The Brief History of Shiraz and Its Connection to Australian and French Wineries

Australians are familiar with Shiraz wine, which is also called Syrah in other parts of the world, especially in Rhone Valley, France. What is the connection between the two names when it comes to wine history? This is a question that most historians have tried to address, especially due to the fact that this entails two different names for the same grape.

It is believed that in the 13th Century, during the Crusades, a French knight named Gaspard de Sterimberg discovered Shiraz grapes in Persia. He brought some cuttings of the vine when he returned to his home in Rhone Valley.[1] However, this legend has been disproved by scientific discovery, which indicated that Shiraz is a native vine of the Rhone Valley and not Persia.

Syrah accounts for the majority of red wines coming from the Northern Rhone Valley, including regions like Côte-Rôtie, Saint Joseph, and Hermitage. France and Australia are the two nations that seem to be obsessed with this grape. Almost 40% of the red vines cultivated in Australia are Shiraz, making it an important part of the country’s wine industry.[2] France has a lower percentage of Syrah vines, but is still ahead of other countries.

It is believed that Shiraz was first introduced to Australia in 1832 when James Busby brought the first cutting. The cuttings were initially named “scyras” which is associated with the Northern Rhone Valley variety.

Recent scientific studies have proven that the Shiraz or Syrah variety is a crossbreed of two other varieties, Dureza from the Northern Ardeche region of the Rhone Valley and Mondeusa Blanche from the Savoie region.

Shiraz wine

Petite Sirah (where ‘y’ is replaced by ‘I’) is a completely different grape. In 1880, Dr. Durif in France developed a mildew-resistant grape variety, which he planted in America and incorrectly labeled as Syrah. It was until the 1970s that people realized many grape vines they thought were Syrah were actually Petite Sirah.

The Australian Shiraz is commonly produced in two different styles; one is a lighter, fruiter younger-drinking style and the other is a big, rich, full, tannin-laden style. It is common for winemakers to blend Grenache with Shiraz in both of these styles. In Hunter Valley the Shiraz has a trademark ‘sweaty saddle’ aroma, while wines Shiraz from Barossa Valley have more herbal and pepper notes.

Did You Know: It is common in regions of both Australia and France to blend Syrah/Shiraz with Grenache, which is known for producing a lighter, fruity style of wine.

The world-famous Penfolds Grange in Australia is made from mostly Shiraz with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon. At one point this wine used to be called Grange Hermitage after the famous Rhone Valley subregion of Hermitage. However, Penfolds had to change the name after legal action was taken by the French region. Grange was first made by Max Schubert in 1952.[3]

Max Schubert was a trailblazer in the use of refrigeration to control the rate of fermentation and thus the extraction of flavor from grapes. He also used new oak barrels to store and mature wines. Both of these practices are now commonplace for premium red wines, but they were revolutionary at the time.

It took more than a decade for Grange to be recognized as a great wine. When it was first released, it was universally panned, and only Max’s determination to see it succeed kept it alive.

Australian Wines: An Industry against the Odds

THIS DAY IN WINE HISTORY

1832: Shiraz was first introduced to Australia when James Busby took the first cutting. The cuttings were initially named “scyras” which is associated with the Northern Rhone Valley variety.

1952: Max Schubert pioneered the use of refrigeration to control the rate of fermentation and thus the extraction of flavor from grapes. He also used new oak barrels to store and mature wines, setting a precedence for a new generation of wineries.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Shiraz, The Brief History of Shiraz and Its Connection to Australian and French WineriesShiraz, The Brief History of Shiraz and Its Connection to Australian and French WineriesShiraz, The Brief History of Shiraz and Its Connection to Australian and French WineriesShiraz, The Brief History of Shiraz and Its Connection to Australian and French Wineries

References:

[1] Uncork Pty Ltd, ‘A Short History of Shiraz,’ Uncork, (2022), https://www.uncork.biz/tidbits10.aspx

[2]We Say Shiraz, They Say Syrah. www.thepresscellars.com.au/wine/wine-lessons/we-say-shiraz-they-say-syrah/. Accessed 30 Oct. 2022.

[3] Veseth, Mike, Around the World in Eighty Wines: Exploring Wine One Country at a Time, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

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