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Nearly synonymous with fine wine and all things epicurean, France has a culture of wine production and consumption that is deeply rooted in tradition. Many of the world’s most beloved grape varieties originated here, as did the concept of “terroir”—the notion that regions and vineyards convey a sense of place that is reflected in the resulting wine. Accordingly, most French wine is labeled by geographical location, rather than grape variety, which can be confusing to the general consumer, who can benefit from a general working knowledge of the major appellations. Some of the greatest wine regions in the world can be found here, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, and Champagne, but each part of the country has its own specialties and strengths.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, always unblended, are the king and queen of Burgundy, producing elegant red and white wines with great acidity, the finest examples of which can age for decades and command astoundingly high auction prices. The same varieties, along with Pinot Meunier, are used in Champagne. Of comparable renown is Bordeaux, focused on bold, structured red wines that are almost always blends of some combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The primary white varieties of Bordeaux are Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. The Rhône Valley is responsible for monovarietal Syrah in the north, while in the south it is generally blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre. White Rhône varieties include Marsanne, Roussane, and Viognier. Most of these varieties are planted throughout the country and beyond, extending their influence into both the Old and New Worlds.
Marked by unmistakable aromatics, a savory palate, and an elegant texture, Syrah is capable of producing fascinatingly complex and long-lived wines with a stunning purple hue. Native to the Northern Rhône, Syrah’s best examples are found in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. It is also an important component of the GSM blends of the Southern Rhône and beyond, alongside Grenache and Mourvèdre. Both varietal Syrah and GSM blends are common in Australia and California and are gaining popularity in Washington State. In Australia, Syrah is known by the synonym Shiraz, which tends to indicate a bolder, fruit-driven style of wine, and is occasionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon for added depth and structure.
In the Glass
At its best, Syrah shows aromas and flavors of purple fruits, fragrant violets, baking spice, white pepper, smoke, and even bacon fat. Many examples from California aim to recreate this savory style, while others focus more on concentrated fruit flavors. In Australia, under the name Shiraz, it shines as that country’s unofficial signature red grape, producing deep, dark, intense, and often jammy reds.
Cool-climate Syrah, with its peppery spices, is a natural match with flavorful Moroccan-spiced lamb dishes, where the spice is more about flavor than heat. With Australian Shiraz, grown in warmer regions, heavy meat dishes with abundant protein and fat are a necessity to match the intensity of the wine.
Due to the success of Australian “Shiraz,” this synonym for Syrah has been adopted by winemakers throughout the world. If the label says “Shiraz,” you can typically expect a plush, fruity, and potent wine made in the Australian style. New World "Syrah" will generally more closely resemble the French style.