Quite surprisingly, it turns out that wine is also a matter of fashion! And I do not mean by this the winemakers’ attire, but global consumer trends that indicate which style of wine is currently de rigueur. When it comes to reds, full-bodied, intense in colour, round, yet not very dry wines with the aroma of chocolate and fruit have been in vogue for quite a while now. Shiraz ticks all of the above boxes.
Its growing popularity has solid foundations: this variety provides an accurate response to market needs, but also proves very adaptable, as it can be cultivated even in a very hot climate. Winemakers throughout the world, from Greece to Chile to New Zealand, grow shiraz hoping to make a quick profit, but also also because aware of the climate change and the uncertain future of more demanding grape varieties. Some use the French name ‘syrah’, others stick to the English-language tradition of the exotic sounding ‘shiraz’. Regardless of the spelling, the same dark grapes are used in the production process.
A story from one thousand and one nights
The history of shiraz is long and fascinating, and it goes back a long way. Shiraz is claimed to have Middle Eastern roots and to be an ancient variety. Its oriental origins seem to be confirmed by the similarity of its name to the ancient city of Shiraz, the former capital of Persia, currently a metropolis of Iran. Although grapes were grown in that region, DNA testing has not confirmed this assertion, while stories connecting shiraz to the famous wedding in Cana of Galilee, beautiful as they may be, are sheer fantasy. It is reported that shiraz was brought to southern France in the Middle Ages by crusaders, along with other spoils from the Holy Land. If this is true, shiraz could be a surprising beneficial side effect of crusades… However, its origins in the area referred to by ancient Greeks as Asia Minor remain unconfirmed. What we do know, though, is that white wines enjoyed a much greater esteem in ancient times, probably also in Galilee.
The modern, European cradle of shiraz is therefore the south of France, and more precisely the Rhône Valley. As with many other vine varieties, also in this case the French established a kind of template that serves as a point of reference for wine producers throughout the world. The northern part of the Rhône Valley, with such legendary appellations as Saint-Joseph, Côte Rôtie, or Hermitage, is where the most beautiful, copybook syrah grapes grows. Varietal wines of great elegance, with fruity and spicy aromas and tamed strength are produced here. This wine may come with a heavy price tag, but is worth its price. The great wine of the south of the Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, has enjoyed international renown for a while. The famous papal wine from the area around Avignon is, however, a blend of several varieties, with a varying share of syrah. To this day, the above wines are among the most celebrated in France, which has the greatest number of shiraz plantations in the world.
It comes as no surprise that the New World tried to emulate the shiraz tradition. Syrah has been most successful in Australia, as it perfectly matches the hot climate of this distant continent. The oldest vineyards in the Antipodes were planted in the 1830s, and syrah was the pioneer strain in the Upper Hunter Valley at the time. Back in the day, it was probably still called ‘the Rhône grape’, or even Hermitage, in honour of the outstanding French wine. Nota bene, a hundred years ago no one batted an eyelid at such practices as infringing copyright: back in the day, ‘original’ port and madeira wines were made also in Australia and in Crimea… Australian shiraz has become a new icon in the world of wine. To date, the most famous and the only auction wines from the land of kangaroos are the best vintages of shiraz: Penfold’s Grange Bin 95 and Henschke Hill of Grace. Apart from France and Australia, shiraz is grown to good results in the majority of wine-producing countries, including Spain, South Africa and the countries of North and South America.