Bill’s Best Bets at the SAQ, May 2014

The many faces of Syrah and Shiraz
By Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Would you prefer chocolate or bacon? A dash of pepper perhaps, or maybe black olive? Smoke or violets? Red or black fruit? Well, depending on where your syrah is grown, your wine may show any of the above.

And you have your choice of provenance. Syrah is one of the fastest growing red varieties in the world. In the mid 1980’s, there was under 20,000 ha of syrah planted worldwide, almost entirely in France and Australia. 25 years later, that number has exploded to over 140,000 ha with the majority of these new vines planted over the last 10 years.

But if syrah can now be considered a member of the elite club of true “international” varietals, unlike cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay, there is something schizophrenic about syrah – it is known by two different names. Syrah and shiraz have come to signify more than just the name of a grape, for many it has come to represent a style unto itself.

It’s a climate thing

Syrah and shiraz are the same grapes. Researcher Carole Meredith at UC Davis confirmed via DNA profiling that it was the result of crossing a white grape, Mondeuse Blanche, and the one of France’s oldest red varietals, Dureza. But put a bottle of Côte Rôtie next to a Barossa shiraz and one would be hard pressed to say that they were the same grape.



While soils do make a difference in the grape’s expression, it’s the climate, and by extension, ripeness, that seems to be the most important factor in determining what aromas and flavours you will find in your syrah. As a general rule, cooler sites bring more aromatic nuance, including notes of violets, pepper, spices and red berries. Warmer sites give you more body, texture, power, smoked meat, cassis, blackberry, black olive and chocolate.

I tasted this on a micro-level on a recent trip to the northern Rhône where syrah is the only red grape authorized for the region’s appellations. Tasting through the region is a study of nuance, and one need look no further than the different expressions of Hermitage and Cornas.

Both hillsides are granite based, south-facing, and reach similar altitudes. The difference is that Cornas is 20 km further south, and the vineyard is in the shape of an amphitheatre, which keeps and amplifies the heat. In fact, Cornas in old Celtic language means “burnt earth.”

The result of this somewhat marginal difference in growing conditions makes a world of difference in the wines. Cornas tastes like blackberry jujube: intensely ripe, concentrated, dark fruited and almost jammy. In hotter years, you can find liquorice and olive notes. The tannins are big and burly.

Hermitage, with just a touch less ripeness shows a “lighter” dark fruit note, black currant as opposed to blackberry, more finessed tannins and much more spice. Power versus finesse, and 20km is the difference.

steep slopes of Cote Rotie

The steep slopes of Côte-Rôtie

Go 60 km further north to Côte-Rôtie and the syrah becomes an entirely different beast, much more feline in its expression. Here, at the northern edge of where syrah can ripen successfully, you get redder fruits, more florals and black pepper notes. Interesting to note that black pepper is a cool climate syrah characteristic, and is most prevalent in cooler vintages. In many ways, it is the equivalent of the “green” character in the cabernet family.

And what about the famous “smoked meat,” bacon character of syrah? This is a characteristic of the ripest and richest syrah, which can be found in Crozes-Hermitages, and to a lesser extent on Cornas.

The same climate distinction can be made in Australia, where shiraz is the most planted variety. In the hotter climate zones of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, you get Cornas on steroids. The wines are powerful, full-bodied with blackberry, black fruit, chocolate, plum. But tasting through the much cooler region of Victoria, the shiraz is much more floral with black cherry, plum, black pepper and exotic spice.

Cusumano Syrah 2012Qupé Syrah 2011Pfeiffer Shiraz 2011Of course there are other things at play here. Decisions on winemaking, grape growing techniques and ripeness levels at harvest will change the eventual wine. But climate, at least with respect to syrah, is paramount. So here are a few suggestions from around the globe for you to get better acquainted with the many faces of syrah and shiraz – no matter what you want to call it.

On the redder fruit and peppery spice side of the spectrum, try Pfeiffer’s 2011 shiraz. From the cooler region of Victoria you’ll see more peppery spice and redder fruits than classic Barossa jam. Equally interesting, and even fresher is Qupé’s 2011 California Central Coast syrah. Minerality, herbs and redder fruits with remarkable freshness.

For you bargain hunters, Cusumano’s 2012 Syrah is a nice meeting ground between the cooler and warmer styles. And while we can argue if $22 is indeed a bargain, South Africa’s Stark-Condé winery made one of the best syrahs I have tasted in a while at this price. Crozes Hermitages in style but arguably even better.

Domaine Courbis Champelrose Cornas 2011Domaine Belle Hermitage 2010Saltram MamreIf you want to taste the difference between a Cornas and a Hermitage, one need not spend a week’s mortgage. While these wines are very expensive, I found two excellent examples at very reasonable prices. Domaine Courbis’ 2011 Champelrose is classic Cornas with its blackberry fruit, hint of meat and spice. Compare it to Domaine Belle’s 2010 Hermitage, with its more subtle black currant notes and spice. Pay attention the tannin structure as well, and you will find a much grittier structure in the Cornas.

And no list of shiraz would be complete without a classic Barossa Valley expression of the grape. Try Saltram’s 2010 Mamre Brook. It won’t win any awards for finesse, but if you want a powerful red for your grilled steak, it wont disappoint.

Until next time.


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

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Syrah vines at Donaine Courbis 2

Syrah vines at Domaine Courbis

Rhône photos courtesy of Bill Zacharkiw