Same grape, so why a different name?
Syrah is a French grape variety native to the Northern Rhône, in the east of France. In other parts of the world, it sometimes goes by the name shiraz. Historically, this distinction has been linked to cultural and stylistic differences between wines from the 'old' and the 'new' world – essentially, Europe versus the rest.
As a result, syrah came to be associated with the refined, savoury reds of the Northern Rhone, and shiraz with the classically bold, ripe wines of Australia. More recently, however, this interpretation has started to shift, especially in Australia, with many producers making a conscious decision to refer to a wine as a ‘syrah’ or a ‘shiraz’. Today it has less to do with where a wine is made and more to do with signifying differences in climate and style.
In the Rhône Valley, the geographical and spiritual home of syrah, the climate is classified as cool and continental. The vineyards are often extremely steep, rising out the Rhône River and towards the sky at calf-breaking angles, so fruit yields are typically low but highly concentrated. Here, the wines are dark-fruited and lean, with plenty of spice and savoury character.
Outside of France, when a wine is labelled syrah, it usually indicates that it has been made in the style of this region: an elegant, well-structured wine with distinctive spice and savoury notes, typically produced in a cool or marginal climates like Casablanca in Chile, the Yarra Valley in Australia and Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, which is where The Flying Winemaker produces its own syrah.
By contrast, Shiraz is not a term you're likely to encounter on a French label. But in the rest of the world, and especially Australia, it typically indicates the richer, more fruit-focused style of wine that regions like the Barossa and the Hunter Valley have become famous for. This is largely due to differences in climate; the hot, dry conditions of these regions mean riper fruit and riper characters: sweet red-berry fruits, sweet spice and a softer, more glycerol mouthfeel from higher alcohols.
Syrah and shiraz today
While understanding the connotations behind the names ‘syrah’ and ‘shiraz’ can provide useful clues about the kind of wine in your bottle, it’s important to note that ‘New World’ winemakers outside of Europe aren’t bound to rules or regional styles. Today we're seeing an evolution in the styles of shiraz from warmer, more established regions as a new wave of producers are making wines with restraint and elegance through earlier picking and careful handling of fruit. Similarly, cool climate regions in Australia and New Zealand that are historically known for syrah-style wines are beginning to experiment with more robust, fruit-driven expressions. Therefore, it can be useful to think of shiraz and syrah as two ends of a stylistic spectrum rather than two mutually exclusive styles.
Ultimately, the distinction between syrah and shiraz depends on various cultural and climatic factors, but your enjoyment is a matter of personal preference. The best way to discover your preferred style is to taste widely along this spectrum, and we happen to know a great wine to begin with.