You've heard me talk about Syrah here and there over the months. This is because I'm a huge fan of Rhone Valley (French) wines, both Northern and Southern alike (though for different reasons). Syrah is a grape you'll often find blended along side it's happy varietal partners Grenache and Mouvedre in the Southern Rhone in particular. I love these wines. They have boisterous fruit, a hint of spice and a rustic edge. Syrah got it's known kick off in slightly cooler parts of the Northern Rhone. What do I mean by "known"? Well, the grape's precise geographic origins aren't fully known with speculation the Greeks or the Romans had something to do with it. Nevertheless, in the village of L'Hermitage, named after the chapel that sits at the top of the town's primary hill, Syrah has its claim to fame. (The nearby Cotie Rotie is also well-known for it's Syrah.) The Northern Rhone boasts a cooler climate than its Southern counterpart because the Mistral winds bring cooler temps down from the Massif Central. Getting too technical on you? No worries... suffice to say it's consistently cooler up North with few microclimates to permit variation vineyard to vineyard. That means there's less opportunity for many different red grape varietals to thrive. In the North, Syrah can work its mojo. In the South, Syrah is one of 20 other major grape varietals that flourish - hence all the blending down in those parts (it's so fun!). Meanwhile, the French have done the only thing that could be done: mandate Syrah is the only red grape varietal permitted in the Northern Rhone's AOC wines.
Syrah is a "big" red grape. It is very dark in color, full bodied, fleshy and full of tannin. I always associate black pepper spice with these wines and look forward to picking out the myriad of potential aromas on the nose of each different Syrah wine. Sometimes it's all violets, sometimes a bit of cocoa, and other times its all big, blackberry fruit. At the end of the day, they promise to be supple, sexy, smooth wines.
I often get the question "So, what about Shiraz?". Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape, genetically. The minor name variation is just an Old World v. New World phenomenon. The flavor profile of Syrah vs. Shiraz wines certainly vary though. This is based on the winemaking style and climate of the wine's origin. For example, Syrah from the Northern Rhone (and generally, other Old World areas) tend to offer a little less fruit, a little more smoke and a bit more subtlety in the many flavors that coalesce in the glass. Typical of New World winemaking practices, Shiraz wines from Australia or California tend to put their fruit foot first, their pepper foot second and otherwise tend to be higher in alcohol (due to the warmer climates from which they hail).
Neither Shiraz nor Syrah is better than the other; it just is what it is. The trick is to taste a few offerings of each. This way you'll find your personal preference between the two styles. And before you taste, it's a good idea to decant. Younger wines will lap up the oxygen on offer and provide a more integrated, 'evolved' flavor profile, if you will. Older wines relish the chance to throw their sediment (into the decanter, rather than into your glass).
Which syrah/shiraz style do you prefer?