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More Wine Tidbits

A Short history of Shiraz........

If you live in Australia you drink Shiraz and if you live in other parts of the world (especially near Avignon in Frances' Rhone Valley) you drink Syrah. Same grape, different name. Legend has it that during the 13th century Crusades a French knight called Gaspard de Sterimberg discovered wonderful grapes near Shiraz in Persia. And, as winery people tend to do, he 'liberated' some cuttings to plant back home at his Hermitage (farm) in the Rhone Valley. The city of Shiraz is the provincial capital of Fars and is around 935 km from Tehran. Shiraz lies at an altitude of 1,600 meters that makes for mild winters and moderate summers. An ideal climate for grapes. The Shiraz region had some of the world earliest vineyards. Greek amphorae have been unearthed in Hermitage but this could work both ways. It could have been the Roman legions who brought their own wines with them as we know wine was grown in the Rhone Valley during Roman times. Unfortunately, DNA testing by Dr. Carole Meredith of the University of California has shown that Shiraz is a native of the Rhone Valley and not Persia. It was a good story while it lasted. Syrah accounts for the majority of wines coming from the northern Rhone Valley. Two of the worlds most famous Shiraz appellations are in the northern Rhone Valley: Hermitage and Côte-Rôti. The southern half of the valley is the origin of the Rhone blends, traditionally a blend of Shiraz, Mourvedre and Grenache grapes.

Australia and France seem to be obsessed by the grape. About 40% of all red grapes planted in Australia are Shiraz. France has somewhat less than this but is still way in front of any other country. The first cuttings of Shiraz made it to Australia, probably with James Busby in 1832 and were incorrectly labelled Scyras which is a popular northern Rhone Valley variety. The cuttings first reached South Africa from Europe. They were then picked up by the first fleets when they took on provision in South Africa and made it to Australia. Recent DNA testing by Carole Meredith at UCD and Jean-Micel Boursiquot of France shows Shiraz as a cross between Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza grapes. Dureza is from the northern Ardeche region west of the Rhone Valley. Mondeusa Blanche comes from the Savoie region and the earliest recorded plantings of Shiraz in France date back to 500BC. Grosse Syrah and Petite Syrah is another divergence of the Shiraz branch. The only difference being berry size. Petite Syrah tends to produce dry, dark wines with lots of tannins, spice and black pepper.

Petite Sirah (that's an 'i' and not a 'y') is a completely different grape. In the 1880's Dr Durif in France was promoting a mildew resistant variety that he naturally called: 'Durif'. It was planted in the United States and somehow the naming didn't make it across, it was incorrectly labelled Syrah. Phylloxera wiped out a lot of the grapes in the late 1890's and it wasn't till the 1970's that Californian Syrah was correctly identified as Petite Sirah. DNA testing in 1991 confirmed the Durif label for Petite Sirah.

Australian Shiraz is made in two different styles. The big, full, rich, tannin laden wines and lighter fruitier 'drink now' styles with lots of blackberry and raspberry. You'll often find a bit of Grenache in with some of the cheaper and nastier ones just for a bit more flavour. But this is just a small portion as there are some fantastic examples around. The Hunter Valley in NSW produces Shiraz that has a trademark 'sweaty saddle' characteristic while the Barossa Valley produces a more peppery and herbaceous style with less fruit nose and more tannin. The cooler climates produce rich fruit driven wines with lots of pepper.

Shiraz grapes are used to create the world famous Grange Hermitage. Now called Penfolds Grange as the name Hermitage was a casualty in the great France versus the rest of the world naming debate. Max Schubert created Grange in 1952. He pioneered the use of refrigeration to control the rate of fermentation and hence the flavour extraction from grapes and the use of new oak barrels to store and mature wines. Both these practices are now standard for premium red wines but were revolutionary in their day. And, it took more than 10 years for Grange to be accepted as a great wine. It was universally criticised when first released and only Max's determination to see it succeed kept it alive. Imagine the loss to the wine world had Max listened to everyone and given up.

Shiraz is a very vigorous growing grape. It produces large bunches of anywhere up to 130 berries per bunch. They are long and loose bunches with very good disease resistance. Shiraz does very well in our cool climate and thrives in warm spring weather to produce a strikingly peppery wine.

And one final legend on Shiraz grapes, from Cyrus Kadivar, The Iranian: One ancient Persian legend says that Jamshid, a grapeloving king, stored ripe grapes in a cellar so he could enjoy grapes all year long. One day he sent his slaves to fetch him some grapes. When they did not return he decided to go to the cellar himself only to find that they had been knocked out by the carbon dioxide gas emanating from some bruised fermenting grapes. One of the king's rejected, distraught mistresses decided to drink this poisoned potion, only to leave the cellar singing and dancing in high spirits. The king realised that this fruity liquid had the wonderful and mysterious power to make sad people happy. When Alexander overthrew the powerful Persian empire he entered Darius's palace in January 330 BC. During one of the conqueror's orgies soldiers raided the wine cellars. In a drunken moment Alexander ordered the destruction of Persepolis.


* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans at The Gurdies Winery

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