Shiraz is a wonderfully successful example of the way wine has developed from traditional origins to unique, New World styles that embody great terrior, or the characteristics of their diverse landscapes. This classic, dark red wine is also known as Syrah, which began in the Rhone Valley and became extremely popular in eighteenth-century France. Characteristically rich, with notes of black plum, chocolate, and tobacco, Syrah remains one of the darkest red wines on the market and continues to sell for extremely high prices in and around its birth town of Hermitage.
Luckily, Syrah soon evolved into something even more accessible to the average consumer, when it became popular in the Australian market. Often made with just the single variety of grape, Shiraz, as it’s known in Australia, has become a mainstay in the country’s wine industry, and is now the most common grape in most Australian vineyards.
The New World styles of Shiraz stay true to the wine’s inherent character, full bodied, high tannins and usually a spicy finish, and the Australian varietals are marked by slightly brighter, fruit-forward notes of blueberry and black cherry. The boldness of this wine certainly will not be to everyone’s taste, but there are now many blends that have risen in popularity and esteem around the world.
Both in France and Australia, Shiraz is often blended with Grenache and Mourvedre, the first offering a rich sweetness and the latter providing the savory, meaty elements that make this wine so balanced. You may also see Australian red wine blends made of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, an extremely popular and easy-drinking red.
Regardless of whether your selected bottle is from France or Australia, Shiraz has become an extremely marketable and refined product around the world. Some may argue that the Old World, French style remains the best value, with traditionally high acidity and bright herbs cutting the fruit’s richness. Many vineyards are challenging the status quo, but if it’s the classics that you prefer, an informed purchase will be based on knowledge of the Rhone Valley’s key characteristics. In the north, you’ll find Côte Rôtie, where the clay-based soil creates the richest, most powerful Syrahs. From the center in Saint-Joseph to the southern regions of Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas, the land becomes a finer mix of sand and granite, providing more floral, spicy variations.
Given the plentiful amount of land in Australia’s best growing regions, the Shiraz produced there tends to be less expensive, but still full of the flavor you desire. In Australia, as well as American, you will find more fruit-forward notes and a heavier spice on the finish. One of the most famous Shiraz-growing regions in Australia is the Barossa Valley, where the warm weather creates wine that is rich, big and bold with sweet fruit. These flavors are usually how New World Shiraz is described these days, but there are many other qualities to Australia’s sprawling landscape that produce intriguing variations. The cooler regions such as the Yarra Valley and Coonawarra, produce Shiraz that is herbaceous, low in acidity and alcohol and noted with red fruits. This style is perhaps closest to the French standard. The Eden Valley and Clare Valley are examples of warm, temperate climates that are not nearly as hot as the Barossa. These wines are quite drinkable with good body, notes of licorice and mild black fruit.
No matter where in the world your bottle comes from though, there is are couple secrets to picking the best tasting wine. An inside, trade secret says that if the vineyard is located on the top of a hill, those grapes have the best bet of being heartily concentrated with the richest flavor. And this trade secret has allowed vineyards around the world, from Spain to Chile to California, to produce some top-quality Shiraz, or Syrah, that will appeal to everyone from the wine professional to the novice. In addition, Shiraz’s high acidity and tannins lend itself extremely well to the aging process, meaning some of the best bottles are aged five, ten, twenty years. All of these elements combined are what separate the good from the great, and knowing your flavor preferences will help guide you in selecting the one you will love.
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What is Petite Sirah?
Do not be confused by the name of this wine, as it is in fact, not a lighter or more tamed version of the big, bold Syrah. It is a cross between Syrah and the rare Peloursin grapes, which the French coined the Durif grape when this hybrid was first introduced there in the mid-1800s. Nowadays, Petite Sirah is primarily produced in California, with a very small percentage grown in Australia and an even small number grown in other parts of the world.
Petite Sirah is as full-bodied and fruity as its parent grape, Syrah, but the climate in which it is grown will provide more floral notes and a higher minerality. With medium acidity, Petite Sirah will usually not age as well as Syrah, though some Californian vineyards are experimenting with bottles aged ten years and longer.
Petite Sirah is a great choice for the Syrah lover looking to explore the new world California varietals. All around California’s wine country, you can find wonderful examples of this semi-rare wine and for a great value
Start with one of these highly-rated bottles to experience all that Shiraz has to offer.
Best Value Shiraz
Best Shiraz Under $100
Kellermeister Wines’ 2015 Wild Witch Shiraz – $85
As Australian wine begins to climb the ladder of the world’s best, it’s a notable success to admire the fine bottles produced in the Barossa Valley. This Wild Witch Shiraz from the family-owned winery took top place as the World’s Best Shiraz in the London Wine Competition this year and is a crown jewel of the country’s viniculture. Described as “indulgent and luxurious,” this bottle is the epitome of Barossa Valley Shiraz, rich and intense with kirsch, black cherry and soft tannins. It’s truly a collector’s prize.
Best Shiraz Under $50
2012 Jaboulet Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage – $42
This classic French Syrah from Hermitage is a prime example of why the Rhone Valley excels at producing some of the best Syrah in the world. Hermitage’s exceptional hillsides and pebbly soil contribute to the intense smells and flavors of this Syrah with blackberry, peppery herbs, olives and violet. Due to the nature of the climate and soil, the small stones found naturally in the land heat up during the day, providing the perfect level of warmth for optimal grape maturity. This wine also ages exceptionally well, with the ability to age for ten years and more.
Best Shiraz Under $30
2009 Plantagenet Mount Barker Shiraz – $29
This signature Shiraz is a great example of the diversity of Australia’s terrior. This wine is from the cooler region of Mount Barker in Western Australia, where the ground is gravelly with limestone and provides easy draining. Western Australia produces a very small percentage of the country’s wine, but the quality here can be exceptional. The cool temperatures and sea breezes create a Shiraz with bright acidity, herbaceous notes and mixes of red and black fruits. This region also produces quite a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, a common grape to blend with Shiraz in Australia and elsewhere.
Best Shiraz Under $20
2015 Penfolds Max’s Shiraz-Cabernet – $19.99
For exceptional value and a smooth, crowd-pleasing wine, you cannot go wrong with this Shiraz-Cabernet blend from South Australia. This bottle is 71% Shiraz and 29% Cabernet, for the full, dark fruitiness you desire and Shiraz, with the buttery richness of Cabernet. This wine is also a great way of acknowledging the oaking process, which is common in so many New World wines. These grapes are aged for 12 months in a blend of French and American oak, which add a finish of vanilla and warm spice.
Best Shiraz Under $10
Rosemount Estate Diamond Label Shiraz – $9
For a taste of Australia’s finest wine at a fraction of the price, Rosemount Estate’s Diamond Label Shiraz is a safe bet. This bottle will offer the full body richness of plum and cherry with a smooth oaky finish. Located in McLaren Vale, a short drive from the South Australian capital of Adelaide, Rosemount Estate provides an accessible taste of the region’s classic styles.
Shiraz Around the Globe
Spain: Abadia Retuerta Pago Garduna Syrah 2015 – $40
This exceptional Syrah from the Castilla y León region of Spain is a delightfully fresh take on a bold Shiraz. The single vineyard wine is an homage to Syrah with black cherry notes, floral aromas and a smooth finish due to 18 months of aging. With a warm, mountainous climate and limestone soil, these grapes reach an optimal ripeness and acidity.
California: Copain, Tous Ensemble Syrah, Mendocino County 2012 – $23
California wine makers will challenge any of the world’s greatest vineyards in an effort to replicate Old World classics. Copain succeeded with this delightful variation on Syrah, which is balanced with black plum, cassis and a floral minerality. The coastal, cliffside region of Mendocino County provides warm breezes and optimal elevation for these grapes.
Chile: Casas Del Bosque Gran Reserva Syrah 2015 – $20.99
Compared to other areas of the world, Chilean Syrah is a very recent invention, dating back only to 1995. Just a few years older, the Casablanca Valley where this rich, vibrant Syrah is made is optimally located on the coast between Santiago and Valparaiso. The region has become a well-recognized producer of crisp whites, and delicate, tasty reds. Because of its cool, Mediterranean climate, this Syrah has forward notes of red fruit with a spicy, oaky body. This wine is extremely well structured with soft tannins. It’s a great introduction to the diversity of Chile’s modern viniculture.
Italy: Il Fitto Cortona Syrah 2014 – $19.99
Lovers of Old World Syrah will find this Italian version a wonderful homage to the classic flavors and styles of the French standard. Made in Tuscany in the sub-region of Cortona, this Syrah maintains traditional Tuscan qualities giving the lush, dark fruit a solid foundation of black olive, leather and spice. The slightly smokey finish balances the strong fruit flavors with a good amount of Earthiness.
Shiraz’s Best Years
The full flavor and robust fruitiness of Shiraz grapes mean that environmental conditions are crucial for the fruit to reach its peak quality. In Australia, even in the lush, coastal regions, factors like frost, wildfires and uneven rain patterns affect the quantity and consistency of the harvest. An ideal season will see balanced weather, with consistent heat, though periods of rain should also be consistent to prevent drought.
In France, there is a reliably more consistent pattern to the weather each growing season, thus making the Northern Rhone Valley one of the most successful planting areas for Syrah, and many other grapes. The difficulty is maintaining the right balance of heat and sun, cool nights and rainy periods. Ideal conditions would be hot, sunny days marked by cool nights and well-timed showers.
In the Northern Rhone Valley, the most successful vintage in recent history was 2015, where conditions were near perfect and the wine was optimal for long periods of aging. In both France and Australia, you cannot go wrong with a 2015 vintage, though experts would suggest holding on to that bottle of French Syrah a few more years until it has aged to perfection.
Similarly, the French 2010 vintage was marked with an excellent end to the season, and reds are rich in fruit with a lovely minerality. This is another one you should hold on to for a few more years. For an old world Syrah that is ready to drink, 2009, 2012 and 2013 are some of the best vintages you will find.
In Australia and with other similar new world varietals, 2010, 2012 and 2015 were characterized by perfectly mild conditions and low yields, meaning these bottles should be sought out and consumed right away.
Shiraz’s rise is popularity, recognition and availability have made it one of the world’s most-purchased wines, and continues to spread to new parts of the globe who are only just discovering the grape’s versatility. Lovers of big, bold reds will welcome this wine into their collection as the most auspicious of all of them, and first time tasters will find Shiraz an indulgent and refreshing new taste when compared against popular reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel.
If you are experimenting with Shiraz, there’s no better way to experience its full breadth of flavor than with a great food pairing. It’s hearty, dark flavor stands up against rich, red meat, savory stews or even strong cheeses. Old world, intense Shiraz will hold best next to big, spicy flavors, like spice-crusted leg of lamb, grilled bison and spicy chili. Fruit-forward Australian Shiraz will be slightly more versatile, pairing well with burgers, tandoori, paella and short ribs. This wine will be a welcome addition to the kitchen of any bold chef, as its intensity can withstand the spice, heat, flavor and umami of most any dish.
As you explore the world of Shiraz, take care to note the diversity and resilience of the grape in a variety of climates around the world. Approach your search with an understanding of the flavors you enjoy the most, and you are sure to find a Shiraz that embodies your preferences.