David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the article which ran on 3/4/2015:
Syrah is a deep, rich, powerful red wine that has wonderful varied aromas such as blackberry, blueberry, and cassis to violet, liquorice and pepper. It can be drunk young where it will show dark purple and be full of spice and rich, fruit flavors, or it can be aged, exhibiting a smooth, bold maturity with aromas of leather, cedar, and smoke. It is grown in every notable wine producing country in the world but its best examples come from France’s Rhone River Valley and Australia where they call it shiraz.
Why do the Australians call it shiraz when the grape’s name is syrah? Because of misspelling and misplaced geography. Here is the tale of shiraz.
Australia is far distant from its mother country, England. It is sparsely inhabited and contains mostly desert with a ring of fertile land along its coasts. Its colonization started not long after the American Revolution and it was started as a penal colony. America used to be the destination for British societies ne’er-do-wells but the revolution ended that arrangement. The sentences were often for minor property crimes, such as steal an apple – get sent to America for 7 years. The loss of America as a depository of prisoners created a population problem for wardens throughout the United Kingdom. They quickly started looking around the empire for a new place. The English Crown selected an only once before visited landmass and sent prisoner ships to a place called Botany Bay. The year was 1788. We know that place now as Sydney and the country those prisoners founded as Australia.
Eventually that nucleus of prisoners formed the industrious basis for Australia, a place so far from anywhere that it must produce all of its own goods. In to this stepped James Busby, a farmer, author and winemaker who is considered the “Father of the Australian wine industry.” In 1832 he brought syrah from France’s Rhone River Valley to Botany Bay. He cultivated cuttings and freely gave plants to the colonists. Busby spelled the grape’s name as scyras.
Through the passage of time the Australians came to call scyras, shiraz. It was believed to have come from the ancient Persian empire (current day Iran) and more specifically the city of Shiraz, or Chiraz, which was an important winemaking center in ancient Persia. The thought was that either the Phoenicians around 600BC or the Crusaders between 1095 and 1291 brought the plant to France. It was then argued that the Australians, rather than the French, were using the ancient correct name for the grape and it was the French who had changed it to the Frenchified syrah.
This theory still persists. But science and DNA analysis have proven otherwise. Syrah is the grandchild of the very French pinot noir. Syrah is a cross between mondeuse blance and dureza which is the offspring of pinot noir. Pinot Noir evolved in France’s Burgundy region. The grape they call shiraz in Australia is France’s syrah. The story about Persia is an interesting tale, but ultimately false.
Australia produces more syrah than any other red variety, with syrah accounting for 45% of total red wine production. They make extremely high quality examples that are powerful, bold and richly nuanced. You can find examples at every price point but the better quality wines range from $15 to $25. It pairs well with savory foods and grilled or stew meats. And without a doubt, you’ll see “Shiraz” noted proudly on the label. Call it colonial pride.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He teaches wine classes mainly in the Duluth, MN area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.