John JuergensThe European Connection Part One
Syrah, Shiraz and Petite Sirah

I think it can be argued that the bulk of the wines produced in the New World have their roots back in the Old World countries of central Europe, and in particular, France.

The Romans got the grape rolling as they spread their cultural influence in their quest for world domination. As I understand my wine history, one of the first things they did after they acquired a new chunk of real estate was to plant grape vines for wine. A clear indication that they had at least some of their priorities in order.

I doubt that any of those vines still exist, but the experience in cultivating and propagating grapes over a couple of thousand years showed the wine makers of those regions how to make optimum use of the terroir and which grape varieties produced the best wines.

Although there are more than 8,000 known varieties of grapes, the legacy of those centuries of effort is a relatively short list of about 50 varieties that produce first-rate wine. And of those 50 there is a subgroup that has become generally known worldwide as the Noble Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Occasionally Syrah, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurztraminer are included in that list. You will notice that the Muscadine does not appear on this list, nor does it appear among the other 41 varieties. Gee, what a surprise.

It makes complete sense, then, that these tried-and-true best wine grapes were the varieties explorers took with them as they wandered around the globe. And while it might seem silly to pack grape vine cuttings on voyages to lands it would take months to reach, we have to remember that wine and other kinds of alcoholic beverages where the safest things to drink.

What I plan to do in the next several articles is take a closer look at that group of good wine-producing grapes that our European ancestors worked so hard to develop and which they bequeathed to us.

I'll start with a related cluster of varieties that frequently cause confusion because of their similar sounding names: Syrah, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah.

The first point of clarification is that Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape. In Europe the grape has always been called Syrah, but for some reason the Australians decided to call it Shiraz, after the city in Iran where the grape is supposed to have originated. To confuse things a bit further, there are Australian wine makers who call their products Syrah, and some American versions of Shiraz.

There also is debate on the proper pronunciation of Shiraz. The Australians tend to say "sher-AS," but most other people soften the second syllable into "sher-AHZ." It's sort of like the I say to-MA-toe, you say to-MAH-toe debate, or FLUT-ist vs FLAUT-ist. It really doesn't make any difference how you pronounce it, but when Americans use the "sher-AS" form it sounds kind of snobbish to me.

The Syrah grape as cultivated in France shows distinct personality traits depending on where it is grown. For example, in the northern Rhone region the grape makes dark, heavy, tannic wines with somewhat raw pepper and tar flavors. It takes five to ten years for these brutes to mature into wines with finesse and delightful aromas of smoke, cedar, and leather, and with flavors of blackberries, raspberries, black currants, plums, and black pepper. Some of the better known examples are Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, and Crozes-Hermitage, which tend to be a bit pricey.

In the southern Rhone region the grape tends to be less stodgy and develops its aroma and flavor profile much earlier. It is often blended with Grenache and other grapes to make some wonderfully easy drinking wines within a year or two of bottling, and the prices are substantially lower than those legendary wines of the northern Rhone. It also is blended with grapes of lesser quality to punch up their character. However, you have to be careful of some wines from the Languedoc region along the southern border, which can produce some fairly thin and insipid wines. Look for wines that say on the label they are from the Rhone region, and try to avoid those that say "vin pays d'oc."

The Syrah grape has found a very happy home in some of the New World countries where the generous amount of sun allows the grapes to develop a much more intense, fruit-forward personality. It has become the flagship grape of Australia.

According to the international wine expert, Oz Clark, Australia produces three distinctly different types of Shiraz. The Hunter Valley in the Southeast region of New South Wales produces earthy, tarry, and velvety wines with aromas of barnyard and "sweaty saddle." (Yee-Haw! Sounds like a real man's wine. Give me a big glass of that!) Some of these wines will mature and smooth out into more socially acceptable treats over a period of up to 20 years.

In the cooler regions of South Australia and Victoria the wines tend to be a little lighter with spicy, peppery qualities, and which are drinkable at a much younger age. Wines from the Barossa, Clare, and Eden Valleys around Adelaide tend to be deep, rich and fruity as illustrated by the ultimate Australian wine called Grange ($175 - $200 a bottle). My benchmark Shiraz wines from Australia are Rosemount and Penfolds.

A fair amount of Syrah wine is made in California and it is very similar in style to the Australian versions. Just about any of the brands you find in the wine shop will deliver good quality for the money.

The Petite Sirah grape has always been somewhat of an enigma. It is thought to have emerged in the Rhone region as a cross between Syrah and the extinct Peloursin grape. It also is called the Durif, in honor of the person who developed it back in the 1880s. The grape was very successfully transplanted to California, but frequently was planted and blended with Barbera and Zinfandel, which added to its identity problems. Because of its powerful, inky character, it frequently is added to what have been called "jug wines" to add backbone to otherwise limp wines. However, with proper attention the grape can produce some wonderfully robust and well-balanced wines.

Although the grape does not enjoy the popularity of the Syrah, there has always been a small but devoted following for Petite Sirah, and I am a disciple. Its name is a misnomer because it suggests that it might be a lighter version of the Syrah grape; it is anything but. In reality the name has more to do with the size of the grape, which are smaller than the Syrah. As for the reason for the spelling of "Sirah," I can say with all confidence as an expert that I don't have a clue.

The best way I can explain the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah is the analogy of two lakes. Syrah is like a crystal clear lake through which you can see features below the surface at different depths. That is, you can detect layers of complexities throughout the wine. Petite Sirah, on the other hand, is like a muddy lake. Not that it tastes like dirt, but because it is a big, one-dimensional chunky wine through which it is difficult to find the nuances of flavor. When made properly, it is one of my all time favorite wines. A couple of good examples to look for are Guenoc and Bogle.

Cheers.

Jan. 22, 2003

To contact John Juergens, write him at wineguy@vista-express.com

Back to Oxford Town Wines