The true origins of shiraz
Where did Australia’s signature grape, shiraz, come from?
Wasn’t it that brave knight, Henri Gaspard de Sterimberg, who returned battle-weary from the Crusades, who brought the vine to France from the city of the same name in Persia (today’s Iran)? Didn’t he plant it on a big hill in the northern Rhône Valley and live out his life as a hermit on top of the hill? Hence the name of the hill: Hermitage.
The distinguished winery Paul Jaboulet Aîné even has a wine named after him: its white Hermitage, Chevalier de Sterimberg.
That’s how it happened, isn’t it? Well, no.
There may well have lived such a man, and he may well have been the hermit on the hill. But the story of the shiraz vine is unlikely to be true. Indeed, there are several such legends relating to this vine, according to José Vouillamoz et al in the bible of grape varieties: Wine Grapes*.
Relatively recent breakthroughs in DNA testing have exploded the myth once and for all, the book says. In fact, the parents of shiraz (syrah as the French prefer to call it) are mondeuse blanche (mother) and dureza (father), both varieties native to the central-eastern parts of France. Mondeuse blanche is native to the Savoie and dureza to the Ardèche. The natural crossing that gave rise to syrah had to take place in a vineyard where both were cultivated, and that place is likely to have been in the Isère département of what is now the region Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.
Vouillamoz further writes that although Shiraz in Persia was an important wine centre in ancient times, the Crusades were concentrated in the Holy Land and didn’t extend as far as Persia.
As for the question, why do Australia, South Africa and some other countries use the word shiraz, while the French do not, it is likely shiraz is simply a corruption of syrah. Other names used for the grape include sérine, sérène, sira, sirac, sirah, syra and syrac. I know winemakers in the Barossa who still pronounce it ‘shirrahh’.