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Que Syrah, Shiraz – A History

Now don’t take this the wrong way, but most likely you’ve be doing shiraz wrong the whole time. Australia’s favourite grape variety, shiraz, is called syrah in its country of origin, France, as well as in the rest of Europe, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, New Zealand and South Africa – pretty much the rest of the wine world.

Since the name shiraz has been used primarily in Australia in modern times, while the earliest Australian documents use the spelling scyras, it has been speculated (among others by Jancis Robinson) to be in fact a so-called “strinisation” of syrah’s name via scyras.

However, while the names shiraz and Hermitage (the spiritual home of syrah in the Northern Rhone) gradually seem to have replaced scyras in Australia from the mid-19th century, the spelling shiraz has also been documented in British sources back to at least the 1830s. So while the name or spelling shiraz may be an effect of the English language on a French name, there is no evidence that it actually originated in Australia. It was definitely the Australian usage and the Australian wines that made the use of this name popular.

In 1831, the Scotsman James Busby, often called “the Father of Australian viticulture”, made a trip back to Europe to collect cuttings from vines (primarily from France and Spain) for introduction to Australia. One of the varieties collected by him was syrah, although Busby used the two spellings “scyras” and “ciras”. The cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens, and in Hunter Region, and in 1839 brought from Sydney to South Australia. By the 1860s, shiraz was established as an important variety in Australia.

Today it is Australia’s most popular grape of any colour, but has not always been in such favour; in the 1970s, white wine was so popular that growers were ripping out unprofitable shiraz and grenache vineyards, even those with old vines.

In the Barossa Valley, the world’s oldest continually producing commercial vineyard is believed to be the shiraz vines at Turkey Flat in Tanunda that were originally planted in 1847.

Legends of syrah’s origins come from the homonym shiraz. Because Shiraz, capital of the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran), produced the well-known Shirazi wine, legends claim the syrah grape originated in Shiraz and then was brought to Rhône.

At least two significantly different versions of the myth are reported, giving different accounts of how the variety is supposed to have been brought from Shiraz to Rhône and differing up to 1,800 years in dating this event. In one version, the Phocaeans could have brought syrah/shiraz to their colony around Marseilles (then known as Massilia), which was founded around 600 BC by the Greeks. The grape would then later have made its way to northern Rhône, which was never colonized by the Phocaeans. No documentary evidence exists to back up this legend, and it also requires the variety to later vanish from the Marseilles region without leaving any trace.

The more likely legend connecting syrah with the city of Shiraz in Iran may, however, be of French origin. James Busby wrote in Journal of a recent visit to the principal vineyards of Spain and France that the 1826 book Œnologie Française “stated that, according to the tradition of the neighbourhood, the plant (scyras) was originally brought from Shiraz in Persia, by one of the hermits of the mountain” called Gaspare de Stérimberg.

The wines that made syrah famous were those from Hermitage, the hill above the town Tain-l’Hermitage in northern Rhône, where an hermitage (chapel) was built on the top, and where De Stérimberg is supposed to have settled as a hermit after his crusades. Hermitage wines have for centuries had a reputation for being powerful and excellent. While Hermitage was quite famous in the 18th and 19th centuries, and attracted interest from foreign oenophiles, such as Bordeaux enthusiast Thomas Jefferson, it lost ground and foreign attention in the first half of the 20th century to Bordeaux and now Burgundy.

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