Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Que Syrah, Sirah, Shiraz!: Whatever Will Be Will Be

The big, luscious, dark Syrah grape. Photo from Chrisada Sookdhis.


Sirah, Syrah and Petite Syrah.

It’s enough to drive a budding wine aficionado mad! Which is the right one, what is the right one and where do I get some? Rest easy. Here at GRAPE: Wine Talk, we excel at demystifying wine while still leaving its magic in the air.

Long story short: Shiraz/Sirah/Syrah are different spellings of the same grape (varietal). Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans somehow prefer the Shiraz spelling, while the French prefer Syrah. Sirah turns up every now and then like a bad penny. But it’s all the same thing.

What is Syrah?
A luscious red wine, Syrah is also a versatile grape. Imagine squeezing the juice of a blueberry into a glass of wine – not too much, but just a bit to change the flavor. Now, imagine sipping this wine after eating something with a little bit of black pepper in it. That’s Syrah: a rich wine that’s known for both berry and hint of a pepper tastes. (Contrast this with Pinot Noir: take out the plum and the hint of sweetness and leave the pepper.)

Syrahs can be made in a variety of styles, from those that emphasize a sweet fruitiness (jamminess) to those that favor a less sweet (drier) and spicier edge. How to know the difference? Read the back label. If it says “black fruits” (blueberries, plums, currants, etc.), then the style will probably be on the jammy side (fruit forward). If, however, “spices” or “toasty” dot the description, then the wine will tend to be less sweet and fruity (drier). If both appear, well, good luck! (Just kidding). The wine will try to strike a balance between the two extremes. But that’s not all.

De Grendel Shiraz 2007 is rich, deep and complex. Photo courtesy of Show Cook.

Aged Syrah adds a layer of intrigue. Syrah’s dark grapes contain a high amount of tannins, the component that can produce a pucker on people’s faces. These tannins both preserve a wine and change its flavor. Throughout the years, the tannins’ astringent qualities diminish (soften, mellow), creating a smoother taste. Imagine savoring that last sip in a wineglass after coffee has been served, or washing down a bit of a slightly charred mushroom pizza with a glass of red. That earthy, sometimes smoky, sometimes coffee-like taste is typical of many a well-aged Syrah. Oh, the complexity!

But Syrah does have its shortcoming, which a skilled winemaker can turn into an advantage. Despite its rather strong flavor (intensity), the taste doesn’t tend to linger. It dissipates relatively quickly (short, not a long finish). Adding Syrah to varietals with longer finishes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Grenache, imparts fullness or heft (structure). The resultant wine is richer overall both in color and taste. That’s why many blended wines feature Syrah in the mix.

From a basic $8 pizza wine to a truly fine bottle, Syrahs compliment a wide range of cuisines.

Petite Syrah Ain’t
However, Petite Syrah is a different beastie altogether.

Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz 2010 complements barbecue, pizza and burgers. Photo courtesy of We Speak Wine.

Back in the late 1800s, Francois Durif, a French botanist who taught at the UniversitĂ© de Montpellier, decided that two good tastes should go together. Saving the Reese’s invention of chocolate-with-peanut butter for a later generation, he opted to fertilize Syrah grapes with the pollen of the flowers that Peloursin grapes produce.

Peloursin grapes are smaller, tightly clustered, and darker than Syrah grapes. The juice tends to be deeper and more intense in flavor. More important, Syrah grapes are particularly prone to mildew, but Peloursins are not. So, splice one with the other and voilá! Quelle surprise – or was it quelle horreur! The answer depends on geography.

As it turned out, the French did not cotton to Petite Syrah. In fact, the Peloursin varietal for all intents and purposes is extinct in France. Oh well. Turns out the French didn’t like the Impressionists much when they burst onto the scene, either. Much in the same way that Americans saw talent (and value) in the Impressionists, resurrecting a maligned form, they also fell in love with Petite Syrah varietal, which they also called Durif.

The Rosenblum Cellars Petite Syrah 2007 has a short finish but intense flavors. Photo courtesy of Rosenblum Cellars.

The Petite Syrah/Durif craze began in California, and then others caught on: Australia, South Africa, etc. The varietal even has its own fan club: Petite Syrah I Love You,

Not to be confused with Syrah, Petit Syrah is anything but a little wine. Deeply purple, almost an inky-black, Petite Syrah packs a whollop. Makes me wonder where the Petite in the name comes from. (It comes from the fact that the Petite Syrah grapes are smaller – plus petite – than the Syrah grapes).

To Syrah’s intensity, add an even darker color, richer taste, and imagine a drop of two of freshly squeezed plum, but leave out the sugar. A hearty wine, inky black, Petite Syrah is a carnivore’s best friend. Don’t even think of drinking this wine by itself. It will dwarf all but the savoriest dishes. Take care to have a hearty dinner nearby. Vegans, pass this one up. Really.

Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz 2010
$10, on sale online $8, We Speak Wine (
Looking for a casual wine, one to suck down with barbecue, burgers or pizza? Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz will do the trick. Nothing complicated. Just a basic glass of everyday red. Sip by itself or serve at a low-key get-together. Available in 1.5 L size, too.

De Grendel Shiraz 2007
South Africa
True to a Shiraz that’s been around for a while, De Grendels 2007 seems smoky. The bite of the grape skins (tannins) has mellowed, leaving a full, deep, spicy-yet-fruity mouthful. Complex? Absolutely! Worth the wait to have the wine shipped from South Africa. Bug your favorite wine store or distributor today.

Razor’s Edge Shiraz-Grenache 2008
McClaren Vale, Australia
$10, online at Mad Wine (

Razor's Edge Shiraz-Grenache 2008 boasts both fullness and fruitiness. Photo courtesy of Razor's Edge.

A perfect example of what Shiraz can do for another grape, Razor’s Edge winemakers balance the ever-lingering taste of Grenache (long finish) with the intensity and heft of Syrah / Shiraz (structure). If red wines with both fullness and fruit appeal to you, this bottle is it!

Rosenblum Cellars Petite Syrah 2007
$17, on sale for $15 from Hops & Grapes online (
A fine example of the Petite Syrah/Durif varietal, Rosenblum Cellars’ version is a beauty. An inky purple that would make Prince blush, this wine lacks a lingering aftertaste (short finish), but more than makes up for it with full and rich flavors. An intense red wine with a touch a plum thrown in, a cloud of smoke, and a little bit of coffee to wake you up, Rosenblum’s Petite Syrah compliments any red meat or varied feast. Just be prepared to have your teeth and tongue temporarily tattooed: a purple one for the road.

Next up: Grand Tastings

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