Wine varietals and styles

Shiraz

It’s Australia’s star red wine, grown in almost every corner of the country and made in a range of styles. It’s also responsible for some our oldest vines and most famous wines.

There is no wine variety more synonymous with Australia than shiraz. It’s a staple at tasting benches, the nation’s greatest wine export and our most widely planted grape. Whether you’re after an easy drinking red to pair with dinner or a world-class bottle to add to the cellar, there’s a style of shiraz to suit. Grown all over and adaptable across most soil types and climates in this country, shiraz (or syrah, as it’s sometimes called) is our most beloved grape.  

Go to section: Shiraz vs syrah: what’s the difference? | Shiraz beginnings | Australian shiraz | Shiraz regions | Shiraz characteristics

Shiraz vs syrah: what’s the difference?

Shiraz and Syrah wines both come from the same grape with the difference coming down to grapegrowing environment, winemaking technique, regional context and tradition, and, sometimes, marketing.

In European regions, the term Syrah is most common. The Old World style is characterised by its elegance, spice, earthy elements and soft tannins.

In Australia, the term Shiraz is almost always used. The trend to labelling cooler climate styles “Syrah” has grown in recent years. Generally, though, the word shiraz is more closely aligned with the Australian style. It tends to be fuller-bodied than its European counterpart, packed with intense fruit flavours (i.e. plum, blackberry and cherry), and often with a higher alcohol content.

Shiraz beginnings

Nowadays, shiraz is planted and grown all over the world. But its first recorded appearance was in the Isere district of the Rhone-Alps region of France, where it was the offspring of the red grape dureza and the white grape mondeuse blanche.

Until the first shiraz cuttings were brought to Australia in 1832 by viticulturist James Busby, the northern Rhone was the only region where the grape was grown. There, it was the exclusive red grape in Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, 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, our most celebrated wine and export

Did you know that the world’s oldest, continuously producing 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. This has been the case since the early 19th century when pioneers 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.

Australian shiraz regions

Shiraz is grown in almost every wine region of Australia, and each has a distinctive 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. 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.

Grampians

This Victorian region is responsible for several sought-after shiraz wines out of its historic wineries. It is particularly well known for pioneering a peppery style of shiraz that has since piqued the interest of others around Australia.

Adelaide Hills

South Australia is a heartland for luscious shiraz, and it has a huge following, but the state’s style isn’t homogenous. The Adelaide Hills is one region that’s set apart by its higher altitude and cooler climate, producing medium-bodied, refined shiraz styles.

Shiraz wine tasting 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, while cooler styles lean more towards medium-bodied and spicy. 

Historically, Max Schubert (the creator of Penfolds Grange) fundamentally changed the way Australian winemakers approach 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.