Syrah – Star of the Rhône Valley and Beyond

Harry Lambourne
23rd January 2022

Syrah, (also known as Shiraz in the new world), is one of the most famed grape varieties across the globe. It is known throughout the world for creating outstanding wines both as a single-varietal red wine, or as a blending partner. Indeed, if you’ve ever enjoyed a French Red from the Rhône Valley, it is almost a guarantee that you’ve enjoyed the Syrah grape. In these Rhône Valley reds, Syrah is often the leading figure, or plays a contributing role with the Grenache grape.

This article will take you through the characteristics of this historic grape and a look at a few of the main regions which produce Syrah wine. Both in the old world and the new. Beyond that, you will learn what tastes to expect and what dishes will make an excellent food pairing with Syrah.

Let’s not delay, let’s learn about Syrah wine so you know what to expect when you open a bottle.

The Syrah Grape

The origin of this bold little grape has been of much debate. The homonymous Greek island of Syrah and Iranian city of Shiraz have both been considered as the originators of this well-known grape. However, this is false. The history of it can only be reliably traced back to the Rhône Valley in France.

It makes sense that the Rhône Valley would be the ancestral home for this grape. If you’ve drunk Syrah from this region, it feels as if it has found its home. 

In terms of taste, Syrah wine is undeniably bold. Big and aggressive with a strong body, alcohol content, acidity and tannins. It possesses almost a meaty quality, sure to entice the palate of any carnivore leaning human. Yet, it also possesses a subtlety, in the way of peppery spice and notes of leather, chocolate, earth and vanilla.

A thick skinned and small, but intense grape. Syrah can survive and thrive in moderate to warm climates. The Syrah wine of the more moderate Northern Rhône Valley will be medium bodied with fresh black fruit flavours, subtle white pepper spice and herbaceous flavours of dried herbs and sage. Whereas, the hotter climates of the Southern Rhône and Australia, let Syrah wine develop into a full-bodied and high alcohol menace with cooked, jam-like black fruit flavours, liquorice and star anise spice.

The Syrah Grape Hanging Out
The Syrah Grape Hanging Out

Old World Syrah Wine vs New World Shiraz

The Rhône Valley

As we’ve alluded to, to find world-class Syrah, you need not look further than the Rhône Valley in France. However, Syrah’s use differs depending on how far south you get.

The Rhône Valley region is unsurprisingly named for the Rhône River that runs through it. The Rhône River runs down from the Swiss Alps, through the Jura Mountains. Then, at Lyon it turns south and flows down to the Mediterranean. The region is then split into a Northern and Southern Rhône. Yet, these two regions differ greatly in a number of ways. While they share a river, the terroir across the two is incredibly distinct.

The Northern Rhône

The Northern Rhône is, in a word, breath-taking. The vineyards are built on steep Southern facing slopes, with soil of clay, rock and granite. The slopes allow the Syrah grapes to truly ripen, as they soak up more sun than if they were at ground level. The stone soil also adds to the heat through retaining the sun’s rays.

These are mitigated by the icy cold wind known locally as ‘Le Mistral’, which translates to Mastery. The warming effects of the slopes and soil, or the icy cold winds alone could be detrimental to the Northern ​​Rhône vines. However, together they create the unique terroir that is the Northern Rhône.

What is more unique than the terroir of the Northern Rhône is the means by which they maintain these historic vines. Old and loose soil on steep slopes is precarious. This means that vines would quite literally come tumbling down the slopes unless they are secured. So, hand-built stone walls encase the vines ensuring they don’t fall. Any soil which does escape is brought back up in buckets, by hand, by the hard-working and diligent farmers who tend to it.

In this special setting Syrah wine is the star. Syrah is the only red grape variety they allow in the Northern Rhône. So, any time you see a Northern Rhône red, know that it’s Syrah making the wine so delicious. Some appellations to look out for are Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Côtes-Rôtie and Cornas. (MacNeil pg.236-247)

These Northern Rhône Syrah wines are deep, dark and intense. With an unmistakable and ever-present spice. If you want a really gamey Syrah, with barrels of black fruit flavours. Beyond that smokey, earthy flavours. Complex and nuanced, while packing a real punch. Northern Rhône Syrah is the way to go!

The Steep Slopes of the Northern Rhône
The Steep Slopes of the Northern Rhône
The Southern Rhône

It is in the Southern Rhône where Syrah wine has to take more of a backseat. The Southern Rhône’s star is Grenache. However, Southern Rhône wines are generally blended. Almost always they will be blend Grenache with, you guessed it, Syrah.

The Southern Rhône possesses some elements of terroir that are similar to the North. Le Mistral’s chill is still undeniable and stoney soils retain a great deal of heat. However, the climate is far more Mediterranean. More intense heat is felt throughout the region. The vineyards are also spread out and generally planted on flatter ground. The Southern Rhône certainly has a more expansive feel and produces greater quantities of wine. 

Any lover of French wine will likely have tried the blends of the Southern Rhône. The notable appellations include Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. There is certainly a breadth in flavours but the familiar Rhône notes of black fruit, but this time cooked as well as fresh, with that peppery spice as always. (MacNeil pg.248-260)

Australian Syrah

And now, making its case for the New World, Australia! Syrah wine takes the name Shiraz here though. Australia is unquestionably the pre-eminent producer of Shiraz, accounting for 87% of global production. Although, it is worth mentioning Australia’s ‘Shiraz’ production is less than France’s ‘Syrah’ production.

Indeed, without the French, Shiraz likely wouldn’t have such a long history in the Southern Hemisphere. Shiraz originally came to South Africa, via French Hugenots in the 17th century. From there it made its journey to Australia. Although Australians were also bringing the grape directly back from France in the 1830s. (MacNeil pg.71-72)

This means it will be no surprise that Australia is home to some of the world’s oldest Shiraz vines. More specifically, the Barossa Valley, where the old vines produce low yields of deeply concentrated and flavourful grapes. These tannic wines will produce jam-like cooked black fruit flavours. Alongside the ubiquitous pepper notes, as well as flavours of oak, vanilla and coffee.

Someone enjoying a tour of some old vines in the Barossa Valley
Someone enjoying a tour of some old vines in the Barossa Valley

The other notable region in the New World’s leader in Shiraz is Hunter Valley. This region doesn’t have the same intense heat, as a number of other Australian regions. High cloud cover and northern sea breezes from the Antarctic help to cool the region. This slows down the ripening process. The end result is therefore more medium bodied. Fresh black fruit takes the stage, as opposed to cooked. Then, earthy and meaty notes that come with aging Syrah wine (Shiraz).

Syrah Wine & Food Pairings

Now, onto the perfect pairings. It is absolutely the case that the best Syrah wine and food pairing here will be a darker rich meat dish. However, to fit your palate, there could be two routes to go down. One is exotic and spicy. The other is rich and syrupy. You can choose what sounds best for you personal preferences, but I think either would be a delicious decision.

Pan-Fried Venison with Sloe Gin and Plum Sauce

The full recipe for this venison dish is available here. It should come as no surprise that the rich and deliciously syrupy sweet nature of the big game steak and cooked black fruit is the perfect pairing for Syrah, or Shiraz. In particular the jammy nature of Southern Rhône Syrah and Barossa Valley Shiraz are sure fire winners here.

Venison, Plum, Syrah - yes please!
Venison, Plum, Syrah – yes please! (Photo Courtesy of BBC Good Food)
Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem Lamb Shawarma

Yotam Ottolenghi is world-famous for his breath-takingly delicious Middle Eastern recipes, and the recipe for his Lamb Shawarma, (available here), is a fine example of this. Get the biggest and most peppery bottle of Northern Rhône single varietal Syrah wine and know everything is right with the world when you sit down for this meal. The acidic Syrah wine will cut through the fatty lamb, with the exotic blend of spices dancing on your tongue alongside the punchy spice of the Syrah.

Ottolenghi's Lamb Shawarma
Ottolenghi’s Lamb Shawarma (Photo Courtesy of Carol Sachs for The New York Times)

Syrah, or Shiraz, is undeniably one of the world’s great grapes. An unmatchable peppery punch and the ability to have a range of fruit flavours, from fresh to cooked. All the while though, it retains its boldness. Syrah wine is delicious, whichever side of the equator you find yourself on.

Work Cited

MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., 2015, Workman Publishing Co.

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