SYRAH (Shiraz)

Syrah or Shiraz is a dark-skinned grape grown throughout the world and used primarily to produce powerful red wines. Whether sold as Syrah or Shiraz, these wines enjoy great popularity.

Syrah is used as a varietal and is also blended. Following several years of strong planting, Syrah was estimated in 2004 to be the world's 7th most grown grape at 142,600 hectares (352,000 acres).

DNA profiling in 1999 found Syrah to be the offspring of two obscure grapes from southeastern France, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. It should not be confused with Petite Sirah, a synonym for Durif, a cross of Syrah with Peloursin dating from 1880.


Syrah has a long documented history in the Rhône region of Southeastern France, and it was not known if it had originated in that region. In 1998, a study conducted by Carole Meredith's research group in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis used DNA typing and extensive grape reference material from the viticultural research station in Montpellier, France to conclude that Syrah was the offspring of the grape varieties Dureza (father) and Mondeuse Blanche (mother).

Dureza is a dark-skinned grape variety from the Ardèche region in France that has all but disappeared from the vineyards, and the preservation of such varieties is a speciality of Montpellier. Mondeuse Blanche is a white grape variety cultivated in the Savoy region, and is still found in very small amounts in that region's vineyards today. Both varieties are somewhat obscure today and have never achieved anything near Syrah's fame or popularity, and there is no record of them ever having been cultivated at long distances from their present home. Thus, both Syrah's parents come from a limited area in southeastern France, very close to northern Rhône. Based on these findings, the researchers have concluded that Syrah originated from northern Rhône.

The DNA typing leaves no room for doubt in this matter, and the numerous other hypotheses of the grape's origin which have been forwarded during the years all completely lack support in form of documentary evidence or ampelographic investigations, be it by methods of classical botany or DNA. Instead, they seem to have been based primarily or solely on the name or synonyms of the variety. Because of varying orthography for grape names, especially for old varieties, this is in general very thin evidence. Despite this, origins such as Syracuse or the Iranian city of Shiraz have been proposed.

The parentage information does however not reveal how old the grape variety is, i.e., when the pollination of a Mondeuse Blanche vine by Dureza took place, leading to the original Syrah seed plant. In the year AD 77, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia about the wines of Vienne (which today would be called Côte-Rôtie), where the Allobroges made famous and prized wine from a dark-skinned grape variety that had not existed some 50 years earlier, in Virgil's age. Pliny called the vines of this wine Allobrogica, and it has been speculated that it could be today's Syrah. However, the description of the wine would also fit, for example, Dureza and Pliny's observation that the vines of Allobrogica was resistant to cold is not entirely consistent with Syrah.

The name Shiraz
It is called Syrah in its country of origin, France, as well as in the rest of Europe, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Uruguay and most of the United States. The name Shiraz became popular for this grape variety in Australia, where it has long been established as the most grown dark-skinned variety. In Australia it was also commonly called Hermitage up to the late 1980s, but since that name is also a French Protected designation of origin, this naming practice caused a problem in some export markets and was dropped. The name Shiraz for this grape variety is also commonly used in South Africa and Canada.

The grape is also known under many other synonyms that are used in various parts of the world including Antourenein Noir, Balsamina, Candive, Entournerein, Hignin Noir, Marsanne Noir, Schiras, Sirac, Syra, Syrac, Serine, and Sereine.

It seems that many of the legends of Syrah's origins come from one of its many synonyms - Shiraz. Since there also is a city in Iran called Shiraz, where the famous Shirazi wine was produced, some legends have claimed that the Syrah grape originated in Shiraz, and was brought to Rhône, which would make Syrah a local French synonym and Shiraz the proper name of the variety.

There are at least two significantly different versions of the myth, giving different accounts of how the variety is supposed to have been brought from Shiraz to Rhône and differing up to 1,800 years in dating this event. In one version, the Phocaeans should have brought Syrah/Shiraz to their colony around Marseilles (then known as Massilia), which was founded around 600 BC. The grape should then later have made its way to northern Rhône, which was never colonized by the Phocaeans. No documentary evidence exists to back up this legend, and it also requires that the variety later has vanished from the Marseilles region without leaving any trace.

In another version, the person who brought the variety to Rhône is even named, being the crusader Gaspard de Stérimberg, who is supposed to have built the chapel at Hermitage. Even before the advent of DNA typing of grapes, there were several problems with this legend. First, no ampelographic investigations of the grapes from Shiraz seem to have been made. Second, it is documented that the famous Shirazi wine was white, ruling out the use of dark-skinned grapes such as Syrah, and no known descriptions of this wine's taste and character indicate any similarity whatsoever with red wines from the Rhône. Third, it is highly doubtful if any crusader would have journeyed as far east as Persia, since the crusades were focused on the Holy Land.

The legend connecting Syrah with the city of Shiraz in Iran may, however, be of French origin. James Busby wrote in Journal of a recent visit to the principal vineyards of Spain and France that the 1826 book Œnologie Française "stated that, according to the tradition of the neighbourhood, the plant [Scyras] was originally brought from Shiraz in Persia, by one of the hermits of the mountain".

Since the name Shiraz has been used primarily in Australia in modern time, while the earliest Australian documents use the spelling "Scyras", it has been speculated (among others by Jancis Robinson[8]) that the name Shiraz is in fact a so-called "strinization" of Syrah's name via Scyras. However, while the names Shiraz and Hermitage gradually seem to have replaced Scyras in Australia from the mid-19th century, the spelling Shiraz has also been documented in British sources back to at least the 1830s. So, while the name or spelling Shiraz may be an effect of the English language on a French name, there is no evidence that it actually originated in Australia, although it was definitely the Australian usage and the Australian wines that made the use of this name popular.

Wine regions

The history of Syrah production in Italy had its beginnings in the mid-1980s, with pioneering offerings such as Collezione De Marchi, "invented" by Paolo De Marchi at Isole e Olena in Chianti Classico, and Case Via, produced by Giovanni Manetti and enologist Franco Bernabei at Fontodi in the same area.

Rather than a novelty, however, it would be more correct to speak of Syrah today as a rediscovery, since historical sources tell of the Syrah grape in Italy well before the advent of phylloxera prior to 1879 in various regions of the peninsula—even if it was not produced as a monovarietal wine. Piedmont knew it as "Piccola Barbera," where it was blended with Freisa, and in the Veneto it was mixed with the local red varieties. It was later grown in Umbria, Lazio and the Marche, where it sensorilally beefed up Sangiovese and Cesanese.

The variety was in Tuscany as well, reputed according to the scientific analysis of the day to show good tolerance of peronospora, which was wreaking havoc in those years. It was present in the areas of Pisa and of Lucca (where it would be a component of the Montecarlo DOC), but the provinces of Arezzo and Florence welcomed it too, where the Chianti of the day, produced both from red varieties such as Sangiovese and Canaiolo, and whites such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, picked up "smoothness and color" from Syrah. Traces of Syrah were present in Lombardy, Sicily and Piedmont, and were utilized in experimental plantings and in varietal collections.

Following the phylloxera era, between the two world wars, Syrah was growing in 10 regions, according to a 1934 analysis. But in the next 30 years, and after the large-scale replantings of the 1950s and 1960s, Syrah practically disappeared, with presences only in Valle d'Aosta, Tuscany and Umbria.

From the 1990s on, the picture changes radically and with steady increases: 94 acres were planted in 1995, 185 in 1998, 370 in 1999, 680 in 2001, 927 in 2002 and 1,100 in 2003. A 2000 vineyard census counts over 2,500 acres of Syrah in Italy (417 in Tuscany, 60 in Lazio, 50 in Sardinia and 2,000 in Sicily), and in 2004, the Vivai cooperativi di Rauscedo, Italy's largest specialized nursery, reported that Syrah had now reached 4,700 acres, with Tuscany and Sicily still in first place, followed by Sardinia, Lazio, the Marche, Apulia, Umbria and Abruzzo.

Follows, by region, a list of all DOC and DOCG where use is permitted of this vine.

Valle d'Aosta :

 - Valle d'Aosta - 85-100% (with mention of the vine)

Tuscany :

 - Valle d'Aosta - 85-100% (with mention of the vine)

 - San Gimignano - 0-20% (red), min. 85% (with mention of the vine)

 - Elba - 0-40% (pink, red)

 - Monte Carlo - 10-15%

 - Valdichiana - 0-50%

 - Cortona - min. 85% (with mention of the vine)

Sicily :

 - County Sclafani - min. 85% (with mention of the vine)

 - Contessa Entellina - 0-50%

 - Delia Nivolelli - 0-65%

 - Erice - min. 85% (with mention of the vine)

 - Memphis - 0-70% (red), min. 85% (with mention of the vine)

 - Monreale - min. 85% (with mention of the vine)

Viticulture and winemaking

Environmental and cultural characteristics and needs:

He leaves medium-large, pentagonal, three-lobed or five-lobed, medium cluster, elongated, cylindrical, sometimes winged, and the stalk semispargolo visible berry medium or medium-small, oval, and has skin rich in bloom, a little consistency, color blue, dark flesh of sweet and savory. The production is good and steady, although it depends very much on the clones, is sensitive to iron chlorosis and water stress. He gives his best in very bright, with good density of plants per hectare but low production per plant. Pruning requires a medium-long.

Diseases and adversity :

Has average tolerance to common pests of the vine, but can be attacked by mites, in areas with rainy autumn is subject to rot. He did not particularly sensitive to climatic.

Viticultural expert, Attilio Scienza, advises using certain clones such as numbers 381, 383 and 470, and he gives the edge to sub-Mediterranean and continental climates, where diurnal temperature ranges are significant during the ripening period; to soils that are sub-acidic, neutral or volcanic; metamorphic, schistous and loose; with little clay and low fertility. According to Scienza, yields for top-quality wines should not exceed 3.3 lbs. per vine, and super-ripeness and water stress should both be avoided, since they significantly reduce a foliar area thanes 470, 525, 383 and 174 (smaller bunch and low vigor). Viticulturally, Syrah, in his opinion, is a sponge, reacting much more directly than other varieties to its weather and soil environment. "Sicily actually exhibits an extremely wide range of Syrah styles and typologies, depending on the local environment. We believe that, in general, the sun and, therefore light and temperatures, even on the high side, are factors determining quality in Syrah." Planeta's Syrah is blended with Nero d'Avola and Merlot, and it is produced as monovarietal as well.

For the winemaker, "it shows great plasticity, and it is probably the most enjoyable variety, since it lends itself to different interpretations and to experimentation. Stylistically, we are trying to produce concentrated Syrahs with a balance of fruit and spiciness on the nose," said Planeta. He draws attention to the morphological analogies between Syrah and Nero d'Avola, between their growth habits, and in some clones, the shape of the bunch; the similarity is confirmed by analyses of the two grapes' aroma profiles and some specific compounds, as well as of their respective wines, to the point where one can almost be taken for the other.

Enzo Cambria, of the Cottanera Winery on the north slope of Etna, is convinced that Syrah shows best when produced as a monovarietal since "blending with other varieties would cause the loss of just those characteristics that make it unique." He believes that the particular terroir where the winery is located, featuring "sand-rich volcanic soils, with gravelly texture in some areas, sub-acid pH, abundant magnesium and phosphorus content, and good drainage, offers the Syrah an ideal substrate."

Cambria is of the opinion that where it can rely on reducing deficit irrigation, the variety succeeds in creating its own distinctive typicity, one quite different from what it offers in the areas in Tuscany. "This island offers Syrah a climate that fosters its expressive powers, thanks to average monthly temperature levels higher than other areas of the peninsula, and to significant diurnal temperature ranges in the interior, due to nighttime cooling breezes during the summer. Syrah in Sicily yields intensely colored, fruit-forward wines with good varietal aromas, smooth and expansive."

So what is Syrah's future in Italy? Impressive, certainly, if the variety will indeed find itself planted "in areas suited to it and which can co-exist with terroirs dedicated to local native varieties, in order to avoid counterproductive competition with those varieties," and if growers can overcome the temptation to co-plant it promiscuously among their varieties that furnish color, body and smoothness, instead of locating it in the terroir it prefers. Syrah should certainly not be put in that group, and the results will fall far short of expectations if it is.

Nor should it be forgotten that the Italian Syrahs will be competing in various markets with the international versions, which at the same quality levels will enjoy the advantage of lower vineyard and processing costs; in some instances the latter wines will show less distinctiveness, but they will be more affordable. For this reason, even if Italian production grows, it will always be somewhat of a niche product. wbm


It has numerous synonyms, including Syrach de l'Ermitage, Sirach, Petit Syrah, Shiras, Shiraz, Syrah Blauer, Serina noir, Candive, Plant de la Bianne, Marsanne Noir Sirah.