The noble Syrah grape originated in the Rhone area of France and is used to make dry, full bodied reds. The trademark flavour of French Syrah is black pepper. Although there is much confusion and many misconceptions, Shiraz is in fact the same grape as Syrah. They are both made from the same small dark skinned grape, but based on the climate and soil (terroir) in which it is grown, you can expect very different characteristics in style. Syrah associated with the old world of France and Shiraz with new world particularly Australia.
"If black pepper is the French trademark, dark chocolate is that of Shiraz produced from one or, more often, some of Australia's hotter vineyards"-Jancis Robinson.
At home in the Rhône valley, steep, inhospitable slopes produce tannic wines of immense concentration and complexity that take years to mature - though usefully not as many years as the reds of Bordeaux with equivalent quality. Syrah has more concentration and tannin, more complexity and heady nostalgic spice in the northern Rhône than anywhere else. The finest examples are from Hermitage and Côte Rôtie.
In southern Rhône Syrah is blended with other grapes to make a warmer, softer broader style. Usually blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre, (GSM) with Grenache the dominant grape here producing some exotic fruit forward, rich styles. Châteauneuf-du-pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras being the big names of the southern Rhône and can produce excellent long lived wines, when mature can give aromas of leather, tobacco and exotic spice.
European countries that use varietal labeling, for example “Syrah” denote an old world style, rich and earthy. France labels wine based on region rather then varietal, so wines like Hermitage, Cornas and Cote-Rotie are usually prodominetly Syrah.
If the wine comes from Australia or South Africa, it will almost certainly be labeled Shiraz not Syrah. Like the Shiraz from Australia and South Africa, wines from other countries labeled as Shiraz will be a new world style wine– fruit forward and punchy!
The key when choosing a Syrah or Shiraz is knowing what characteristics you like in a wine. If you like fruit forward, stick with Shiraz but if you like earthy go with Syrah.
Here's a quick food match guide to the different Syrah styles around the world:
Northern Rhône: Hermitage & Côte Rotie: Concentrated, tarry, spicy flavour- match with rich beef dishes, good match for rare steak.
Southern Rhône: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Lirac make rich, spicy, plummy wines that can be mostly drunk quite young. Match with substantial dishes anything from beef, lamb, pork, duck to goose. The majority of Côtes Du Rhône wines are young and fresh although the villages will be slightly weightier. These are matched well with everyday dishes.
Provence and Languedoc: Corbières, Minervois and Fitou are herby and earthy with raspberry fruit. They range from rustic to more serious wines and can be matched with lamb, game and roasted meats. The more inexpensive examples can be matched with everyday meals like shepards pie, cous cous for example.
Australia: Shiraz is softer in texture and fruitier than Syrah. The rich and most voluptuous are those made from old vines in the Barossa - match with rich meats, beef, venison even fois gras or barbecue meats. Inexpensive wines with more of a GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) can be matched with pizza, spare ribs, chorizo based dishes etc.