A grape by any other name

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

We say syrah, Aussies say shiraz. So the received wisdom goes. Or did.

We say syrah, Aussies say shiraz. So the received wisdom goes. Or did. For a while syrah and shiraz were one and the same, but Australia's success with the Rhône Valley grape variety has forced a re-think. Take the case of Sainsbury's, for instance, which was doing very nicely a while back with its Wild Pig Shiraz and Reserve St Marc Shiraz, both from the South of France. When the French got wind of this Australianisation of their precious syrah grape, they put the kibosh on its Australian name and insisted on calling it syrah. The result: sales dropped instantly, and only recovered when the French realised their folly and agreed to change it back again.

The French have been making Bordeaux from cabernet sauvignon and merlot and Burgundy with pinot noir for centuries. The same grapes have been planted and styles imitated by New World producers, but always accompanied by an assumption of Gallic superiority. After a slow start, syrah - or rather shiraz - has become the latest French grape to stake a claim to greatness beyond French borders. This time, the wine style based on the grape variety owes its success not to attempts to emulate the French but to a standard established by Australia.

In the Rhône Valley, the twin peaks of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie have for long been considered to produce the greatest expression of the syrah grape. But over the past couple of decades, Australia has built on its heritage of old shiraz vines to demonstrate that it has as much diversity of expression as, if not greater than, France itself.

Jancis Robinson MW calls syrah "one of the noblest black grape varieties, if nobility is bestowed by an ability to produce serious red wines capable of ageing majestically for decades". This much is true. But what distinguishes it from cabernet sauvignon and even more so from Burgundy's pinot noir is that, with its spectrum of fruit flavours and characters from pepper, violets and spice in cooler climates to dark fruits such as blackcurrant and blackberry in warmer regions, syrah - or shiraz - is capable of making both great wine and affordable reds, whether on its own or blended with other Mediterranean grapes such as grenache and mourvèdre.

The versatility of the style combined with the Australian success story has ensured the expansion of syrah around the world. Planeta Syrah from Sicily, Marques de Griuon from Spain and Incognito in Portugal are all fine examples of the new face of syrah in Europe. For the most astonishing explosion of the grape though, you have to look at the New World: California has 8,000 hectares planted with that variety, up from 50 in 1984; South Africa has 8,700 hectares; and Chile 2,360 hectares from next to nothing a decade ago. Even half of France's total of 65,000 hectares consists of recent syrah plantings in the "New World" of the Languedoc-Roussillon.

Maybe it's only Europeans today who still think that Hermitage and Côte Rôtie represent the pinnacles of what the syrah grape is capable of. But perhaps equally, the question of whether it's the French or the Australian version that produces the greatest wines is only of academic interest. Because the most important point about syrah - sorry shiraz - is that, grown in different soils and climates by individuals with a host of varying objectives, this Mediterranean grape has vastly broadened the palette of wine styles available for our enjoyment. All they have in common is a name - and now even that's a moot point.

Comments