelm the flavor of the tuna. I’m not saying that you can’t pair a warm climate Syrah with tuna. For instance, Côtes-du Rhône is blended with at least 40% Grenache, which tends to soften and reduce the body of the wine. Therefore, it can pair nicely with something like tuna or salmon.
But, in general, you should recommend Syrah/Shiraz as you would for any other full-bodied red. Believe it or not, it’s great “picnic wine”, especially if you’re eating BBQ, ribeyes or juicy burgers. Fat and Syrahs work well in concert with each other.
So go forth and sell Syrah/Shiraz with confidence. I’ve only scratched the surface, but I hope that I’ve given you the right thumbnail sketch to help you when someone is looking for a good red wine to go with their prime rib.