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A Six-Bottle Master Class to Syrah and Shiraz

Syrah hails from France, and it earned its fame from the treasured wines of the Rhône Valley. Often meaty, tannic and full-bodied, this grape with bluish-black skin has proven adaptable to vineyards throughout the world.

Syrah shows a range of flavors and textures, which depend on its origin, style and age. On one end, black olive, white pepper, violet and even charcoal smoke reveal Syrah’s elegant and savory side, while licorice, blueberry and blackberry pie display its lush and fruity features.

With so many options, consumers will get the most out of comparative tastings. Explore the contrast between Syrah from Old World France and New World California, or the stylistic differences between Shiraz and Syrah from Australia.

Organize your tasting into three key categories: Old World France versus New World California; Australian Syrah versus Shiraz; and young versus mature Syrah. As you taste, search for aromas and flavors, but also think about texture. Are the tannins fine, smooth or gritty?

Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to seek. If you can’t find exact matches, ask your favorite retailer to recommend alternatives. We’ve also assembled a list of great Syrahs to try.

Syrah grapes on the vine in California
Syrah grapes in California / Getty

Old World France vs. New World California

If France is Syrah’s homeland, the Rhône Valley is its headquarters. Red wines from the famous appellations of the Northern RhôneCornas, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie highlight Syrah in classic form.

Many experts consider Syrah from the steep slopes of Côte-Rôtie as the pinnacle of elegance and structure, with the capacity for long aging periods. These wines represent a unique local tradition: the allowance of up to 20% of the white grape variety Viognier. Though most vintners incorporate far less, Viognier lends floral and spice notes along with a rounder texture. Glowing accolades and collector demand have contributed to the rising cost of these wines.

Bottles from Hermitage fetch high prices as well, especially those from the village of Tain-l’Hermitage. Those wines can age for decades and evoke tones of blackberry, violet, smoke and roasted meat.

In the Southern Rhône, Syrah has shown affinity in blends with fruitier Grenache and burlier Mourvèdre. This classic Côtes-du-Rhône blend, known as “GSM,” has been emulated by winemakers around the world. Many add their own spin to create SMGs or MSGs, where the first letter indicates the grape with the largest percentage in the blend.

Varietal Syrah from the Rhône skews fresh and savory, with herbaceous, meaty, smoky and floral characteristics in youth that turn leathery and more peppery with time.

Though some New World regions approximate Syrah of the Northern Rhône, ripe and glossy fruit, coupled with higher alcohol, inevitably spill the secret of New World sunshine.

California leads in U.S. Syrah production. Depending on where it’s grown in the state, wines can be restrained or flashy. However, California’s telltale sun and long, warm summers gives away the wine’s origin, even in one of the state’s best and coolest regions, the Sonoma Coast. If you taste a Syrah propelled more by fruit and spice than earthiness, you’ve likely sipped a wine from California.

Old World France vs. New World California Syrah

Wine 1: Seek out a red from Côte-Rôtie, Cornas or any of the other Northern Rhône appellations for a classic example of Old World Syrah.

Wine 2: Look to the California’s Central Coast regions for a New World option.

Syrah at Refugio Ranch Winery in California

Syrah in California / Getty

Australian Syrah vs. Shiraz

Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape. In Australia, when wines are labeled as one or the other, the difference stems from regional climate and related style.

Australia’s cooler-climate growing regions known for Syrah include Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, as well as Adelaide Hills and Margaret River, where the occasional bottle can be found. In these parts, winemakers fashion Syrah after the brisk, lean and savory styles of France. The climate affords them that choice.

Winemakers often include stems or whole bunches in fermentation, a technique which seeks an earthy, woody, herbal character. It also pursues a certain tannic finesse, which the climate won’t always allow. Alcohol levels tend to be lower than counterparts from warmer regions, while the wines have drier, grippier tannins and good structure.

Alternatively, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the further flung Limestone Coast, all in South Australia, have earned reputations for bold styles of Shiraz. Stylistically, these wines are lush, fruit-forward, full-bodied and higher in alcohol.

Shiraz can also give the impression of sweetness, thanks to ripe and luscious black fruit flavor; the slippery-sweet effect of glycerol, a byproduct of alcohol production; or from residual sugar. The latter is more common to value-priced, entry-level Shiraz, while premium examples are fermented dry. Shiraz tannins are smoother and rounder, due to riper grapes.

Australian Syrah vs. Shiraz

Wine 1: Seek out a wine labeled “Syrah” from the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula or Adelaide Hills.

Wine 2: Shiraz from Barossa is the epitome of the bold Australian style.

Harvesting Syrah grapes in Cote-Rotie in France
Harvesting Syrah grapes in Côte-Rôtie, France / Getty

Young vs. Mature Shiraz/Syrah

All wines age. Some just do a better job at it than others. The key is whether a wine improves or evolves favorably each year it remains in the bottle.

The best Syrah can age for 30 years, though the average range for a good to great Syrah is from five years to 15 years. Syrah grapes, like Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, contain three structural pillars that create great reds: acid, fruit and tannin.

Syrah from cooler climates tend to have more acidity. The grape’s tendency to preserve natural acidity aids its longevity. Acidity lends the wine structure, freshness and acts as a preservative.

Red wines able to go the distance also have good fruit concentration. Syrah, regardless of origin, ripens into a flavor-packed wine, with meaty, smoky bacon notes layered with licorice, olives, black fruit and pepper spice.

In balance with acidity and flavor concentration, tannin levels also improve its aging potential. In fact, tannins in youth can be rough, astringent or disjointed, which practically demand time in the bottle to soften. Polymerization, a process through which tannins combine to form longer chains, results in a smoother, more harmonious mouthfeel.

When you taste young wines against mature bottles, compare three qualities: color, aroma and palate character.

First, examine color. Bright, saturated, ruby- or purple-hued Syrah indicates youth. Older wines, due to oxidation, lose their glitter and fade into brownish and brick tones. They begin to show on a wine’s edge or rim and seep into the center over time.

Second, compare aromas. Young wines smell fresh, whether with bright blackberries, bacon fat, grilled meat, cracked black pepper or violets. Older wines lose these primary aromas to secondary or tertiary notes. When aromatics mellow into notes of leather, cigar box or even dried earth, the wine has started to age.

On the palate, younger wines typically have brisk acidity and coarse tannins, relative to more mature bottlings. Older wines develop complexity as their acidity and tannins smooth out and integrate.

Young vs. Mature Shiraz/Syrah

Wine 1 & Wine 2: Try to seek out library selections of Syrah from the same producer, ideally with at least a five-year vintage difference. Or, try to get your hands on two bottles from the same region with a vintage difference of at least five years.