There is no wine varietal more synonymous with Australia than shiraz. It’s the staple at every Aussie tasting bench, the nation’s greatest wine export and our most widely planted grape. Whether you’re after an easy drinking red at dinner or a world-class vino to add to your cellar, there’s a style of shiraz to suit every palate and occasion. Grown all over the place, and adaptable across most soil types and climates, shiraz (or syrah, as it’s also known) is a universally loved wine.
Shiraz or syrah: what’s the difference?
The most important thing to note here is that shiraz and syrah are made from the same grape. The difference in flavour profile between these two styles comes down to winemaking technique and the region in which it’s grown.
For the most part, European regions that label their wines by varietal tend to use the term syrah. Even in France where they label according to region (e.g. Hermitage), the wines are normally syrah. The Old World style is characterised by complexity of flavour (spice, cherry, tar and cassis) along with earthy elements and soft tannins.
In Australia and South Africa, the term shiraz is almost always used. The trend to labelling cooler climate styles ‘syrah’ has grown in recent years, but generally, the word shiraz is more closely aligned with the Australian style. It’s fuller bodied than its European counterpart, packed with intense fruit flavours (e.g. plum, blackberry and cherry), and it often has a higher alcohol content due to longer ripening on the vine.
Nowadays, shiraz is planted and grown all over the world, but the spiritual home of this varietal is undoubtedly France’s northern Rhone. It appeared for the first time in the Isere district of the Rhone-Alps region, where it was the offspring of the red grape dureza and the white grape mondeuse blanche.
Until the first shiraz cuttings were taken to Australia in 1832, in the luggage of James Busby, the northern Rhone was the only region in which the grape was grown. There, it was the exclusive red grape in Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas, Saint Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. For many years, Hermitage was taken to Bordeaux for blending. In fact, the wines that read ‘Hermitage’ actually sold for higher prices than their unblended brothers and sisters. Its reputation was building.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the great English connoisseur, Professor George Saintsbury, declared that “Hermitage is the manliest wine I have ever drunk”.
Australian shiraz, a wine to celebrate (and export)!
Did you know that the world’s oldest, continuously productive shiraz vines aren’t found in the Rhone Valley, but rather the Barossa Valley in South Australia? Well, now you do. Located in the Langmeil vineyard (planted 1843), these ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines still produce tiny crops of super-intense grapes.
In Oz, we have a love-love relationship with shiraz. It’s our biggest and most celebrated wine export. Whether it’s being produced by household names (think Penfolds, Henschke and Wendouree), or in smaller, boutique outfits across the country, shiraz is a staple at Aussie tasting benches. This has been the case since the early 19th century, when pioneers such as George Wyndham, Harry Lindeman, William Angove, Joseph Seppelt and Thomas Hardy began winemaking. What followed, and is yet to slow, was a wine boom unlike that experienced by any other varietal in the country.
The 1980s and ‘90s saw the popularity of shiraz soar overseas. Decidedly different from the Old World styles of syrah, Europe and the UK fully embraced the fresh, full-flavoured and totally irreverent Australian shiraz. In the US market, wine critics like Robert Parker Jr. helped push the little grape along by awarding it 100-point scores and rave reviews.
Over time, the blockbuster style of shiraz has softened to one that’s more focussed on approachability, but the inky depth and incredible richness still prevail.
A snapshot: Aussie shiraz regions
Shiraz is grown in almost every wine region of Australia, and each is home to its own varietal expression. Let’s break down some of the most famous:
Home to the oldest (with the first vines planted in 1843) and best-known shiraz in the country, the Barossa style is full-bodied and richly textured. If you like your red wine packed with dark fruit and spice, then Barossa shiraz is for you.
Eden is a part of the greater Barossa zone, but due to its higher elevation, picking here can take place up to two weeks later than the Barossa Valley. Expect medium- to full-bodied shiraz, with blackberry and pepper notes. James says: “[Eden Valley] shiraz is exceptionally graceful, combining intensity with finesse…”
Shiraz from South Australia’s Clare Valley benefits from long, warm days and cool nights, meaning big flavour and excellent acid retention. Despite being a region famed for its riesling, the shiraz from here is well loved, featuring a hint of liquorice. James says: “This region introduces an inner core of steel, which may or may not be immediately apparent, but which gives the wines enough structure to age for decades.”
Shiraz loves the climate and ancient Cambrian soils of Victoria’s Heathcote. The weight and texture of the wines here are similar to those of the Barossa, but boast more dark fruit and spice. James says: “The wines are mouth-filling and mouth-coating, densely coloured and richly flavoured, their texture akin to a great tapestry, helping to highlight their multifaceted taste.”
The Hunter Valley in New South Wales is Australia’s oldest wine region, and shiraz is one of its key varietals. The growing season here is typically warm but without big heat spikes. This means the shiraz produced is more medium-bodied and savoury. James says: “The winemakers of this region are a tightly knit, highly skilled group, with a knowledge horizon extending over all Australian regions and equally to the Rhone Valley.”
With its maritime climate, shiraz from ‘The Vale’ (as locals call it) is typically full-bodied with rich blue fruit and a hint of chocolate. After the Barossa, The Vale is up there with the bosses of Aussie shiraz. James says: “When conventionally grown and harvested, the wines have an effortless opulence that’s the envy of most countries that have recently become converts to the variety.”
While not historically a go-to for the variety, shiraz is on the rise in the region. It has the third-largest production after pinot noir and chardonnay and it’s “on the upwards path in terms of plantings” according to James Halliday. The regional style is elegant, aromatic, often more medium-bodied, with an array of red and purple fruits, plus spicy complexity. And with the cooler climate, it often comes with the ‘syrah’ label attached.
As we’ve established, shiraz can create medium- to full-bodied wines, with varying flavour profiles and structures depending on where it’s grown and who it’s made by. For ease, let’s focus on Australian shiraz.
This is a grape that thrives in moderate to warm climates, but that’s increasingly found in cooler regions. The typical flavours of Australian shiraz are spice, red fruit, black fruit and pepper. If a winemaker is looking to produce a full-bodied style, then you can expect rich, ripe and intense fruit flavours.
Historically, Max Schubert (the creator of Penfolds Grange) fundamentally changed the way Australian winemakers approached shiraz. He kick-started the process of using juice run-off and open vats to regulate the temperature of ferments, and added cooler-grown, higher-acid grapes in an effort to give the shiraz freshness, vibrancy and that deep colour.