The French word “provenance” means “origin” or “source,” and carries an implicit statement of value. In art, for example, provenance is an essential element in determining the identity of a work and can mean the difference between a painting attributed to a master and valued at millions and a worthless flea market fake. In the grand history of the grape, the Syrah versus Shiraz chapter is steeped in the lore of provenance. The grapes themselves are indistinguishable but, like twins raised by different parents in different parts of the world, the wines called Syrah and Shiraz are very distinct. To complicate matters, the grape variety Petite Sirah is often thrown in the mix, making it all the more confusing.
The wine world is an intoxicating mix of history, science, technique and magic. Factors that give places like the Rhone Valley in France, northern California’s Napa Valley and Australia’s Clare Valley their inimitable “place” – sun exposure, wind, rainfall, humidity – also contribute to the character of the grapes that are grown there. Recent research by renowned scholars Dr. Carole Meredith of the University of California, Davis and Jean-Michel Boursiquot of the wine research facility at Montpellier, France, has determined that Syrah is indigenous to the Rhone region of France. These findings debunk long-held beliefs that Syrah originated in the Persian Empire (now Iran) and was brought to France by crusaders. A romantic theory, perhaps, but DNA research has unveiled a simpler tale.
Syrah is the descendent of two little-known French grape varieties: Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Dureza hails from the northern Ardeche region to the west of the Rhone, while Mondeuse Blanche is native to the Savoie region. Syrah grapes are believed to have been planted in France in 500 B.C. Not until 1936, were Syrah cuttings brought to California by oenologist Dr. Harold P. Olmo of the University of California, Davis.
Shiraz, on the other hand, genetically the same as Syrah, is the name used for the grape in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Shiraz refers to the ancient Persian city that was considered the grape’s original provenance. James Busby introduced the Syrah/Shiraz grape to Australia in 1832.
While the same grape, the wines that are born of this fruit owe their very unique flavor and charm to their provenance (terroir) and the techniques employed by local winemakers. France’s Rhone Valley and California’s Napa Valley share similar climates and their Syrahs are close cousins. The way in which climate informs a wine, particularly those from the Syrah grape, has been reinforced by research done by Australian Michael McCarthy. He found that water ceases to flow to the Syrah grape at a certain point in the ripening process – a trait unique to the Syrah grape. This phenomenon plays a role in the sugar levels of the grapes. If it’s hot, the grapes shrivel and the sugar content increases very rapidly. In more temperate climes, this occurs more slowly.
The winemaking process is equal parent to climate in the upbringing of a wine. In Australia, for example, it is common practice to press the Shiraz juice early, before fermentation is complete. The wine goes “dry,” creating a soft, smoky edge. French and American Syrah winemakers generally favor longer skin contact with the juice, resulting in a more tannic wine. Whereas Shiraz tends to be a big, bold red, Syrah is known for being a peppery, slightly fruity wine. These are subjective descriptions, however, stylistically most wines have evolved along one of these two paths. Petite Sirah, which is often erroneously thought to be a relative of the Syrah grape, is actually a grape of French origin called the Durif which was said to have been brought into California in 1884 by a grower who dubbed it, “Petite Sirah.” Petite Sirah suffered from an identity crisis, given the confusion with the Syrah grape name, in addition to the fact that it was often relegated to be a blending grape to boost tannins and color as opposed to being able to stand on its own. Now several producers in California have gotten on the bandwagon and have showcased Petite Sirah in all its glory. It is finally having its deserved day in the sun.
In the end, the confusion about Syrah and Shiraz hints at the subtlety of wine itself – both its production and its appreciation. Americans have come to understand the difference between various grapes, boldly ordering Merlots and Chardonnays, but our understanding of the myriad of factors that inform the evolution of the grape to a bottled wine remains basic at best.