In general, Shiraz and Syrah wines are bold, packed with flavour and full bodied in structure. There is also a huge range in the flavour profile of Shiraz and Syrah wines, dependent on the vineyard and region that they are grown.
A lot of the difference between the two comes down to where you are and where your wine is from. However this also means that there is a difference in the style of the wine, because of the style of winemaking and influences of terroir (the set of environmental factors that affect things that are grown).
European countries that label their wines by varietal use the term Syrah. In France the wines are labelled by region not varietal, but the wines from regions such as H’ermitage are usually mostly Syrah.
Syrah is the great grape of the northern Rhône, responsible for the dense, burly, deep-coloured, long-lived, savoury and peppery wines of Hermitage, and the slightly more seductively perfumed (traditionally thanks to some co-fermented viognier in the blend) Côte-Rôtie.
Unlike other varieties, it demonstrates a strict relationship between how severely it is pruned and how good the eventual wine is. It can also lose its aroma and acidity quickly if left past optimal ripening stage.
Australia and South Africa
In Australia and South Africa, the term Shiraz is used almost exclusively. However there has been a growing trend in recent years to use Syrah for wines that are made in the Old World style, being less fruit forward and possessing floral aromatic and medium tannin style seen in the classic French and European wines.
Cuttings of Syrah, called Shiraz, were probably brought to Australia by the so-called father of Australian viticulture James Busby in the early 1830, when he travelled around France and Spain looking for vine cuttings to plant in Australia. It flourished and spread, with individuals like Maurice O’Shea perfecting the art of making Shiraz in Australia. Today, there are 42,000 hectares planted to the varietal.
Elsewhere in the World
In countries outside of Europe, South Africa and Australia, the term Syrah is mostly used. When Shiraz is used, it usually means that it is not made in the Old World style and is more closely aligned with the Australian style.
Syrah Flavours: The (slightly)leaner than the Australian style, yet more complex (spice, cherry, tar, smoke, cassis, plum, etc), earthy, lively (more acidity),softer tannins, and typically capable of short to long term bottle ageing.
Shiraz Flavours: Shiraz wines that are full bodied and encouraged to produce rich, ripe, and intense fruit flavours (plum, blackberry, cherry, etc), as well as hints of black spice. They can also have a higher alcohol content due to longer ripening on the vine before picking. These fruit driven wines are usually made in an easy drinking style and are good everyday wines but are able to age for many years.
The difference is clear in the McW 660 Reserve range. The typical old-world Syrah is lighter and leaner than the intense Shiraz wines of Australia, which tend to be richer intensity, fruit forward and more full-bodied with tannin. The difference between the Canberra Syrah and Hilltops Shiraz exhibits this difference very clearly.
As more Syrah wines come on to the market, it will be important to know the difference when choosing a wine.
If you like bold, fruit forward wines with tannin, stick with Shiraz. If you’re looking for something a little more elegant and complex, the Syrah could be a good option.