You Say Syrah; I Say Shiraz

#109 – November 27, 2009

As indicated by this week’s title, I wanted to discuss the Syrah grape which some people do not realize is the same as the shiraz grape. These are not variations of the same grape – they are exactly the same grape. As you will see today, the utilization of the two titles varies, with each winemaker using a different rationale for applying a specific title to a specific wine.

While one of the most popular usages of Syrah is as a blending agent (due to its abundance of juicy fruit, it helps balance out weaknesses in other varieties and also helps to mold/soften some of the more tannic wines), this newsletter focuses on its utilization as a single variety grape. Although the best incarnations will age for decades (the current best aging potential for a kosher syrah would probably be Yarden’s, single-vineyard, Ortal Syrah from the 2004 vintage), less-extracted styles are meant to be enjoyed young, taking advantage of their ripe and fresh black and red fruit, well-integrated tannins and balanced structure.

As a general rule, the grape goes by the name Syrah in its land of origin – the Rhone Valley in France as well as the United States and most of South America. It is known as Shiraz primarily in Australia but also in South Africa and Canada (go figure). In Israel, and also in other countries around the world, different wines carry different names with the decision to label a wine Syrah or Shiraz being based on the origin of the cloned vine. Syrah vineyards in Israel grow grapes derived from both Australian and Rhone-based clones. The wines grown from Australian clones are typically labeled “Shiraz” and wines produced from Rhone-based clones will be labeled “Syrah”. However, and this seems to be predominant in the Israeli wine industry, some winemakers will label their wines based on their feelings with respect to the character of the wine – is it more like the Rhone-based Syrah or the Australian-based Shiraz.

“Syrah”-labeled wines are sometimes thought to be more similar to classic Northern Rhône reds; presumably more elegant, tannic, smoke-flavored and less of a fruit bomb with the fruits being more retrained and in the background. “Shiraz”-labeled wines, on the other hand, would then be more similar to archetypical Australian or other New World examples; presumably made from riper berries resulting in loads of fruit upfront, higher in alcohol, less obviously tannic, peppery rather than smoky, usually more easily approached when young, and possibly slightly sweetish in impression.

Unlike many other aspects of wine labeling that are strictly and uniformly applied, this rule of thumb is arbitrary to a large extent and each winemaker/winery uses it differently. A lot depends on wood barrels in which the wine is stored and (some) Israeli winemakers still associate great wines with judicious amounts of wood (put Syrah in new oak and you get the heavy Australian style (Shiraz) as oppose to the elegant French Syrah).

In Israel, many wineries will produce both a Shiraz and Syrah (see the example from Dalton listed below). That said, the Syrah grape gets a lot of attention from Israeli vintners, and some see potential for the development of an “Israeli” style Syrah – a mixture between the Rhone Syrah with its great structure and diversity of various components and the spicy-fruity Shiraz. Dalton labeled its Reserve wine a Syrah and its table-wine line a Shiraz in order to express the winemaker’s feeling that the Syrah is more French towards Rhone in style and the Shiraz more New World in style.

One unfortunate thing is that there are no top notch Australian (kosher) shirazes out there for us to experience. Most of the offerings are mediocre at best with plenty of drek thrown in for good measure. There are a few decent wines but nothing great.

Listed below are a couple examples of Israeli Syrah and Shiraz that show the typical characteristics of each grape. Conspicuously absent are the marvelous single-vineyard offerings from Yarden as they will be reviewed in an upcoming newsletter.

Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend (here in the US) and Shabbat Shalom,

Yatir, Shiraz, 2005: A clear hit from one of my favorite wineries. A very dark inky purple color and full-bodied wine. The wine has developed nicely in the bottle over the past year and has yielded a very well structured and delicious wine. Lots of smoky wood but that well balanced by the cherries, currants and blackberries. Good overlay of grilled meat along with earthiness round out this treat on to the long finish. Relatively high in alcohol at 15% but not that noticeable given the elegant structure. A very elegant wine just coming into its own and one that should nicely for another five years or so. Take note – while I generally do not advocate decanting, in this case it might make sense as the wine is currently throwing some serious sediment.

Dalton, Shiraz, Estate, 2006: another extremely dark colored wine, this one medium bodied. Lots of juicy blackberries and plums, those balanced nicely by gripping acidity, spices, and some vanilla on the medium finish. Meant to be consumed young and probably note for further cellaring but very enjoyable right now.

Dalton, Syrah, Reserve, 2005: Not a pure Syrah as it was blended with 10% Viognier but a good comparison to its Shiraz sibling mentioned above. As with many of this varietal, an incredibly dark color and medium to full bodied. Lots of fruit those complemented by floral notes that stand up and make themselves heard – quite clearly a pleasant result from the Viognier bend. Lots of the typical Syrah with spices, elegance and good structure balanced by some Viognier touches of summer fruits that sounds like a weird combo but somehow works very well together. As with the Yatir, watch out for the sediment.

Recanati, Shiraz, 2006: A medium to full bodied wine with lots of vanilla to go along with the raspberries, cherries and juicy plums. Not as spicy as the Yatir above but enough to justify the Shiraz moniker.