The true origins of shiraz

Shiraz grapes (Photo: )

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.

So there.

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’.

*Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding & José Vouillamoz, Ecco/Harper Collins, 2012.

2 thoughts on “The true origins of shiraz”

  1. Mike Finucane, says:

    With regards to the name Shiraz, about a year ago an Australian University (Melbourne?) published a paper which had determined that our Australian cousins had developed the “Shiraz” pronunciation for Syrah because their speech mode was heavily influenced by alcohol and “Shiraz” was merely the drunken slurring of “Syrah”. It then became the accepted useage.

    And no, I didn’t make this up. Given that another report a few years ago said that the average time between purchase of a bottle of wine and commencement of drinking it in Australia was a mere 29 minutes, I expect we can look forward to a few more exciting wine name variations in due course. I shudder to think what will emerge for ‘Pinot Noir”.
    Mike Finucane, Alexander Vineyard, Martinborough.

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      A friend suggested Kiwis use syrah because they don’t do vowels 😉

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