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

Australians are familiar with the Shiraz wine, which is named in other parts of the world, especially in Rhone Valley, France, as Syrah. 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 but the same grapes.

It is believed that in the 13th Century, during the crusades, a knight from France named Gaspard de Sterimberg made a discovery of grapes from Shiraz in Persia, which he then took to plant back 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 wines coming from northern Rhone Valley, with the most popular Syrah appellations found in the northern part of the Rhone Valley, including Côte-Rôtie 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 fewer red wines but is still ahead of other countries.

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

Recent scientific studies have proven that the  Shiraz 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. We can therefore conclude that the Australian Shiraz wine variety has its roots in France. The other divergences of the Shiraz branch are Grosse Syrah and Petite Sirah. The difference between the two varieties is the berry size.

selective focus photography of purple grape fruit

Petite Sirah (where ‘y’ is replaced by ‘I’) is a different grape. In 1880, Dr. Durif in France developed a mildew-resistant variety, which he planted in America and he incorrectly labeled it Syrah. In the late 1890s, a large number of grapes were wiped out by Phylloxera and it was until the 1970s that the name Syrah given wrongly to the California variety was replaced with Sirah.

The Australian Shiraz is commonly produced in two different ways including the lighter fruiter drink-now styles with lots of raspberry and blackberry and the big, rich, full, tannin-laden wines. It is common for one to find Grenache in with some of the nastier and cheaper ones to add flavors. In Hunter Valley, the Shiraz produced there has a trademark ‘sweaty saddle’ while wines with more herbaceous and peppery styles and tannin and fruit aromas are produced in Barossa Valley.

The world-famous Grange Hermitage is made from Shiraz grapes. The name Hermitage was lost in great France versus the rest of the world naming debate, and it is now known as Penfolds Grange. Grange was composed by Max Schubert in 1952.[3]

He was a trailblazer in the use of refrigeration to control the rate of fermentation and thus the extraction of flavor from grapes, as well as the use of 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. Consider the damage done to the wine industry if Max had listened to everyone and given up.

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 cut. The cuts were initially named “scyras” which is associated with the Northern Rhone Valley variety. It is the day in the history of wine that connected Australian wines and the French varieties.

1952: Max Schubert pioneered the use of refrigeration to control the rate of fermentation and thus the extraction of flavor from grapes, as well as the use of new oak barrels to store and mature wines, marking the wake of a new generation of wineries.

References

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

[2] http://www.thepresscellars.com.au/wine/wine-lessons/we-say-shiraz-they-say-syrah/

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

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