Grape varieties

Syrah/Shiraz: The ultimate grape guide

What does it taste like?

  • Black fruits
  • Spice
  • Brambles
  • Black pepper
  • Plums
  • Leather

Where is it grown?

Though the Rhône River links the vineyards of the northern and southern Rhône, there are vast differences in climate, soils and therefore grape varieties and while the south accounts for most of the volume, the north is responsible for most of the prestige. Syrah is grown in both the continental northern Rhône and the Mediterranean south, but in the northern part it is the only red grape permitted. Here it is grown on vertiginous south-facing slopes and produces generous wines of substance laden with sun-ripened fruit flavours, capable of long ageing.

Côte-Rôtie, the 'roasted slope', only half an hour's drive south of Beaujolais, is the northernmost outpost of the syrah grape. The steep vineyard slopes, facing south-east, are perfectly sited to achieve maximum ripeness accounting for the intense fruit and deeply coloured wines. Relatively tannic, the wines have savoury notes to back up the black fruit and hedgerow flavours and can take up to ten years or more to achieve full bottle development. Additional perfumed aromas can be achieved through the addition of up to 5% viognier to the blend, depending on the producer.

Further south is the appellation of Saint-Joseph. The vineyards here are, for the main part, orientated towards the east which results in marginally less sunshine, and therefore less ripening time, than those that face south-east. The result is a style of wine that is lighter and faster maturing. The locals often view Saint-Joseph as the Rhône's answer to Beaujolais. The syrah wines are fruitier and for more immediate drinking, though with some ageing potential; ideal for those preferring a less weighty wine.

Perhaps the most famous of the northern Rhône appellations, Hermitage's amazing south-facing slopes produce wines of the greatest pedigree. Renowned for its long-lived reds, made in extremely limited quantities, its complex geology ensures added interest and complexity. The heat-retaining, granite soils and southern exposition encourage full grape ripening, creating a deeply coloured wine, heady with perfume and fruit aromas, with a structure and concentration that can ensure years of evolution ahead of it. With age, the tannins soften and the wine becomes more rounded with silky, black fruit and spicy, sweet oak flavours.

Crozes-Hermitage is the northern Rhône's largest appellation and, like the others, produces red wines from syrah alone. The best reds offer a softer style of wine with generous black fruit on the nose and palate – softer due to the richer soils compared with Hermitage. The wines have a finesse and elegance and can be approached earlier than some other Rhône wines. Spice notes accompany the fresh, black-fruit flavours. This appellation is an excellent source for both deliciously vibrant quaffing wine and more reserved, finer, complex wines.

Cornas, a small appellation nestling in a south-facing, half amphitheatre of granite, can offer a challenge to the wines of Hermitage. The climate here is significantly warmer so producers are often among the first to harvest. Wines are black, thick and often tannic in their youth. Powerful on the palate, these wines offer great ageing potential thereby soften the tannins and giving a rounder palate. A superb wine for decanting and serving with roast beef.

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Venture further south, along the Rhône River Valley, and syrah is more commonly found in blends, alongside grenache, cinsault and mourvèdre. It often lends a savoury, meaty, black olive character to the more sweetly fruity southern Rhône grapes.

Perhaps the most significant appellation of the southern Rhône is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This large area to the north of Avignon makes arguably the best wines of the south. The wines tend to be blended and are grenache based with syrah and mourvèdre in support. The wines are full bodied with balanced acidity, rich and dark with black fruit aromas and well-integrated, soft oak flavours. Usually made to drink at an earlier stage than those of the northern Rhône, few wines combine such strength with elegance so convincingly.

After Châteauneuf-du-Pape there are three levels of wine to be found; the crus, seven villages whose names appear on their own; Côtes-du-Rhône Villages and Côtes-du-Rhône.

The crus, where production is focused on red wines, are Lirac, Vinsobres, Rasteau, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Lirac is home to soft reds that are an early maturing Côtes-du-Rhône Villages in style. Vinsobres' focus is on reds from syrah. Its sub-alpine climate gives a lighter, fresher style of wine. Rasteau produces deeply coloured, full-bodied reds, tannic when young and needing a little time in bottle. Head for Gigondas and you will encounter big heavyweight reds, the essence of the south. And finally, Vacqueyras, producer of less weighty, fruitier, cherry-like wines with a touch of elegance.

The appellation Côtes-du-Rhône Villages is the focal point of some wonderful syrah-blended reds. The best are permitted to display the name of a village and are an excellent source of reliable reds. There are nearly 20 villages producing wines that are a distinct step up from Côtes-du-Rhône. However, there are some extraordinary wines sold as mere Côtes-du-Rhône that are well worth seeking out. These wines show ripe bouquets of red and black fruit, sweet, rounded tannins and surprising concentration and intensity.

Australia has proven itself capable of growing a number of grape varieties with huge success. However, it is perhaps shiraz which deserves the headlines: in Australia, it provides a taste that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

The focus of shiraz production is the heavyweight wine state of South Australia, producing most of the country's wine and boasting some of the its oldest vines. The dry, hot climate ripens grapes fully, making bold, dense and concentrated wines.

Shiraz is king in the Barossa Valley, located an hour north of Adelaide. The wines are dark and tannic with a ripe, black-fruit aroma and distinct chocolaty flavour. The peppery character of shiraz comes through well adding depth to the wine.

McLaren Vale vies with Barossa to be South Australia's best red-wine region. The climate is warm enough to guarantee lush, chocolaty reds from shiraz, with smooth, well-integrated fruit and oak aromas and flavours.

The Grampians, located at the westernmost end of Victoria State, lie at 335m altitude and lead the way for cool-climate shiraz that shows texture, spice and a delicious fruity richness. The wines can be creamy and exotic in fruit flavour with hints of mocha and blackberry.

Australia's first vineyards were planted in the state of New South Wales in 1788. Today, the state is most famous for the Hunter Valley where, in successful vintages, Hunter shiraz can be outstanding: medium-bodied, earthy and age-worthy.

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Plantings of shiraz in South Africa are to be found in three key regions: Stellenbosch, Paarl and Robertson.

Located on the coast, Stellenbosch, and to a lesser extend Paarl, produce a shiraz that is more akin to those of the Rhône than to the dark, Australian versions. Whilst still powerful, the chocolate and mocha notes are replaced by savoury, peppery aromas, with a hint of perfume if blended with viognier.

Robertson is further inland and far hotter thus producing a deeper coloured, more powerful style of wine that still retains its Rhône origins.

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When grown in too cool a climate, syrah can taste rather lean and astringent and it had been thought that New Zealand's climate was too cool for the sufficient ripening of the grape. However North Island's Hawkes Bay enjoys a warm climate suited to the cultivation of both Bordeaux grapes and syrah. The Gimblett Gravels region of Hawkes Bay has had particular success with the grape producing wonderfully pure yet concentrated wines from fully ripe grapes, with richly fruity tannins that balance rather than dominate the fruit.

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What style of red wine is syrah?

Syrah, or shiraz as it's known in the New World, is considered to be one of the great noble black grape varieties, because it can produce such deliciously dark, full-bodied and age-worthy wines.

Expect rich, brooding flavours of blackberry, black plums and blackcurrant, with spicy, coffee, leathery and liquorice notes in hotter regions and gamey, truffle notes developing with a bit of age.

Where should I start with syrah?

Old world: The Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône in France are the home of syrah in the old world. The Northern appellations of Côte Rôtie (or 'the roasted slope' which gives an indication of how hot this area is) and Hermitage produce some of the most prestigious syrahs, packed with sun-riped fruit flavours and with lots of potential for ageing. Crozes Hermitage offers slightly softer, fruitier reds and Cornas can compete with Hermitage itself, producing deep, black, tannic, powerful syrahs. Southern Rhône is where you'll find the iconic Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, making silky, dark-fruited, soft and spicy wines with lots of elegance. Here syrah is blended with up to 13 other local grape varieties, such as grenache, mourvedre, cinsault and carignan.

New world: Syrah is another red grape that the Australians have made their own, with Aussie shiraz being made in a range of styles from lighter, red-fruited, gluggable wines to deep, rich, almost chocolatey full-bodied wines for keeping. Australian winemakers also came up with the innovative and highly successful cabernet-shiraz blend. The warmer regions of New Zealand, such as Hawke's Bay, are also known for their shiraz. Here, as in some other new world regions, the producers have started to name the wines syrah if they are more 'French' in style (dark, savoury fruit) and shiraz to indicate a richer, raspberry-fruited style.

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