Rhone Valley, the birthplace of syrah (shiraz)

Syrah, also known as shiraz in Australia, is a dark-skinned grape variety grown throughout the world and used primarily to produce red wine.

In 1998, syrah was found to be the offspring of two obscure grapes from south eastern France, dureza and mondeuse blanche.The style and flavour profile of wines made from syrah are influenced by the climate where the grapes are grown with moderate climates such as the northern Rhone Valley tend to produce medium to full-bodied wines with medium to high levels of tannins and notes of blackberry, mint and black pepper. In warmer climates such as Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions in Australia, syrah is more consistently full-bodied with softer tannin, jammier fruit and spice notes of liquorice and earthy leather. In many regions the acidity and tannin levels of syrah allow the wines produced to have great aging potential.

Syrah is used as a single varietal or as a blend. It can be found throughout the globe from France to New World wine regions such as: Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the USA. Syrah has a long documented history in the Rhône region of southeastern France but it was not known if it had originated in that region.

In 1998, a study conducted by Carole Meredith's research group in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis used DNA typing and extensive grape reference material from the viticultural research station in Montpellier, France to conclude that syrah was the offspring of the grape varieties dureza (father) and mondeuse blanche (mother). Both varieties are somewhat obscure today, and have never achieved anything near syrah's fame or popularity, and there is no record of them ever having been cultivated at long distances from their present homes. Thus, both of syrah's parents come from a limited area in southeastern France, close to northern Rhône. Based on these findings, the researchers have concluded syrah originated from northern Rhône. The DNA typing leaves no room for doubt in this matter, and the numerous other hypotheses of the grape's origin which have been forwarded during the years all completely lack support in the form of documentary evidence or ampelographic investigations, be it by methods of classical botany or DNA.

Instead, they seem to have been based primarily or solely on the name or synonyms of the variety. Varying orthography for grape names render dubious any name-based evidence of origins. Nevertheless, origins such as Syracuse or the famous Iranian city of Shiraz have been proposed while the genomic studies had yet to be done. It 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. The name 'shiraz' became popular for this grape variety in Australia, where it has long been established as the most grown dark-skinned variety. In Australia, it was also commonly called Hermitage up to the late 1980s, but since that name is also a French Protected Designation of Origin, this naming practice caused a problem in some export markets and was dropped. Legends of syrah's origins come from one of its homonyms, shiraz. Because Shiraz, the capital of the Persian Empire (modern-day Iran), produced the well-known Shirazi wine, legends claim the syrah grape originated in the town of 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 to their colony around Marseilles (then known as Massilia), which was founded around 600 BC by the Greeks. The grape would then laterhave 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.

Syrah continues to be the main grape of the northern Rhône and is associated with classic wines such as Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. In the southern Rhône, it is used as a blending grape in such wines as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Côtes du Rhône, where Grenache usually makes up the bulk of the blend. Wines made from syrah are often powerfully flavoured and full-bodied. The variety produces wines with a wide range of flavour notes, depending on the climate and soils where it is grown, as well as other viticultural practices chosen. Aroma characters can range from violets to berries, usually dark as opposed to red, chocolate, and black pepper. No one aroma can be called "typical" though blackberry, coffee and pepper are often noticed. With time in the bottle these "primary" notes are moderated and then supplemented with earthy or savoury "tertiary" notes such as leather and truffle. "Secondary" flavour and aroma notes are those associated with several things, generally winemakers' practices such asoak barrel and yeast treatment.Syrahis grown throughout the Rhône valley and the wines that are made from it vary greatly, even over small changes in the vines locations. The differences in the soil quality as well as the changes in the slope of the terrain tend to produce different styles of wine. Ranging from the mineral and tannic nature of Hermitage, to fruity and perfumed in the case of Côte-Rôtie.

What about gorgeous grenache? Grenache is actually one of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties in the world. It ripens late, so it needs hot, dry conditions, where the grape most likely originated. It is generally spicy, berry-flavoured and soft on the palate and produces wine with a relatively high alcohol content, but it needs careful control of yields for best results. Characteristic flavour profiles of grenache include red fruit flavours like raspberry and strawberry, with a subtle, white pepper spice note. As grenache ages the wines tend to take on more leather and tar flavours. Wines made from Grenache tend to lack acid and tannin and it is often blended with other varieties such as syrah, carignan and tempranillo.

In Spain grenache is mainly produced in the southern Aragon wine regions of Calatayud, Carinena and Campo de Borja, but it is also used in blends, like Rioja wines with tempranillo. Grenache is the dominant variety in most Southern Rhône wines, especially in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is typically over 80% of the blend. In Australia it is typically blended in 'GSM' blends with syrah and mourvèdre with old vine examples in McLaren Vale. In Italy, the Sardinian D.O.C. wine Cannonau di Sardegna is by law 90% local grenache. Grenache or garnacha, as it is known in Spain, most likely originated in the region of Aragon in northern Spain. Plantings probably spread from the original birthplace to Catalonia and other lands under the Crown of Aragon such as Sardinia and Roussillon in southern France. An early synonym for the vine was Tinto Aragonés, red of Aragon. Grenache, under its Spanish synonym Garnacha, was already well established on both sides of the Pyrenees
when the Roussillon region was annexed by France. From there the vine made its way through the Languedoc and to the Southern Rhone region where it was well established by the 19th century. Grenache was one of the first varieties to be introduced to Australia in the 18th century and eventually became the country's most widely planted red wine grape variety until it was surpassed by Shiraz in the mid 1960s. Early Australian Grenache was a main component in the sweet fortified wines that was the lynchpin of the early Australian wine industry.

In the 19th century, California wine growers prized the vine's ability to produce high yields and withstand heat and drought conditions. The grape was extensively planted throughout the hot San Joaquin Valley where it was mainly used as a blending component for pale, sweet jug wines. In the late 20th century, the Rhone Rangers movement brought attention to the production of premium varietal grenache and Rhone style blends modelled after the grenache dominate wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Syrah (or shiraz as Aussies like to call it) is one of the world’s oldest grapes.

It was on Popsy & JJ’s list of must-haves from France. They lucked in when they found the Louis Max 'Max' Cotes-du-Rhone Syrah-Grenache 2018 rated 94/100 that has been blended with grenache! When they sat with Claire the wine maker from Louis Max for a tasting, they knew they had struck gold! Louis Max was founded in 1859 in Burgundy but then soon expanded their interests to mostly south eastern regions of France, including the Rhone Valley.

The grapes for the Max were cultivated on very old wine making soils in the heart of the iconic Rhone Valley. Wine making in this region predates the Roman Empire and its rich soil and climate are ideal for producing rustic, fruit driven wines often blending syrah, grenache and mourvedre grapes.

The Max is a near 50/50 split of hand-picked syrah and grenache fruit, superbly showcasing the Rhone terroir. Its colour is ruby, and the nose is full of fresh prunes and cherries. The tannins are as smooth as a new born’s skin, the palate has good length and is like a fresh fruit explosion in your mouth. There are also loads of earthy notes which gives it a rustic feel and perhaps separates it a little further again from similar blends produced in Australia.

This wine has been so well produced that we thought Claire more of a magician than winemaker! You could cellar this wine for another 5 years or so to develop it further, but good luck with that as you won’t be able to keep your hands off it! Popsy & JJ matched it with pork and fennel spicy sausage pasta, and we were in rustic heaven!

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