The Shiraz Syrah dilemma

Shiraz and Syrah may be the same grape, but whether the wine is labelled one thing or the other depends on which consumer it’s aimed at, finds Richard Woodard. Now that Australian Shiraz is in the doldrums, the name matters more than ever. 

Doug Frost, Peter McAtamney, John Davey
Doug Frost, Peter McAtamney, John Davey

From its role as the mainstay of great Rhône wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Syrah has evolved into a global winemaking phenomenon, grown on an industrial scale, thanks to the success of one style above all others: Australian Shiraz. 

The juggernaut

Well over 400,000 tons of Shiraz were picked during the 2013 Australian wine grape harvest, equating to 24% of the ­entire crop, or 46% of all red wine grapes. The total outstripped Chardonnay by 35,000 tons, and Shiraz prices rose 15% to reach A$637.00 ($590.00) per ton, according to the Winemakers Federation of Australia (WFA).

It wasn’t always thus. Back in the early 1980s in McLaren Vale – where Shiraz now accounts for just under 50% of planted­ vineyards – the variety fetched about A$300.00 per ton, while Chardonnay was in such demand that it went for as much as A$10,000.00. As Shingleback winemaker­/owner John Davey observes: “We’re in the fashion business as well as the wine ­business.”

The boom in Australian Shiraz is one ­replicated in miniature elsewhere, not least in southern France. As recently as the early 1970s, the variety was still mostly confined to the Rhône Valley, but in the 20 years to 1990, total plantings across France grew ­tenfold to nearly 30,000 ha, and have since increased to more than 50,000 ha. Much of this was driven by new plantings in the south, thanks partly to the boom in sales of Vin de Pays d’Oc wines.

Other New World countries have subsequently followed Australia’s lead: Chile now has just over 6,000 ha of Syrah, more than 10 times the figure at the turn of the millennium; both Argentina and South Africa’s plantings dwarf that, totalling­ 13,000 ha and 10,500 ha ­respectively; and California has well over 7,500 ha.

The attractions of the variety are manifold, with producers enticed by the proven success of the Aussie Shiraz style, the relative ease with which it can be grown and a less ­tangible, chameleon-like quality: it’s a grape that (a little like Chardonnay) offers a distinct reflection of the soils and climate in which it is grown. The only thing that’s ­complicated about it, from a consumer point of view, is that some producers call it ‘Shiraz’ and some call it ‘Syrah’, even though it’s the same thing.

Shiraz or Syrah?

The Syrah/Shiraz dichotomy used to be simple enough: if you were in France (and using the varietal name on the label), you went for Syrah; if you were in Australia, it was Shiraz. And, in turn, each of these names implied a different style.

“I would say that our customers in ­general have little knowledge of grapes and, if they ask for Shiraz, they want to have a wine in the fruity, jammy style that, for example, most cheaper Australian wines have,” ­suggests Jakob Stenson, who works in customer services for Swedish alcohol monopoly Systembolaget. “The more atypical customer, who perhaps participates in tas­tings and has a bit deeper knowledge, is well aware that it is the same grape.”

Andrew Shaw, head of buying at UK ­supplier Bibendum Wine, reckons that only about 5% of typical supermarket ­shoppers are aware that Syrah and ­Shiraz are the same ­variety, but thinks this scarcely ­matters as long as producers stay true to the style expected by the consumer.

“The lighter, fresher, more ‘Rhône’ styles of wines are commonly referred to as ­Syrah, wherever on the planet they may be produced, such as Rhône or California, for example, whereas the ‘Australian’ styled wines of high alcohol and intense fruit are more ­often branded as Shiraz to ­reflect the more intense flavour profile.”­ He says it’s primarily­ a style or philosophy issue. “Winemakers and marketers are trying to give a stylistic indication to the type of flavour to be expected from the wine in the bottle.” He says that a wine from Walker Bay near Hermanus [in South Africa] will likely be branded a ‘Syrah’ due to the cooler climate and lower­ ­alcohol, while a wine from Stellenbosch will be a ‘Shiraz’. “By naming their wines ­according to the wine style, it gives consu­mers confidence in their wine selection, by making the connection with classic Shiraz and Syrah styles.”

Similarly, New Generation Wines ­imports Boekenhoutskloof wines from South ­Africa into the UK, including the winery’s ­Boekenhoutskloof range and its Porcupine Ridge line. Both generally use ‘Syrah’ on their labels because winemaker Marc Kent aims at a “more restrained, Rhône-like style”, in the words of New Generation commercial director Hamish Young. So it’s called Syrah in Waitrose and yet labelled as Shiraz in Sainsbury’s, at the retailer’s request.

In Chile, the new wave of cool-climate Syrahs from regions such as Elqui or Leyda are typically labelled as Syrah. Fair enough, but where does that place wines from the much hotter Colchagua Valley? Does it make sense, for example, for Montes to label its high-end Folly wine from Colchagua’s Apalta enclave as Syrah, when it regularly touches 15% abv and is inkily rich and heavily oaked? Young’s view is that “probably in most people’s minds Syrah is a little more sophisticated”, ­perhaps reflecting Folly’s high-end pricing – but is that the view of the winemaker or the consumer? Or both?

There’s clearly more to this labelling decision than pure winemaking style. Young also recalls a Sainsbury’s own-label Languedoc labelled as Shiraz which was forced to change back to Syrah (at the time, ­Shiraz was not permitted on French wine labels). Sales plummeted. “Sub-£7.00 ($11.75) you would be more likely to go for Shiraz. It’s a similar sort of thing with Pinot Grigio rather than Pinot Gris,” suggests Young.

Shaw broadly agrees. “Price also impacts decision,” he says, “with lower-priced, branded wines often reverting to using Shiraz as it is more widely known by the mass international wine drinker.” But he adds that this loose interpretation of the Syrah/Shiraz dichotomy “hugely risks ­confusing the consumer”.

Returning to Australia, the picture has become ever more complex as wine styles have diversified and embraced regional ­variations in recent years. “The more ­‘mature’ a wine-producing nation becomes, the more broad-minded and confident they ­become about pushing the envelope for both different winemaking styles and different approaches to marketing the same product against a large number of competitors,” Shaw explains. “Australia is a great example of this as more and more producers move away from referring to their wines [as] Shiraz so they ‘stand out from the crowd’.”

As such, there is more cool-climate Australian wines being labelled Syrah, such as some of those produced by De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley. “If you market this as Shiraz, ­people would return it ­because it doesn’t taste like Penfolds,” says chief winemaker Steve Webber. “Our style is about perfume, medium-bodied, ele­gance, brightness, interest and food. Using the word Syrah differentiates it from the normal ­Australian style.”

And yet De Bortoli also has a ­Shiraz Viognier­ blend (Webber reckons the ­mention of Viognier tells people the style is more perfumed) and, in 2012, the company changed its Estate Grown label to Shiraz ­because the sales team thought it would be easier to sell. “I don’t know if I agree with them, but time will tell,” Webber says.

Head north-west to the even cooler ­Adelaide Hills, where Syrah/Shiraz ­ripens only in warmer spots, and you might ­expect Syrah to feature heavily on labels. Not ­necessarily: for all its fresh fruit and Rhône-like black pepper, Shaw and Smith’s benchmark example is still called Shiraz. “It’s all about elegance,” says global sales and marketing manager Dave LeMire MW. “But we haven’t gone down that [Syrah] route because we don’t want ­Shiraz to be seen as just a warm-­climate style of wine.”

What’s going on? Wine Business Solutions principal Peter McAtamney has a theory: “The desire to differentiate Shiraz-based wines by using the word ‘Syrah’ reached its peak in the early 2000s when Parker-point-chasing South Australian wines had their heyday,” he says. “Hawke’s Bay, Central Victoria, certain South African producers, as well as Santa Barbara-based and other cooler-climate ­California producers, were very keen to put as much distance between what those ­producers were doing and themselves as possible. Rightly so, I believe.”

But, McAtamney continues, “common sense” has since prevailed as producers realised they were confusing less sophisticated consumers, while “at the other end of the scale, far more consumers now realise that Shiraz can be produced in a wide ­variety of styles and actually like that idea.” He argues that the message about Syrah “got diluted at both ends and is probably best let go. Wine producers are a parochial bunch, however, and politics can sometimes get in the way of progress…” 

Which name to pick?

There are no firm rules, but wineries need to bear a number of factors in mind before naming their wines either Syrah or ­Shiraz, particularly wine style, price-point and ­target market. Shaw says: “Different markets have different expectations and preferences, depending on their collective wine experience, so producers need to take this into account when naming their wines.” He says the main aim for producers has to be sales, so labelling must give a strong indication of the wine style and flavour profile, while also appealing to the local market.


What’s in a name?

It may never be certain where Syrah gets its name from, but it’s likely that myth and legend have played a more significant role in its etymology than historical fact. Any connection with the city of Shiraz in ancient Persia is fanciful at best, as is an alternative theory linking the grape with Syracuse in Sicily; however, these romantic stories, involving ancient peoples, Roman Emperors and the Crusades, may have given the grape its name if nothing else.

In viticultural and winemaking terms, the connections already looked dubious before 1998 – the wines of Shiraz in Persia, after all, were white – but then a UC Davis study blew them completely out of the water. DNA research discovered that Syrah was the offspring of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, varieties almost exclusively confined to the south-east of France, in the Ardèche and Savoie regions, respectively. So Syrah, it seems, is French after all.

As for the alternative name ‘Shiraz’, there are references in English going back to the 1830s at least. The Australian connection was cemented by James Busby, who brought cuttings from Europe in 1832, calling the variety ‘Scyras’ or ‘Ciras’. By the middle of the 19th century, this had become ‘Shiraz’ – when not called Hermitage after its spiritual home in the Rhône Valley.

The view from the USA

Australia’s precipitous tumble in the North American market was even faster than its meteoric rise a few years previous. As ­diverse as the country’s offerings may be, the retail scene was awash in a monochrome of cheap Shiraz with cute or irreverent ­labels. Little effort was made to differentiate one from another; consumers weren’t taught that Central Victoria or the Adelaide Hills create distinctive Shiraz (or as many are increasingly labelling it: Syrah, its international moniker) that bears little resemblance to Barossa Shiraz. Instead price was the only differentiator, so the cheapest wine won. 

Today, the consumer who lapped up Aussie Shiraz is more often than not purchasing Argentine Malbec. Its virtues are much the same as cheap and cheerful Shiraz: fruity, bold flavours, a rich, even sometimes sweet palate, and very affordable pricing. It’s possible to imagine Argentina’s top grape ­Malbec going the same way as did Shiraz.Selling American-grown and made Syrah/Shiraz has been a challenge since the ­collapse of the Australian wine juggernaut.

The ­ubiquity of cute critter labels of Shiraz has for the foreseeable future hampered Shiraz sales, unless it is very inexpensive. Producers of ­premium or better Syrah/Shiraz label it only as Syrah; hardly any Syrah selling for more than $12.00 is labelled with the name Shiraz.  

California producers have had to accept the grim facts: it is very challenging for them to sell their Syrah. Many are blending it into other wines. Interestingly, Washington State Syrah producers have found a friendlier­ ­market for their wines, though some in Washington remain nervous about the ­current prospects for the grape.

Doug Frost, Master Sommelier, Master of Wine, buyer for United Airlines.

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