Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Syrah is a dark-skinned variety of grape used in wine. Syrah is grown in many countries and is primarily used to produce powerful red wines, which enjoy great popularity in the marketplace, relatively often under the synonym Shiraz. Syrah is used both for varietal wines and in blended wines, where it can be both the major and minor component. It is called Syrah in its country of origin, France, as well as in the rest of Europe, Argentina, Chile, and most of the United States. The name Shiraz became popular for this grape variety in Australia, where it has long been established as the most grown dark-skinned variety. In Australia it was also commonly called Hermitage up to the late 1980s, but since that name is also a French Protected designation of origin, this naming practice caused a problem in some export markets and was dropped. The name Shiraz for this grape variety is also commonly used in South Africa, Canada, and New Zealand. DNA profiling in 1999 found Syrah to be the offspring of two obscure grape varieties from southeastern France, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.

As of 2004, Syrah was estimated to be the world's 7th most grown variety at 142,600 hectares (352,000 acres), after having enjoyed a strong growth in plantings for several years.

The grape is also known under many other synonyms that are used in various parts of the world including Antourenein Noir, Balsamina, Candive, Entournerein, Hignin Noir, Marsanne Noir, Schiras, Sirac, Syra, Syrac, Serine, and Sereine.

Syrah should not be confused with Petite Sirah, a synonym for Durif, another grape variety which is a cross of Syrah with Peloursin dating from 1880.


Syrah has a long documented history in the Rhône region of Southeastern France, but before 1998 it was not known with certainty if it had originated in that region or was brought there. In that year, a study conducted by Carole Meredith's research group in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis used DNA typing and extensive grape reference material from the viticultural research station in Montpellier, France to conclude that Syrah was the offspring of the grape varieties Dureza (father) and Mondeuse Blanche (mother).[3][4][5][6][7] Dureza is a dark-skinned grape variety from the Ardèche region in France that have all but disappeared from the vineyards, and the preservation of such varieties is a speciality of Montpellier. Mondeuse Blanche is a white grape variety cultivated in the Savoy region, and still found in very small amounts in that region's vineyards today. Both varieties are somewhat obscure today, have never achieved anything near Syrah's fame or popularity, and there is no record of them ever having been cultivated any long distance from their present home. Thus, both Syrah's parents come from a limited area in southeastern France, very close to northern Rhône, where Syrah came to fame. Based on these findings, the researchers have concluded that Syrah originated in the same place where it came to fame - northern Rhône.

The DNA typing leaves no room for doubt in this matter, and the numerous other hypotheses of the grape's origin which have been forwarded during the years all completely lack support in form of documentary evidence or ampelographic investigations, be it by methods of classical botany or DNA. Instead, they seem to have been based primarily or solely on the name or synonyms of the variety. Because of varying orthography for grape names, especially for old varieties, this is in general very thin evidence. Despite this, origins such as Syracuse or the Iranian city of Shiraz have been proposed.

The parentage information does however not reveal how old the grape variety is, i.e., when the pollination of a Mondeuse Blanche vine by Dureza took place, leading to the original Syrah seed plant. In the year AD 77, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia about the wines of Vienne (which today would be called Côte-Rôtie), where the Allobroges made famous and prized wine from a dark-skinned grape variety that had not existed some 50 years earlier, in Virgil's age. Pliny called the vines of this wine Allobrogica, and it has been speculated that it could be today's Syrah. However, the description of the wine would also fit, for example, Dureza and Pliny's observation that the vines of Allobrogica was resistant to cold is not entirely consistent with Syrah.
The name Shiraz and associated legends
It seems that many of the legends of Syrah's origins come from one of its many synonyms - Shiraz. Since there also is a city in Persia/Iran called Shiraz, where the famous Shirazi wine was produced, some legends have claimed that the Syrah grape originated in Shiraz, and was brought to Rhône, which would make Syrah a local French synonym and Shiraz the proper name of the variety.

There are at least two significantly different versions of the myth, giving different accounts of how the variety is supposed to have been brought from Shiraz to Rhône and differing up to 1,800 years in dating this event. In one version, the Phocaeans should have brought Syrah/Shiraz to their colony around Marseilles (then known as Massilia), which was founded around 600 BC. The grape should then later have made its way to northern Rhône, which was never colonized by the Phocaeans. No documentary evidence exists to back up this legend, and it also requires that the variety later has vanished from the Marseilles region without leaving any trace.

In another version, the person who brought the variety to Rhône is even named, being the crusader Gaspard de Stérimberg, who is supposed to have built the chapel at Hermitage. Even before the advent of DNA typing of grapes, there were several problems with this legend. First, no ampelographic investigations of the grapes from Shiraz seem to have been made. Second, it is documented that Shirazi wine was white, ruling out the use of dark-skinned grapes such as Syrah, and no known descriptions of this wine's taste and character indicate any similarity whatsoever with red wines from the Rhône. Third, it is highly doubtful if any crusader would have journeyed as far east as Persia, since the crusades were focused on the Holy Land.
The legend connecting Syrah with Shiraz in Iran may however be of French origin, since it is supposed to have been included in a 1826 book called Œnologie Française, although that book used the name Scyras for the grape variety.

Since the name Shiraz has been used primarily in Australia in modern time, while the earliest Australian documents use the spelling "Scyras", it has been speculated (among others by Jancis Robinson) that the name Shiraz is in fact a so-called "strinization" of Syrah's name via Scyras. However, while the names Shiraz and Hermitage gradually seem to have replaced Scyras in Australia from the mid-19th century, the spelling Shiraz has also been documented in British sources back to at least the 1830s. So, while the name or spelling Shiraz may be an effect of the English language on a French name, there is no evidence that it actually originated in Australia, although it was definitely the Australian usage and the Australian wines that made the use of this name popular.

Other legends

Another legend of the grape variety's origin, based on the name Syrah, is that it was brought from Syracuse by the legions of Roman Emperor Probus sometime after AD 280. This legend also lacks documentary evidence and is inconsistent with ampelographic findings.

Rise to fame

The wines that made Syrah famous were those from Hermitage, the hill above the town Tain-l'Hermitage in northern Rhône where there is an hermitage (chapel) on the top, and where de Stérimberg is supposed to have settled as an hermit after his crusades. Hermitage wines have for centuries had a reputation for being powerful and excellent. While Hermitage was quite famous in the 18th and 19th centuries, and attracted interest from foreign oenophiles such as Bordeaux enthusiast Thomas Jefferson, it lost ground and foreign attention in the first half of the 20th century.

In the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, most Hermitage wine that left France did so as a blending component in Bordeaux wines. In an era when "clarets" were less powerful than today, and before appellation rules, red wines from warmer regions would be used for improvement (or adulteration, depending on the point of view) of Bordeaux wines. While Spanish and Algerian wines are also known to have been used for this purpose, top Bordeaux châteaux would use Hermitage to improve their wines, especially in weaker vintages.

Arrival in Australia

In 1831, the Scotsman James Busby, often called "the Father of Australian viticulture", made a trip back to Europe to collect cuttings from vines (primarily from France and Spain) for introduction to Australia. One of the varieties collected by him was Syrah, although Busby used the two spellings "Scyras" and "Ciras". The cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens, and in Hunter Valley, and in 1839 brought from Sydney to South Australia. By the 1860s, Syrah was established as an important variety in Australia.

Modern history

Syrah continues to be the main grape of the Northern Rhône and is associated with classic wines such as Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. In the Southern Rhône it is used as a blending grape in such wines as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Côtes du Rhône, where Grenache usually makes up the bulk of the blend. Although its best incarnations will age for decades, less-extracted styles may be enjoyed young for their lively red and blueberry characters and smooth tannin structure. Syrah has been widely used as a blending grape in the red wines of many countries due to its fleshy fruit mid-palate, balancing the weaknesses of other varieties and resulting in a "complete" wine.´

From the 1970s and even more from the 1990s, Syrah has enjoyed increased popularity, and plantings of the variety has expanded significantly in both old and new locations. In the early 2000s, it broke into the top 10 of varieties planted worldwide for the first time.
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