From the Northern Rhone Valley: Syrah

Syrah is a French grape variety, best known in the Northern Rhone Valley, where it produces powerful, long-lived reds like Côte Rotie, Cornas, and Hermitage. However, you might know it better as shiraz, the juicy, peppery Australian red that never fails to please.

Syrah produces a full-bodied wine with medium-to-high tannins, medium acidity, and usually high alcohol no matter where it’s grown. Its thick skin makes it a late ripener and lends an inky, often opaque color. Since it requires a long growing season, it does not do well in cool climates.

To reach its optimal expression, syrah wants to be grown at higher altitudes in vineyards that get a lot of heat and sunlight through the year. Along with zinfandel, it’s one of the last grape varieties to be picked and often produces a high-alcohol wine that’s meaty, chewy, and flavorful with notes of black fruits, tobacco, tar, leather, and even bacon fat.

Is Shiraz the Same as Syrah?

Now, if you’re familiar with Australian shiraz, these descriptors might not align with what you know of the grape. Make no mistake, though; the two are one and the same. The differences in terroir—the combination of climate, soil, aspect, and human intervention—define them. Shiraz has a different personality, often with rich peppery notes, jammy berry fruit, and an intensely spicy character.

You’ll also find syrah wines labeled shiraz in South Africa and many other parts of the world. However, outside of Australia and South Africa, it’s not as popular as cabernet sauvignon or merlot, so it tends to take a backseat in terms of vineyard plantings.

So, even though syrah and shiraz are the same grape, there are significant stylistic differences to note. You can generally expect a lower-acid, fruitier, jammier wine when the label says shiraz. There are some notable exceptions, of course; Henschke Hill of Grace and Penfolds Grange (both Australian) are two of the most expensive, serious, and sought-after shiraz wines in the world—and they are anything but frivolous.

Oak Influence in Syrah

New world syrah, like those made in California, tends to have a different flavor profile. Oak affects syrah in remarkable ways, and it often masks the true varietal character of the wine.

The French usually prefer older, larger oak barrels that do not impart a lot of additional flavor or extract. Australian shiraz is a polar opposite, as they generally prefer American oak barrels, and many are at least partially barrel-fermented.

When syrah is aged in new French oak, it masks the delicate purple and black fruit and loses its typicity, but that doesn’t mean the wines are less pleasant or interesting, just different and atypical. Ultimately, the world of syrah is an adventure worth taking, so choose a few from various regions and host a tasting of your own!

What Foods Pair with Syrah?

Choosing what foods to pair with syrah comes down to the style of the wine, where it’s from, and your preferences.

While mid-priced shiraz-style wines are more amenable to saucy, spicy foods, traditionally-made syrah, and higher-end shiraz are better with roasted or grilled meats, lamb, game meats (like venison), and braised meats with syrah that has a bit of age on it.