What’s the difference between Syrah and Australian Shiraz? | UMAMU Estate

The difference between Syrah and Shiraz is of unique importance to us.

Syrah and Shiraz wines are typically differentiated like so:

  • If it’s an Australian wine, it’s a Shiraz (shi-raz)
  • If it’s a French wine, it’s a Syrah (si-rah)

But UMAMU Estate is located in Margaret River, on the southwestern tip of Australia, and famous throughout the world as a cooler Mediterranean wine region.

One could argue that our Margaret River Shiraz wines should, in fact, be a Syrah.

Confused much?

Let’s get into the difference between Syrah and Shiraz.

Shiraz is a style, not a grape

The difference between Syrah and Shiraz wines are purely down to terroir (and often winemaking methods).

The history of the term ‘Shiraz’ dates back to the father of Australian viticulture, James Busby, who first brought vines of the Syrah grape to Australia from France in the 1830s.

There’s a popular myth that Australian winegrowers wanted to distinguish their wines from their French forebears, and hit upon the name ‘Shiraz’ as in the Persian city often claimed to be a cradle of the Syrah grape and winemaking itself.

But this myth can be picked apart for two reasons:

  • DNA testing in 1998 proved the Syrah grape descends from the Mondeuse blanche and Dureza varietals, local to the Rhône-Alpes region of France.
  • James Busby initially called the Syrah vine ‘Scyras’ and ‘Ciras’ which, likely by accident rather than design, evolved into the name Shiraz.

Regardless of the common origin, Syrah and Shiraz wines make for a very distinct wine tasting experience.

Shiraz wines are most associated with South Australia – particularly the Barossa Valley – where a semi-arid climate and higher annual temperatures make for a full-bodied, high-alcohol content wine.

Syrah grapes, meanwhile, are typically grown in the Rhône valley where the strong, cold Le Mistral wind keeps growing conditions cool throughout the year.

A Syrah wine is typically lighter in body and alcohol, much leaner, and with finer tannins than a loud Australian Shiraz.

Margaret River – an Australian Syrah?

Margaret River has its own version of Le Mistral – ocean breezes which blow in from all three sides of a promontory sticking out into the Indian Ocean.

The climate of Margaret River is different to the rest of Australia. In fact, it was precisely this cooler, Mediterranean climate which Dr John Gladstone said made Margaret River ‘suitable viticulture country’ back in 1961.

Here’s what wine reviewer Michael Apstein has to say about Australian Shiraz:

“Many consumers assume that all Australian Shiraz are like those produced in South Australia's Barossa Valley: whopping, juicy, powerful wines. While Shiraz always has power, particular renditions generally reflect the climate where the grapes were grown. Warm climates produce Shiraz with juicy, plum-like flavors, while the peppery, spicy overtones common in some wines--like those from Northern Rhône [and Margaret River]--are the result of cooler growing areas.”

Let’s look at another comparison.

Here’s Australian wine guru James Halliday on a 1962 Penfold’s Grange Shiraz from South Australia (95 points):

“Strong, deep colour; right back on track; abundant plum, prune and blackberry fruit; perfectly balanced and integrated tannins, ditto oak; rich and satisfying.”

Here’s James Halliday on our UMAMU Estate 2015 Shiraz Red Seal from Margaret River (96 points):

"Bright crimson hue. The bouquet is wondrously complex, with a collection of exotic spices establishing its quality before it is tasted, and when that occurs it simply validates the promise of the bouquet.”

Note how he uses words like ‘complex’, ‘exotic’ and ‘spiced’ to refer to Margaret River Shiraz and words like ‘strong’, ‘deep’ and ‘abundant’ to refer to a South Barossa Shiraz?

Right there is what we mean when talking about the difference between Syrah and Shiraz.

Watch UMAMU Estate winemaker taste and talk about our ‘Syrah’ style Shiraz from Margaret River

Different types of Syrah and Shiraz wines in the world

Syrah is the major grape variety grown in the northern Rhône. Here, it’s famous for building in the peppery, muscular flavour of Hermitage.

In Côte-Rôtie it’s Syrah that is blended with Viognier to make refined and floral vintages.

Today, Syrah has expanded its reach down south through France to become the country’s third-most planted grape.

In Australia, Shiraz is the number one most planted grape – and the grape that made Australia’s first collectible New World wine: Penfolds Grange. Shiraz plantings in Australia are some of the few strands around which survived phylloxera outbreaks and are not planted on American rootstocks.

In Australia, the Barossa Valley is almost synonymous with the full and rich Shiraz style.

Syrah has also spread to California, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand. Most of these producers label the wines ‘Syrah’ – though there’s no strict rule or regulation.

The Shiraz plantings at UMAMU Estate in Margaret River are pioneer vines dating back to 1978. They were here when we acquired the vineyard in the late 1990s, and they are here to stay.

Here are two Margaret River Shiraz vintages we currently have stocked in our online wine store:

Both from pioneer 1978 vines.