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From its homeland in southern France to Australia’s McLaren Vale, Chris Losh gets to know Syrah… or should we say Shiraz?
There aren’t many wines that taste like they sound, but Shiraz has that whole onomatopoeia thing going on in spades. From its soft, fricative opening through to the silky, languid middle, with a hint of punch to the exotic spiciness of its hissing finish – if you could bottle the word, it would taste just like the wine.
This being wine, of course, it’s never that simple. The French, for instance, don’t call it Shiraz at all, preferring the name Syrah. New World producers (outside Australia at least) will use either name, usually depending on whether they see their version as being more in a French or an Australian style, though even then it can be somewhat arbitrary.
The good thing about Shiraz/Syrah, as opposed to, say, Pinot Noir, is that it’s inherently pretty tolerant. Rather than being the sort of grape that writes swivel-eyed letters to the local paper about immigrants stealing its wheelie bins, it just cracks open a tinnie and gets on with life. It doesn’t mind a bit of heat, so it has settled in pretty well all over the world.
It has plenty of fruit, so it’s attractively full on the palate. And it doesn’t have raspingly high tannins. If this grape moved in next door, you’d be happy.
Its heartland is the Rhône Valley, which runs from just south of Lyon down to the Med. In the south it’s usually blended with its big buddies, Grenache and Mourvèdre, to make heady wines, often with an atmospherically herby whiff of the garrigue about them.
In the cooler north, the wines are different. Syrah goes solo up here, and without its two mates to fool around with it’s tighter and more reserved. On the slopes of Crozes-Hermitage, it hovers between exuberant youth and adulthood, but by the time you get up round the A-list vineyards of Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie – looming vertiginously out of the slow-moving Rhône river – it is decidedly adult.
It may not have the aristocratic haughtiness of first-growth Bordeaux, or the uber-pricey sensuality of grand cru Burgundy, but it’s a wine that indisputably deserves to be spoken of in the same breath: rich, elegant and powerful yet poised. And its combination of hedgerow fruits and crushed black peppercorns develops quite beautifully with time.
Yet, having said that France is the grape’s home, it is probably Australia that has driven its resurgence. Shiraz has been Down Under for a long time, with some of the vineyards now more than 100 years old. The best-known region for it is the Barossa, where it luxuriates in the heat to give red-fruit, spice and leather-flavoured wines of immense power – and often ox-felling alcohol.
Those from McLaren Vale to the south are usually darker and sweeter in style – like falling into a vat full of blackberry liqueur with vanilla ice cream. All these wines have the advantage of being accessible when young, but they are also capable of amazing longevity.
The rest of the New World has not been left behind. Having ‘done’ Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Chile and South Africa in particular have begun to play around with Shiraz/Syrah over the past 10 to 15 years. Both make impressive examples for a good price.
Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, St-Joseph (Rhône Valley); Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale (Australia)
KEY NAMES TO WATCH
Chapoutier, Guigal, René Rostaing, Ogier (Rhône Valley); Grange, Jim Barry, Yalumba, Peter Lehman (Australia)