If you could encapsulate Australian winemaking in a single grape, there’d be little argument as to which it would be. A dry red with incredible presence, Australians treat shiraz as less a wine varietal than they do a religion. Our world-beating exports have compelled old- world vintners to take Australian wines seriously, and this success has fuelled a deep love for the grape within the nation’s subconscious. But while shiraz might nowadays appear as Australian as Vegemite or Qantas, it wasn’t always so. The shiraz story begins with a grape that is entirely the same, but somehow different. 

What’s in a name?

When browsing international wines you’ll notice that the shiraz variety is found almost exclusively on Australian bottles. But as a country in which grapes aren’t an indigenous species, why is shiraz only found in Australia?

The truth is that any bottle labelled ''syrah'' is produced from a genetically identical grape. Almost every other wine-producing nation on earth calls the variety syrah, so why have we chosen to be different?

The historical waters are somewhat muddied on this question. The earliest importation of syrah vines into Australia described them as ''Scyras'', with some historians putting the eventual label of ''shiraz'' down to the broad Australian accent contorting this original name. It’s understandable in a part of the world where Sharon quickly becomes Shaz. There are however English documents from around the same time that name the grape as shiraz; presumably an anglicisation of the original French term.

Whatever the origin, by the mid-nineteenth century the grape was universally referred to as either shiraz or Hermitage, and has been ever since. 

A heritage in Hermitage
Why Hermitage? This question brings us neatly to the origins of the variety.
A lack of hard evidence makes the formation of a reliable historical timeline of the syrah grape problematic, although DNA research has concluded that it was born of the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche varieties. Because both of these grapes originated from the northern Rhône region of France it is fair to deduce that syrah followed suit.

While written recordings of the syrah grape stretch back centuries earlier, its surge in popularity only occurred in the 1700s. And credit for this surge can be placed almost entirely upon the slopes of a small hill in the northern Rhône.

Above the town of Tain-l’Hermitage sits Hermitage hill, a piece of land that produced some of the world’s most famous wines throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Oenophiles the world over would make the pilgrimage to this sacred site for the chance to sample its famous syrah. It’s from this spot that the ‘Hermitage’ name was pilfered for use on Australian bottles, a practice that continued until legal issues brought it to a halt in the mid-1980s.
'' Shiraz, known elsewhere as syrah, is a particularly bold and full-bodied red that forms the backbone of the Australian wine industry. Deep notes of cherry, chocolate, plum and spice offer a sensory experience like no other in the wine world.'' 

New world, new wine

The Barossa Valley is home to the oldest shiraz vines in the world, with many of Busby’s original plants still bearing fruit. Entrenched, gnarled and unirrigated, these vines offer low yield but incredibly intense flavour. The most prominent Australian shiraz producers are of this ilk, and include Penfolds, creator of the almost mythical Penfolds Grange, Henschke and St Hallett.

But more recently both the domestic and international markets have developed a taste for lighter Australian shiraz, grown in conditions that more closely resemble those found in the northern Rhône. The cooler climes of the Yarra Valley and Beechworth regions produce a mid-weighted, fresher and more playful flavour, and offer new drinkers a far less challenging introduction.

A question of taste

As alluded to above, the notes of shiraz will change subject to where and how it has been grown and produced.
The archetypal Australian shiraz – those of the South Australian regions of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale – bring a weight and intensity that is almost unmatched by any other wine in the world. Dark fruit, chocolate and spices abound; deep flavours that challenge the palate, creating an experience that is as exciting as it is demanding.

The cooler conditions offered to the Victorian shirazes of the Yarra Valley, Heathcote and Beechworth result in a wine with a slightly lower intensity of flavour than those of SA, but with no less interest. Dark fruits once again take centre stage, counterbalanced by a light pepper bite.

For their part the wines of the northern Rhône, including such famous names as Guigal, Chapoutier and Domaine du Coulet, remain as popular as ever. A seductive combination of black olive tang, peppered spices and the bitter-sweetness of berry compote are on offer, and flavours vary markedly from hillside to hillside.

Shiraz/Syrah titbits

  • The key regions where shiraz is found include: Barossa region, Heathcote, Hunter Valley and McLaren Vale, with 44,000 hectares devoted to the variety (Chardonnay is next with 32,000).
  • Australia is the world's largest syrah/shiraz producer, behind only France.
  • Only 20 unopened bottles of the first vintage of Penfolds Grange (1951) are still in existence.The last changed hands in 2004 and sold for over $50,000