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Shiraz

Shiraz dominates the Australian wine industry, accounting for nearly a third of this country’s vines. The grape’s traditional home is in France’s Northern Rhône, with wines that combine elegance and power, while Australia is perhaps best known for the muscular styles from warmer areas. Today, drinkers of Australian shiraz are spoilt for choice with expressions ranging from the elegant and spicy to the monumental.

Also known as

Shiraz is an Australian term, with the rest of the world using the official name: syrah. Here, syrah will commonly be used to indicate a certain style, and generally one that is more elegant, fragrant and veers more towards light or middling weight. Which synonym is used is up to a producer, but it’s generally a safe bet to assume an Australian wine labelled syrah won’t be a full-throttle example.

What shiraz tastes like

Like any grape, the flavour of shiraz is heavily influenced by climate and winemaking decisions, but unlike a grape like pinot noir, it produces notable examples in both hot and cool climates. At the cooler end, shiraz can be quite fragrant with an emphasis on forest berries, spices, pepper and some herbal notes. As it gets riper, darker fruits chime in, with blackberries, ripe raspberries and plums holding sway, while tar, earth and liquorice can feature. Very ripe, and those fruit flavours can be more jam-like, with syrupy concentration and sometimes very high alcohol.

Vineyard & winemaking

If the Northern Rhône is the pinnacle for shiraz, then you’d be inclined to think it thrives more in a moderately cool environment, but many of the plantings of the grape around the world, and in new vineyards in France, are typically in warmer zones where it performs equally well, simply producing different styles. In the winery, whole bunch fermentation is not uncommon, though nor is total destemming, with oak use equally open to individual preference, whether using larger neutral barrels or newly toasted small ones. Shiraz is also used at times for fortified wines, mainly contributing to ‘port’ styles, and also is the main grape used in making what was once called “sparkling Burgundy”, a uniquely Australian wine made primarily in the Barossa Valley and Victoria’s Great Western.

Where is shiraz grown?

The home of shiraz, or syrah – as we should say in this context – is France’s Northern Rhône Valley, where the grape originated somewhere nearby as the offspring of mondeuse blanche and dureza – not exactly household names. It is still the epicentre for syrah, being the only allowable red grape in the region (small additions of white grapes are allowed in some communes, famously viognier in Côte-Rôtie), with Hermitage its most celebrated appellation. It takes a less prominent role in the Southern Rhône, being primarily a blending option, adding spice and structure, though sometimes it flies solo, too. Syrah is grown widely in the Languedoc and is ever expanding in plantings in the Rhône, and now is the fourth most widely grown variety in France, and with a good deal more vines than Australia, too.

Shiraz around the world

With meaningful plantings in Spain, Switzerland and Italy, where it mostly thrives in Sicily, but also contributes to DOCs in Tuscany, shiraz is perhaps largely associated – other than France – with the New World. And although Australia would commonly be identified as the New World’s second home for the grape, the US has significant plantings, largely in California but also in Washington State and Oregon. It has a decent presence in Chile and Argentina, and New Zealand is also responsible for some exciting examples, primarily from Hawkes Bay.

Shiraz in Australia

Arriving in the famed Busby collection of the 1830s, shiraz has established itself like no other grape in this country, occupying about 30 per cent of the country’s total vineyard land, from areas both blisteringly hot and decidedly cool. It is also the one variety that has never slipped out of favour, with it just as useful when fortified wines ruled the roost in the first half of the 20th century. The Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are the home to some of the oldest productive vines in the world, with the oldest shiraz vines thought to be Langmeil’s 1843 plantings in the Barossa, while both Victoria’s Best’s and Tahbilk have blocks from the 1860s, which survived phylloxera when most of the state’s plantings were wiped out. The Hunter Valley lays claim to the first shiraz vines planted, in the 1830s, though their oldest surviving ones are from 1867 at Tyrrell’s. Today, the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley are still the celebrated zones for shiraz, but cooler zones like Victoria’s Great Western and Pyrenees, as well as the Yarra Valley, and places like Western Australia’s Great Southern and the Canberra District provide a more elegant style counterpoint. Indeed, the growth in cool climate shiraz plantings in recent decades has seen even South Australia embrace the direction, with the Adelaide Hills establishing itself as a serious producer of more elegant styles.

Some of the best Australian shiraz

Some of the icons

Best’s
Chris Ringland
Coriole
Clonakilla
Dalwhinnie
Henschke
Jasper Hill
Kay Brothers
Langmeil
Mount Langi Ghiran
Mount Pleasant
Paul Osicka
Penfolds
Rockford
Tahbilk
Tyrrell’s
Wendouree
Yarra Yering

Some of the new wave

First Drop
Frederick Stevenson
Glaetzer-Dixon
Head Wines
Izway
Jamsheed
La Violetta
Luke Lambert
Massena
Ravensworth
Sami-Odi
Spinifex
Standish Wine Co.
Tomfoolery
The Story Wines