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Syrah, Shiraz, Sirah - Wine Tasting 101
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed March 2, 2005. For more information go to

Big, peppery, earthy and robust, or soft, fruity and slightly sweet? Rough and tannic, demanding cellar time, or slurpy and simple, meant for drinking now? Depending on circumstances and the bottle you choose, Syrah can meet either of these seemingly contradictory descriptions...and that's before we've even started talking about Shiraz or Petite Sirah.

This month in WINE TASTING 101, we'll sort out the differences among these familiar names. Today, let's touch lightly on all three, setting up the framework that we'll fill in with tasting and talking during March.

SYRAH, by most reckonings one of the world's handful of truly "noble" wine grapes, may reach its pinnacle in the Northern Rhone, first and foremost in Hermitage but also memorably in Cote-Rotie, not to mention Cornas, St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and more. It's also an important player - most often in blends - in the Southern Rhone, Languedoc and Provence; and it's a hot variety in California, where it leads the market category jokingly called "Rhone Rangers." It's gaining recognition in Spain, Italy, South Africa, Washington State and just about every other world growing region. And it's the leading grape of Australia under another name...more about that in a moment. Syrah, according to legend, was brought back to the Rhone from ancient Persia by a French Crusader, Gaspard de Sterimberg, who is said to have put down his sword and shield, planted a vineyard atop a beautiful mountain above a sweeping curve of the Rhone, and declared the place his "Hermitage."

The French name for the grape took its name from the Persian city of SHIRAZ, where the Crusader is said to have found it; and by happenstance, when cuttings were shipped to the new colony of Australia in the early 1800s, the grape took back the Persian name. Syrah in France, Shiraz in Australia, but it's the same grape, even if local custom and vinification practices might make it seem like two different wines. South Africans, by and large, have adopted the Australian name, although curiously, a handful of New Zealand producers who are experimenting with it - largely on relatively mild Waiheke Island near Auckland - prefer to call it Syrah, perhaps in a gentle jab at their neighbors to the west. A minority of California producers also use "Shiraz," perhaps to signal that their wine is made in a fruit-forward Australian style.

Finally, PETITE SIRAH, a completely different grape, confuses the issue with a similar name that was almost certainly chosen in hope of being mistaken for the more respected variety. A California pioneer, it's still found in some ancient vineyards, intermingled with other varieties, that can make some of the state's most interesting wines. Actually the same as the low-rent Southern French grape called Durif, it's a 19th century cross between true Syrah and another little-known French variety, Peloursin. Some tasters find a superficial resemblance to Syrah in the inky, fruity if rather one-dimensional wines that Petite Sirah makes; good examples can survive for decades in the cellar, staying little changed until they finally start to develop interesting complexity after 20 years or more.

You're encouraged to taste the Syrahs, Shirazes and Petite Sirahs of your choice this month, the drop in to WT101 to share your tasting reports and talk about your impressions. For those who enjoy comparing notes with others who've tasted the same wines, I have selected three New World "benchmarks" in the relatively affordable $10 range. Prices shown are those I paid in Louisville at a national-chain wine shop, Cost Plus World Wines, and may vary in other parts of the world:

* Cline 2002 California Syrah ($13.99)
* Yalumba 2002 South Australia Shiraz ($10.99)
* Bogle 2002 California Petite Sirah ($9.99)


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