Rusty’s Wine 102 Taste of the Grape: Syrah/Shiraz

Fellow Wine Connoisseurs,

Once again we had an enjoyable time with good friends and fine wines. Unlike our last Syrah/Shiraz tasting, this time we had examples from California, Australia and France. The wines were all fantastic and it allowed us to see diversity between many terroirs.

Syrah/Shiraz Background:

This grape is known as Syrah in France and Shiraz in Australia. In the United States, either name is applied depending on the style of the winery. Research points toward Persia as the origin for the Shiraz grape and appropriately, was named for the city of origin which was Shiraz. DNA and ampelographic (field of botany that studies the identification and classification of grapevines) findings however, do not support this belief. To date, the evidence supports that Syrah grapes are from Northern France. Syrah is the offspring of two obscure grapes from southeastern France, the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. It should not be confused with Petit Syrah, a synonym for Durif, a cross of Syrah with Peloursin.

Syrah is the primary grape of the Northern Rhone and is associated with classic wines such as Hermitage, Cornas and Cote-Rotie. In the Southern Rhone it is used as a blending grape in such wines as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone, where Grenache makes up the bulk of the blend. This was seen in our Rhone varietal tasting a few weeks ago. Syrah in its most heavily extracted form will age for decades, however, less-extracted styles can be enjoyed young providing lively red and blueberry characters and smooth tannin structure. Syrah has been widely used as a blending grape.

The syrah grape was introduced to Australia in 1832 by James Bushby who brought in vines of several varieties from Europe. By 1844 Shiraz was a recommended variety for Australia in Sir William Macarthur’s Letters based on his own research and experience. For at least its first hundred years in Australia, Shiraz was used as a blending grape and not bottled as a Shiraz. The late blooming nature of the Syrah grape suited the warmer growing conditions found in Australia.

One of the key items that was noted at the tasting is that the wines from the warmer climates like Australia were sweeter and riper tasting. The wines from cooler climates like the Rhone valley of France, displayed more pepper and spice aromas in their flavor and lacked the sweetness.

Remember the article on acids, where warmer climates result in high sugar and low acid whereas cooler climates result in low sugar and high acid. What I find more amazing is the sweetness verses alcohol content. When grapes are grown in warm climates, the residual sugars in the grape are higher than those in cooler regions. By having so much sugar available for yeast to consume during fermentation, the wines in regions like Australia can not only achieve high alcohol content, but also maintain a substantial level of sweetness. Winemakers control sweetness by stopping fermentation before all the natural grape sugar have been turned into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the yeast.

As an example, the Molly Dooker Carnival of Love Shiraz from Australia had an alcohol content of 16% yet still maintained a level of sweetness where Clos des Grives Domaine Combier from France had an alcohol content of 13% and was not as sweet but rather dry. What this means is that the grapes from Australia had a lot of residual sugar compared to the grapes from France. Even though the French wine was drier meaning most of the sugar had been converted to alcohol, the alcohol content never reached the level of the Australian wines.

Syrah usually becomes drinkable at an early age and most are produced for consumption within a year after release (2rd year from harvest). In Australia, Shiraz has found a real home. The Shiraz grape is the most widely planted red grape variety in Australia where it is sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or occasionally with Mourvedre. Syrah is widely used to make a dry red table wine, which can be both varietal or blended.

Four main uses can be distinguished:

1. Varietal Syrah or Shiraz. Of the more well-known wines, this is the style of Hermitage in northern Rhone or Australian Shiraz.

2. Syrah blended with a small amount of Viognier. This is the traditional style of Cote-Rotie in northern Rhone.

3. Syrah as a roughly equal blending component for Cabernet Sauvignon. In modern times, this blend originated in Australia, so it is often known as Shiraz-Cabernet.

4. Syrah as a minor blending component for Grenache and Mourvedre. This is the traditional style of Chateauneuf-du-Pape of southern Rhone.

Due to their concentrated flavors and high tannin content, many premium Syrah wines are at their best after some considerable bottle aging. In exceptional cases, this may be 15 years or longer.

The flavors and aromas of the Syrah grape are the results of its thick-skinned and dark, almost black fruit. Its wines are intense with a dark purple-black color. The wines taste of blackberry and currant fruit, smoke, tar and black pepper, and have a smooth supple texture. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins provides a wonderful backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache. In blends, Syrah provides structure, a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, and longevity.

Now that we have a little background on the Syrah grape, let’s review the group’s findings on the many examples brought to the tasting. I was glad that we did get a large variety of examples as this can show all of the different variations that a wine can achieve based on terroir and processing differences in different countries.


2006 Clos des Grives Northern Rhone, France
13% ABV
Aroma: Earthy, More like a Burgundy
Taste: Old world profile, Cherry , Smooth
Professional/Vintners Notes:
Rating WS: 91 points

Tasting Note :
Clos de Grives is wonderfully vibrant in colour with a rich complex nose of chocolate and mocha underlaid by intense fruit character and a hint of tobacco. The tannins and the oak are wonderfully well integrated and the finish is a joy, a rare mixture of complexity, concentration and elegance.
Vinification Note :
Combier’s top cuvée is the outstanding Clos des Grives. The work in the vineyards is chemical free and organic. Produced from 100% Syrah hand picked from the Combiers oldest parcels of vines it undergoes a traditional vinification, with fermentation in inox vats and a long maceration of approximately 25 days. The wine is then aged in new oak barrique to add complexity and depth to an already outstanding product.

2007 Carnival of Love McLaren Vale, South Australia
16% ABV
Aroma: Jammy , Blueberries , Caramel
Taste: Blueberries , Toffee , Caramel , Mocha , Coffee , Elegance
Professional/Vintners Notes:
Rating WS: 95 points
Wine Spectators #9 Choice out of the Top 100 Wines of 2008

Tasting Note :
Big, rich and terrifically ripe. A lithe mouthful of pure blueberry, wild blueberry and Asian spices, with swirls of plum and other berries as the finish rolls on, unimpeded by tannins. In the end, this has elegance to go along with its power.

2004 Blue Rock Syrah Alexander Valley, Sonoma
Aroma: Black cherries , Plum , Eucalyptus , smoke , tobacco
Taste: Black cherries , Eucalyptus on the finish
Professional/Vintners Notes:
Rating Wine Enthusiast: 90 points

Tasting Note :
This is winemakers Nick Goldschmidt and Kenneth Kahn’s fourth vintage of Blue Rock Syrah, made from 100% estate grown Alexander Valley fruit. Focused on grace and elegance rather than extraction, the wine’s smoky meat, pomegranate and blackcurrant aromas are redolent of Northern Rhône. The bouquet continues on the palate, adding game and earth flavors as well as some black cherry. Soft, fine-grained tannins make this wine approachable now, but it has enough structure to continue to improve over the next five years. The tannins are dusty and astringent and give the wine a lockdown character, so you’ll want to cellar this one. Aging is no problem. The wine is dry and balanced, with a rich array of blackberry, pomegranate, cola, sweet leather, coffee and spice flavors that have been generously oaked. Should improve by mid-2008 and evolve for another few years.

2006 Bella Piazza Shenandoah Valley
15.2% ABV
Aroma: Jammy , Plum , Mineralality , Vanilla
Taste: Acidity , Blueberries , Vanilla , Anise
Professional/Vintners Notes:
Unable to find reviews or ratings on the 2006 vintage
Tasting Notes:

2003 Mi Sueno Napa
Aroma: Jammy , Dark Berries
Taste: Blueberries , Vanilla, Tannins noticeable
Professional/Vintners Notes:
Wine Enthusiast: 90 points

Tasting Notes:
Shocking…Intense…Breathtaking…The blackish-purple color is the first hint as to the depth of this wine. The second clue is the dazzling array of succulent Napa Valley black fruits, violets and smoked meat aromas that waft through the air. In turn, the palate is greeted by a silky layer of ripe black fruit flavors and freshly roasted espresso. Add to that a touch of Old World leather and Mother Earth and you get the New World expression of a Northern Rhone classic. Lively acidity and fine grained tannins brings it to a satisfying conclusion.

2005 Greenpoint Reserve Yarra Valley, Australia
14% ABV
Aroma: Plum , Vanilla , Spices
Taste: Spices
This wine was unique in that John and I perceived that the wine had almost no taste when first entering the mouth. Then it opens up builds to a long finish. I have never tasted a wine with this characteristic. This is also noted in the second paragraph of the Professional/Vintners notes below by the professionals tasters.
Professional/Vintners Notes:
Wine Spectator: 91 points

Tasting Notes:
Rich magenta with a ruby hue. Intense fruit aromas of blackberries, mulberries and boysenberries combine with hints of black pepper, anise, violets and gardenias to produce a vibrant and aromatic wine. Soft and supple upon entry, the wine extends to offer concentrated flavors of cracked black pepper, anise and coriander. Delicate and opulent, the mouthfeel is further enhanced by soft and velvety tannins to provide a signature cool climate Shiraz.


I was very pleased with the showing of people and many examples of Syrah/Shiraz wines. We were all shown the effects of the different terroirs (France, USA and Australia) on the syrah/shiraz wines. I included the alcohol by volume content to re-enforce the effects of the warm versus cooler climates. This was seen in the Australian wines (high alcohol, sweeter and fruitier) compared to France (lower alcohol, dry to the palate and subtle fruits).

Syrah wines from the US were in-between France and Australia when it came to alcohol content and sweetness. Does this mean that it would be safe to say that the temperatures that the grapes are grown is directly proportional to the alcohol content and sweetness of the wine? Remember that other factors come into play such as when a winery decides to pick the grapes as well as when they decide to stop the fermentation process. The key thing is how much sugar is available.

In closing, here is a Comical overview by the Rhone Rangers of the Syrah grape to help remember its characteristics and roles in the wine world.

“During the Roman occupation of Gaul you rose to fame as a captive vine turned gladiator. Your legend grew in the spartan competition of Northern Rhône amphitheaters. But little did the Romans know; you had more than just brute tannic power. Behind your fiery, spicy attitude there was the soul of a great leader. You outlasted the Romans and eventually ruled the Rhone Valley from the hill of Hermitage. But your greatest victory was to come in the New World, as emperor of the masses ‘Down Under’. Never one to rest on past laurels, you have set your sights on America. It is only a matter of time before you conquer this continent, leading the charge of an imposing legion known as the “Rhone Rangers”.”