There is no wine variety more synonymous with Australia than shiraz. It’s the staple at every Australian 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 bottle to add to your cellar, there’s a style of shiraz to suit. Grown all over and adaptable across most soil types and climates, shiraz (or syrah, as it’s also known) is universally loved.

Go to section: Shiraz or Syrah: what’s the difference? | Shiraz beginnings | Australian shiraz | Aussie shiraz regions | Shiraz characteristics

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 grape-growing environment.

For the most part, European regions that label wine by variety tend to use the term syrah. Even in France, where they label according to appellations (i.e. Hermitage), the wines are normally syrah. The Old World style is characterised by its complexity of flavour (i.e. 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 (i.e. plum, blackberry and cherry), and often with a higher alcohol content due to extended ripening.

Shiraz beginnings

Nowadays, shiraz is planted and grown all over the world, but its spiritual home is undoubtedly France’s northern Rhone. Its first recorded appearance was 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 viticulturist James Busby, the northern Rhone was the only region where 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” sold for higher prices than their unblended siblings. Its reputation was building.

Towards the end of the 19th century, English connoisseur 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? These ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines still produce tiny crops of super-intense grapes.

In Australia, we have a love-love relationship with shiraz. It’s our biggest and most celebrated wine export. Whether household names are producing it (think Penfolds, Henschke and Wendouree) or smaller outfits across the country, shiraz is a staple at local tasting benches, bottle shops and bars. 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 variety in this 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 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 focused on approachability, but its inky depth and incredible richness still prevail.

A snapshot: Australian shiraz regions

Shiraz is grown in almost every wine region of Australia, and each has a distinctive varietal expression. Let’s break down some of the most famous:

Barossa Valley

Home to the oldest vines and best-known wines, 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 Valley

The Eden Valley 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.”

Clare Valley

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, 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.”

Heathcote 

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 with even more intensity. 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.”

Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley in New South Wales is Australia’s oldest wine region, and shiraz is one of its principal varieties. The growing season here is typically warm but without big heat spikes. That means the shiraz produced is more medium-bodied and savoury.

McLaren Vale

Shiraz from McLaren Vale is typically full-bodied with rich blue fruit and a hint of chocolate, and it’s one of the bosses of Australian shiraz. James says: “The wines have an effortless opulence that’s the envy of most countries that have recently become converts to the variety.”

Yarra Valley

While not historically a go-to for the variety, shiraz is on the rise in this region. It has the third-largest production after pinot noir and chardonnay, and according to James Halliday, is “on the upwards path in terms of plantings”. 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.

Shiraz characteristics

As we’ve established, shiraz can create wines with varying flavour profiles and structures depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made. For ease, let’s focus on Australian shiraz.

Shiraz

This grape thrives in moderate to warm climates, but it’s increasingly found in cooler regions. The typical flavours of Australian shiraz are spice, blue 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 to give the shiraz freshness, vibrancy and that deep colour.