What’s the difference?
At the physiological level, Shiraz and Syrah are no different. They are the exact same grape, simply given a different name. Think of Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris, both are the same grape but they represent different styles born out of the regions which have made them famous.
Syrah finds its home in the Northern Rhone Valley of France just south of Lyon, where of course it is known as Syrah. It is the sole grape in wines labelled Cornas, Saint Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and is sometimes blended with Viognier in Cote Rotie. This is a world away from the oak and fruit bombs of 1990’s Australian Shiraz. Here you see the cool climate expression at its pinnacle. Savoury, peppery, meaty, spicy are far more common descriptions. Saint Joseph is producing some of the most exciting Syrah at the moment, the variety has a special affinity with the granite soils of the best sites here.
As a ‘New World’ wine country, which Australia is, you have to be doing something very different, very well to capture the attention of the international wine drinker. Whether fortunate or not, the rise of the most famous wine critic in the world, Robert Parker, helped to focus put Australia in to the limelight as well. Favouring full-bodied, robust, hedonistic styles of red wine he stumbled upon Penfolds Grange in the mid 1990’s proclaiming it “the leading candidate for the richest, most concentrated dry red table wine on planet earth”. All of a sudden, Aussie winemakers had a road map to fame and fortune.
As this style trickled down to the everyday wines, it came to identify Australian wine, and more specifically Shiraz. High alcohol, big bold ripe fruit flavours, pepper and more than a few lashings of glossy new oak vanilla. Fashions change, and the turn was particularly vicious for the perception of Australian wine, something we are still recovering from on the international stage. This is in part because the rest of the world is learning about our cooler climate regions. Which is where Syrah comes in to the picture.
In a bid to signal to wine drinkers, some Australian producers are now labelling their wines as either Shiraz or Syrah depending on the style they are making. Particularly in the case of Syrah to differentiate themselves from the stereotype of Australian Shiraz, so if you see an Australian Syrah then you can expect it be more medium bodied, savoury, show some more spice and pepper dominance and it likely won’t see much new oak.
Spinifex Syrah 2019 – $29
Almost no one typifies the change in style for Australian Shiraz than Spinifex. Based in what was the heartland for the big, boisterous wines of the past; the Barossa Valley. They have gone about finding the cooler sites across the valley, picking the fruit a earlier than others to retain freshness and vibrance in the wines. Ageing is only in large and old format oak, so its influence on flavour is minimal. The resulting wine is aromatic and inviting – fresh dark berries, florals, hint of spice. A palate that has real drive to it, fresh and elegant, the flavours mouth-filling and vibrant. A wine you may not have expected from the Barossa in the past but is a delicious example if where it is at now.