Syrah is a world famous grape, planted widely, but concentrated in two countries: France and Australia; in the latter it is called Shiraz.

Syrah/Shiraz is about 5% of the world’s wine, but much – probably most – of it is blended. In its home, the Northern Rhone (where it most often a single variety) it only accounts for 1½% of the world’s planting, and a little over 4% of France’s Syrah vines.

It turns out that Syrah is a natural crossing of Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza. This means it is closely related to Mondeuse Noire (a variety still common in Savoie) and Viognier. Jancis Robinson, in her magnum opus “Wine Grapes” (2102), makes a case that it is most likely that Mondeuse Noire is a “grand-parent” and Viognier a half-sibling of Syrah. On the other (Dureza) side it seems likely that Pinot Noir is a great-grandparent!

Nearly 40% of the world’s Syrah vineyards are in France. Two thirds of those are in Languedoc-Roussillon where the grape is usually blended (in Grenache-based blends); the same is true in Southern Rhone – where it out-planted 3:1 by Grenache. Most of the other French Syrah vineyards are in Provence – the grape is hardly seen north of Lyon as it requires a warm growing season

Around a quarter of the world’s Syrah (Shiraz) plantings are now in Australia and it is that country’s most widely planted grape. As with all Australian wine, about two thirds of it is in the inland, irrigated areas of Murray-Darling, Riverland and Riverina. Here it produces brand wines and other plonk (I’m being polite here!).

Elsewhere in Australia the significant plantings are in Barossa (about 12% of the Australian Shiraz vines); McClaren Vale (a bit over 6%), Langhorne Valley (4%) and in Clare Valley, Padthaway and Coonawarra (about 3% each). All these areas are in South Australia, the first four very near Adelaide. There is some too (about 2%) in the Hunter Valley in NSW.
Other than France and Australia 10% of the world’s Syrah vines are in Spain; 7½ % in Argentina; and nearly 6% are each in the US and South Africa; 3½% in Italy and 2% in Chile.

New Zealand, most Mediterranean and other South American countries also produce a little of the wine, but all added together these countries’ production is probably only 1 or 2% of the world total, New Zealand is among the largest of these, and gaining ground.

There are two extremes that apply to the flavour profile of varietal Syrah/Shiraz. One based on the Northern Rhone and which might be called the Syrah end of the spectrum, the other based on the big Australian – probably Barossa – Shiraz example. In truth wherever they come from, and whichever name they use, most varietal Syrahs fall in between.

Syrah is never what you might call a subtle or elegant wine, but the most complex examples are more common in Northern Rhone. The wine often has blackberry fruit, hints of black pepper, sometimes a – quite heavy – floral note reminiscent of lilies, and a savoury component. This savoury flavour is sometimes likened to liver, bacon fat, or black olives and point to a character in Syrah that I rather dislike – a salty flavour. I have only found the most floral and light (and expensive) examples free from at least a hint of this character.

There are five major Syrah appellations in the Northern Rhone: Côte-Rôtie; Hermitage; Crozes-Hermitage; Cornas & St. Joseph. Côte-Rôtie, famously produces more fragrant wines with the use of (around 5%) Viognier. A much copied style in the New World.

The other extreme has more alcohol and warmth, black fruit, going right up to blackcurrant, and a grainy, tarry – almost dark chocolate – tannic structure, sometimes with spicy notes. The problem for me is the brackishness of the flavours.

All Syrah has a quite full middle palate, making it – for many – preferable to Cabernet Sauvignon. To repeat, most Syrah is in between these poles. Few are as complex as expensive Côte-Rôtie or a big and brash as the biggest Barossa. McClaren Vale, Clare Valley and Coonawarra make lighter, finer and cooler examples in Australia – and other countries, and individually growers, all take up different positions in the Syrah spectrum.

To try and explore all this we will try wines (all in the quite narrow price range from £12 to £16) from:
The Northern Rhone in France; South Africa; Australia; New Zealand; Portugal and Chile.

Notes and preferences will be posted on these examples in four or five days.