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Ask a Somm: What Is the Difference Between Shiraz and Syrah?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

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New Zealand-born Master Sommelier Cameron Douglas pours the grape juice at New York's The Musket Room, and he's a fitting addition to the New Zealand-inspired eatery cheffed by fellow Kiwi and co-owner Matt Lambert. Together, they bring the thunder from down under in the form of quail with bread sauce, and New Zealand red deer with flavors of gin, plus stateside wines to match. Below, Douglas ponders the difference between shiraz and syrah.

Q: What's the difference between shiraz and syrah?

Douglas: Well, it depends who you ask. Genetically there's no differencethey are the same grape variety just with different spellings, originating in the Rhône Valley, France.

The variety itself has always been very susceptible to environment, meaning a wine from one part of a region can produce wines with more specific characters associated with that place than another with different soil or aspect attributes. If this idea is transferred to other parts of France, then the same variety can not only take on a different expression, but eventually be called something different as history on this variety can attest. This might just be the case for how syrah came to be called shiraz. History tells us that the James Busby, a researcher from the early 1800s, was likely the person to have taken scyras vine cuttings from Montpellier, France to Australia circa 1832.

Genetically there's no differencethey are the same grape variety just with different spellings, originating in the Rhône Valley, France.

How scyras came to be called shiraz is a bit of a mystery, though I suspect it has a lot to do with local accent and dialect of early Australia and it simply evolved. I have heard some senior Australians say "sheerah," so I understand how one word/term can become another. Much the same way Americans say "aluminum" and the rest of the world says "aluminium." In New Zealand, however, it has always been referred to as syrah.

When grapes begin to ripen in earnestchanging color, building flavor and sugar stores (veraison)is when many varietal characteristics start to take shape and form. For syrah, this is significant. The peppery aroma and flavor is particularly influenced at this stage. Environmental characters such as soil, climate, and moisture all impact heavily on syrah's most noteworthy characteristics of red to dark red berry fruits, meaty, earthy and peppery flavors. This is why the syrahs of Washington state are different from those cultivated in California, New York, or Texas. So too are the characteristics different in wines from Australia and New Zealandall driven by environment, then winemaking.

Benchmark shiraz from Australia have been on wine lists for decades, with its warmer climates often producing wines with very ripe, almost jammy aromas and flavors, full-bodied wines enhanced by higher alcohols and a mix of American and French oak. The peppery notes tend towards black. It is exciting to see some breadth and depth added to this section of a wine list—consider this variety from other places including Italy, Spain, the U.S.A. and New Zealand.

New Zealand, in particular, has been producing world class syrah for around 20 years, mainly from the Hawke's Bay, though great examples exist from Waiheke Island, Martinborough, and Marlborough. For the most part, New Zealand syrahs are aligned with the styles encountered from Southern Rhône and mid-Rhône Valley, with softer red and black fruit flavors, white pepper (usually), and gravelly soil earthy qualities. Some producers worth seeking out and can be discovered at The Musket Room in New York include Trinity Hill (intense, dark berry fruits, sweet meat, and mild pepper), Villa Maria (juicy, ripe, fine tannins, and lengthy finish) and SOHO (elegant, ripe, dark cherry, and black currant, fine tannins)—all New Zealand wines have a backbone of acidity. Exports of syrah to the U.S.A. from New Zealand, though small, are on the increase. Examples from Australia to watch out for include Clonakilla (complex, layered, ripe, and lengthy, fine use of oak), and Penfolds (benchmarkbold, rich, concentrated, oaky, and long). From the Northern Rhône of France, E. Guigal is an all-round reliable producer.

Syrah Wines to Try:

  • 2013 Trinity Hill Syrah, North Island, New Zealand ($24)
  • 2011 Villa Maria Syrah Reserve, Hawke's Bay, New Zealand ($47)
  • 2014 SOHO "Valentina" Syrah, Waiheke Island, New Zealand ($20)
  • 2014 Clonakilla, Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District, Australia ($70)
  • 2013 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia ($31)
  • 2011 E. Guigal Côtes Du Rhône Rouge, tes Du Rhône, France  ($18)

The Musket Room

265 Elizabeth Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (212) 219-0764 Visit Website

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