Ultimate guide to telling the Difference Between Shiraz and Syrah

Category: Wine and Travel

Ultimate guide to telling the Difference Between Shiraz and Syrah

The ultimate guide to telling the Difference Between Shiraz and Syrah

I am often asked about the difference between Shiraz and Syrah. Basically, there is no difference. It just depends on who you’re talking to.

In the US, we know it as Syrah. If you’re in Australia, you call it Shiraz and it is Australia’s most iconic wine.

Recently I was asked to participate in a small virtual Australian wine tasting and I was delighted. I received 10 little single serve bottles of Shiraz, plus a bonus tasting of 21-year-old tawny port, and I was ecstatic to try them all. The wine tasting was sponsored by San Francisco Wine School and it brought back some of the great memories from my 2019 journey to South Australia.

The Shiraz samples I received were 50ml bottles from 5 favorite Australian producers, including a 2010 library wine as well as each winery’s most current vintage, which was mostly 2018. The producers represented the primary regions of South Australia, which produces 60% of Australia’s wine. These are Adelaide, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Barossa.

Australian Wine Tasting Notes

Penfold’s Shiraz

Penfold’s Shiraz was the first wine I tasted, and it is the best-known Australian label in America. Penfold’s was just named one of the top 100 wineries in the world for 2021 by Wine and Spirits magazine and has been on this list 29 times. The winery dates back to 1844 when Dr. Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary started planting vines at McGill Estate. When the good doctor returned to his medical practice, Mary took over, likely becoming one of the world’s first female winemakers.

Probably the most famous of Penfold’s wines is Grange, a 100 percent Shiraz. The current release is 2017 and sells for about $800 per bottle. Older wine vintages go up from there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to taste Grange (although I have previously!) Penfold’s sent Bin 28 Kalimna from 2010 and 2018. Penfold’s blends grapes for this wine from multiple vineyards across South Australia to make Bin 28.

Tasting Bin 28 Kalimna proved to me that wine age does matter. The ’10 was smooth, with a hint of cedar. Fruit had retreated to the background, and I liked that. The ’18 was definitely more tannic. Surprisingly, the fruit was bright and bold, but I found it a little sour. It made my lips pucker, in a good way.

I am excited for Wine Lovers Travel to arrange a visit to Penfold’s during our upcoming trip to Australia. While there, I came up with all kinds of unique wine experiences we can do during our visit. For example, I came across a historic underground tunnel which would be perfect for a private dinner at Penfold’s. We’ll be announcing our 2023 trip to Australia soon, and the best way to know is to subscribe to our newsletter.

    Wakefield’s St. Andrews from Clare Valley

    Wakefield’s is not a new producer. The winery goes back three generations of the Taylor family, who still owns the winery. One of their key commitments, in addition to making great wine, is to make it sustainably. Their philosophy is to “respect the fruit,” and you can tell they do from the taste of their wines.

    St. Andrews is their flagship wine. They will only release it from the best vintages. Due to some shipping snafus, our “old” sample was from 2013, and it was outstanding. I loved the fruit—almost jammy but not overwhelming, and very smooth. The 2017 was definitely sassier! Spicier and more fruit-forward. Interestingly with a hint of mint or menthol. The Wakefield’s turned out to be my favorite of the wineries.

    Wine from The Cube

    The Cube is d'Arenberg’s cellar door (as tasting rooms are called in Australia) in McLaren Vale. It looks like a 4-story Rubik’s cube of green and white glass, which rises from the vineyard. This was the inspiration of Chester Osborn, the winery’s owner, whose family has run d’Arenberg for four generations.

    Even if you don’t like to go to “touristy” places when traveling, The Cube is a must-see. When I was there in 2019, I was blown away by the whimsy of the structure, and of all Salvador Dali art that was displayed throughout the building. Plus, this was where I got to blend my own Shiraz under the tutelage of one of their winemakers, which was so much fun. The onsite restaurant is reputedly one of the best in Australia.

    The virtual wine tasting was led by Chester himself. A bear of a man with wild white hair, he knows his wine.

    Our samples were the 2010 and 2017 vintages of The Dead Arm, clearly an inspired name. It refers not to a person, but a vine disease caused by the fungus Eutypa Lata that can hit vineyards anywhere in the world. The vines are either pruned or replanted and the affected “arm” becomes like deadwood. The other half of the vine produces a low yield of grapes, which are very intense.

    To me, both vintages had a smoky nose, almost like from a barbecue. This extended to the taste, which was smoother in the 2010 vintage. The ’17 definitely had brighter fruit, and was also spicier, but with that barbecued flavor. I was ready for some ribs or tri-tip to go with this wine.

    Kay Brothers Hillside, also from McLaren Vale

    Chester stayed on to talk about these wines since the Kay family are longtime friends of the Osborns. Kay Brothers was one of the first wineries in Australia, producing its first vintage in 1891, primarily to export back to the UK, where the family was from.

    Today, descendants of the original Kay Brothers, Bert and Fred, still operate the winery. In addition to its historical significance, the cellar door has one of the best views in South Australia.

    The two most iconic wines are Cuthbert Cab and Hillside Shiraz, which was our tasting sample. Similar to the d’Arenberg The Dead Arm, I detected a smoky nose in the 2010, which extended to the taste. The 2017 had brighter fruit, and a nice spiciness I enjoyed.

    Torbreck’s The Factor, from the Barossa Valley. Torbreck is well distributed in the US.

    Ian Hongell, who is Torbreck’s chief winemaker and GM, was on Zoom to talk about his winery and wine. They are one of the newer wineries in South Australia, beginning in 1994. Owner Pete Knight has grown the operation by purchasing a number of key vineyards in the area, focusing on producing primarily Rhône-style wines including Grenache and Mourvèdre in addition to Shiraz, or Syrah as they call it in the Rhône region of France.

    The Factor is produced from old-vine Shiraz, as old as from the 1890’s. As Ian explained, Torbreck likes their wines to be expressions of the soil in which they are grown, much like the French. Unlike some of the other wines I tasted which were aged in American oak, Torbreck uses only French oak. He thinks our oak adds a sweetness their wine doesn’t need.

    Based upon my tasting, I would agree. The 2010 was smooth yet spicy, and had definite notes of dried fruit, proving that the oak didn’t need to add sweetness. The 2018 was actually a very similar wine, except that the fruit tasted more fresh than dry, and had a hint of cherry.

    A sweet ending: Seppeltsfield Para 21-year-old Tawny Port

    Seppeltfield is one of the most historic wineries in South Australia, founded in 1850 by Joseph and Johanna Seppelt. They were immigrants from Silesia (which is mostly Poland today), one of the first European families to come to Australia.

    Factoid: Did you know that not all European immigrants to Australia were not criminals being forcibly exiled? South Australia was settled primarily by Central Europeans, like the Seppelt’s from Silesia and others from Germany, seeking a better life.

    Seppeltsfield has been an innovator from the beginning. In 1888 they built the first gravity-flow cellar in Australia, using nature rather than human force to produce their wines.

    While Seppeltsfield makes many varietals of wine, they are known for their fortified wines, like Port. What I found particularly fascinating is that they cellared their first vintage in 1878 for 100 years, and have been doing this annually ever since, so that currently you can taste the 1922 vintage. People are known to go there to taste the vintage from their birth year, which has to be a fun thing to do…especially if you’re older than 21!

    The 21-year-old Para Tawny that we tasted is a fortified GSM—Grenache, Shiraz/Syrah and Mourvèdre. Those are not the typical grapes used for port. Usually port, which is a primary wine of Portugal, is made from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Cão, Tinta Barroca and Touriga Franca. I loved Seppeltsfield’s choice—a burst of honey and brown sugar in a glass. This port would be amazing with a piece of dark chocolate.

    The difference between Shiraz and Syrah is the country of origin. Shiraz originated in South Africa or Australia and Syrah originated in France.

    This tasting was only a snapshot of the amazing wines produced in Australia. Wine Lovers Travel is working on a trip for late 2022 to be hosted by a US winery. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to learn about this upcoming trip.

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