Wine can be confusing, and three grape names in particular add to that perplexity: syrah, petite sirah and shiraz.
Syrah is the powerful grape grown in France’s northern Rhone Valley.
Petite sirah is not syrah at all, but in most cases a descendant of a minor Rhone grape called Durif. But when the two grapes became popular in California in the 1970s, many winemakers and consumers used the two names interchangeably.
To add to the confusion, along comes shiraz. In 1831, Australian grape growers imported syrah grapes from France, planted them widely, and took to calling them shiraz. It’s generally understood now that syrah and shiraz are the same grape — maybe changed a bit by mutation in the past 182 years.
Syrah makes wines that are hearty and smooth, but without the muscular tannins and acids of, say, cabernet sauvignon. In the Southern Rhone, syrah is blended with softer grenache and other grapes to make the popular Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape red wines.
Petite sirah is coming into its own, especially in California, as an individual variety, inky and august, with powerful tannins and blackberry fruit. It’s muscular enough that it’s also used in small quantities to give backbone to zinfandels, pinot noirs, merlots, malbecs and other red wines.
Shiraz, in sunny Australia, is often softer, sweeter and smoother than its Rhone Valley forefather. It’s often blended with other grapes, with the combination of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre so popular it’s called “The Holy Trinity.” This blend makes soft, approachable wines similar to those of the Southern Rhone.
And now, just to add a final touch of confusion, a few California vineyards are making softer version of their own syrah and calling them “shiraz” as well.
Highly recommended:2010 Tower 15 Petite Sirah,
Recommended:2009 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Morgan Syrah,