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Cheers : Que, Syrah, Shiraz...

Posted by Phil on 2011/2/23 10:10:00 (1060 reads) News by the same author


Que Syrah, shiraz…

Within the last couple of years, I have noticed that California syrah has gained popularity with wine buyers at Cheers, that’s great because it’s one of my favorite red wines. Something else I’ve noticed is there is some confusion when it comes to Syrah, Sirah, Petite Syrah, and Shiraz. So if I may I’d like to try and sort it all out.

First let’s break it down; Syrah, Sirah, and Petite Sirah (or Petite Syrah) are not made from the same grape; and for the most part Shiraz is the same wine as Syrah, but with an Australian attitude. Let’s leave Shiraz for another post and dig into California Syrah, here goes:


Syrah’s History

Syrah has been growing for hundreds of years on the hillsides along the Rhone River from Vienne to Valence.

In the northern Rhone Valley, Syrah is used to produce Hermitage and Cote Rotie reds, wines the French refer to as the "manliest of all wines." In the southern Rhone, Syrah provides the backbone for the Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends, which contain not only Syrah, but also Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault, and often other lesser known grapes… but I digress, let’s get back to California…



Syrah in California

Almost 500 acres of producing Syrah vines now exist in California, plus another 270 acres planted but not yet in production. Compared to more than 24,000 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is just a drop in the bucket. But, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is found in all of the state's major wine growing regions -- from Mendocino in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south.


But what about Petite Sirah?

With the emergence of Syrah as a delicious alternative to Cabernet and Zinfandel, some consumers inadvertently confuse it with Petite Sirah, a wine made from grapes grown under that name in California since at least the late 1800s.

I’m gonna get a little technical here hold on

While Syrah and Petite Sirah are both Rhone grapes, they are not related. French viticulturists who examined California's Petite Sirah plantings in the 1970s told the growers that what they had was definitely not Syrah, but rather a grape called “Durif” but it’s probably not that simple, what with a hundred years or more of growing in California vineyards in among Zinfandel, Carignane and Mourvedre (which is also called Mataro). The possibilities for clonal distinctions developing from such interplanting over time are pretty good.

Stay with me now

The confusion gets a little deeper when the winery chooses to spell "Sirah" as "Syrah." In California, "Petite Syrah" is the same wine as "Petite Sirah," and shouldn't be confused with "Syrah." In France, although I hesitate to mention it, growers distinguish between Grosse Syrah and Petite Syrah, the latter being the better grape, and both being true Syrah. This may be one of the causes of the mislabeling in California.

Petite Sirah used to be one of California's most popular wine grapes. In 1978, at the height of its popularity, more than 14,000 acres were planted to the varietal in most of the state's wine-growing regions, with major concentrations in Monterey and San Joaquin counties, and significant acreage in Napa and Sonoma. By 1994, the figure had dropped to 2,481 acres. The good news is that most of the remaining vines are old, some over 80 years of age, with low yields which result in intense fruit. More than 50 California wineries make Petite Sirah, some of which do so with great enthusiasm.

When treated with some respect (instead of being used simply as a blending grape for a generic red wine), Petite Sirah produces a very dark, almost inky wine that tends to be massive, tannic and long lived. It's similar to Syrah in flavor, but usually exhibits heartiness in place of Syrah's elegance.  

One other element in the Syrah-Petite Sirah confusion is "Shiraz," which is what the Australians call their Syrah, so named after the city of Shiraz in ancient Persia where the vine is believed to have originated. Shiraz and Syrah are synonymous, and until recently, Shiraz was the most widely planted red grape "Down Under," making Australia a Syrah lover's paradise. Geyser Peak's Australian-born wine master, Daryl Groom, labels the winery's best Syrah as Shiraz, and thus has added the name to California's wine vocabulary, and the confusion. It is my opinion that some wineries began calling their Syrah “Shiraz” a few years back in order to capitalize on Australian Shiraz’s rock star like popularity of the nineties.


So, let's recap: Syrah and Petite Sirah (or Petite Syrah) are not made from the same grape; and Shiraz is the same wine as Syrah, but with an Australian attitude.

What this suggests is that well-made Petite Sirah can be as appealing as true Syrah, especially to tasters who appreciate a generous and robust red wine. For those who look for elegance, the choice is still Syrah.

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