Syrah, shiraz and petite sirah. They all sound about the same, so what’s the difference?
The easy part first: Syrah and shiraz are the same grape, but can be made in a range of styles, depending on winemaking techniques and where it’s grown.
Petite sirah (or petite syrah, as it’s sometimes spelled) is genetically a different grape with different qualities.
Let’s start with syrah/ shiraz. Like pinot noir, it can fall anywhere on the spectrum from light and fruity to dark and rich. It tends to have blackberry and other dark fruit flavors with peppery, earthy, leathery and/or smoky notes and softer tannins than cabernet.
The name change comes into play mainly depending on where it’s produced. It’s called syrah when it’s grown in France’s Rhone region and used in the famous blends of that area like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes-du-Rhone and others. Winemakers in California and the Pacific Northwest often use the name syrah, too.
Australian and South African wineries call it shiraz, and tend to make it in a more bold, ripe, fat style (but not always). Some California producers also label it shiraz.
No matter what you call it, syrah/shiraz is one of my favorite grapes.
I drink syrah in Rhone blends when I feel worldly or mellow; it’s good for drinking during conversation and sipping on the patio with a plate of charcuterie.
Shiraz, on the other hand, is what I bring out when I feel rowdy and free; when I’m in the mood to laugh and hoot and holler and stay up until the wee hours.
Don’t get me wrong: Shiraz cleans up real nice when it wants to. Just look at the highly-rated Penfold’s Grange or d’Arenberg The Dead-Arm shiraz. Those two know how to party, but they have a respectable, collectible side.
The quality doesn’t come cheap — expect to pay about $200 for Grange and $70 for Dead-Arm. However, you can get syrah/shiraz at all price points.
Oft-repeated wine lore says shiraz originated in the Persian city of Shiraz, but Karen MacNeil in "The Wine Bible" claims the grape known as syrah was being grown in France long before the name was changed when it was brought to South Africa and Australia in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Now on to petite sirah. It’s a different grape with a different taste than syrah/shiraz.
"Typically it’s very spicy," said John Samora, owner of Paso Fino wine distributors. "It’ll definitely have more tannin than syrah. It’s just a bigger wine."
Often, petite sirah is pegged as mainly a "blending grape," although that’s beginning to change. Paso Robles winemaker Victor Hugo in particular makes an excellent well-balanced example.
Some sources, including MacNeil, say DNA testing shows petite syrah could be the same as Durif, which is a cross between syrah and peloursin developed in France in the 1880s. Or, she writes, it could be another blend altogether.
Samora said Hugo told him they’re still doing DNA testing and trying to get to the root of where it’s from.
"As with other wine lore, it’s very cloudy," he said.