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What is Syrah?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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Perhaps no other grape uses two names quite as interchangeably as Syrah, called Shiraz in many countries. It is not uncommon for two wineries in the same district to use differing terms – or in some cases, for the same winery to label one wine a Syrah and another a Shiraz. In general, the term Syrah is used in the United States and France, and Shiraz is more widely used in the rest of the world. Some winemakers choose to use the term Syrah to refer to smoother wines made from the Syrah grape, and Shiraz for wines that are somewhat crisper.

In the past, Syrah was viewed as a sub-par grape variety, with many vineyards in both California and Australia uprooting thousands of acres of grapes. In Australia, many of these old vines dated back to the early 19th century, when the varietal was imported from the Rhône valley of France. By the mid-1980s, the value of Syrah began to be recognized by a number of major winemakers, and quality vines became a valuable commodity. These days, Syrah is grown throughout the world, easily making it onto a list of the ten most popular red varietals. While Australia and California present the largest producers and markets for Syrah, older vineyards in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France also produce well-respected wines from this grape, and a number of vineyards in Chile and South Africa have exciting and daring Syrah wines.

Syrah creates a very dark wine with a very full and robust body. Syrah is one of the spicier wines, particularly when produced in more temperate environments such as the Rhône valley or northern California. At their best, these types of Syrah present the quintessential black pepper flavor favored by many consumers.

Syrah from hotter environments – Australia and Africa, for example – tend to present less of this spice, and are generally much higher in tannin than their gentler cousins. At the same time, these Syrahs are usually much sweeter than their colder-climate cousins. Rarely, however, is Syrah a particularly fruity wine, one of the reasons some drinkers find it less appealing than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Syrah is marked much more by its various mineral tastes and a finish that is drier than most.

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