In wine-speak, the term “cépage” refers to the multiple grape varieties that are being used for making wine. An equivalent word in the botanical world is “cultivar.” To distinguish between two cépages, think about the difference in texture, aroma, acidity and colour between McIntosh and Granny Smith apples, for example.
Each cépage has its own characteristics. Some experts speak of a cépage’s “varietal character” – in other words, the typical characteristics often found in the wines made from that particular grapevine. While all wines are of course different, you’ll find a common thread between two wines made from the same cépage, even if they were produced in different parts of the world. This helps some oenophiles identify the cépage during a blind tasting.
Syrah is one of the cépages recognized for its strong personality. Wines made from the Syrah grape often display particular aromas, evoking raspberries, violets, pepper, black olives, smoked meat or bacon. While the description may sound strange – even repugnant at first – the mixture of aromas generally offers an appealing presence. Nowadays, Syrah is grown around the planet, but the benchmark region for great Syrah wines remains firmly established in southeastern France’s Rhône Valley, with appellations like Saint-Joseph, Hermitage, and Cornas. The steep hillsides bordering the eponymous river to the north produce elegant Syrah wines. They’re aromatic, with great potential for cellaring.
What about Shiraz? It’s exactly the same cépage. The Australians are thought to be the first to use the name Shiraz, for the perfectly good reason that the French name was difficult to pronounce. On the other hand, if both terms refer to the same cépage, choosing which one of them to place on a wine label is sometimes intended to denote a type of wine. An example: In California, a wine labelled “Syrah” often presents a profile that approximates the French style. Those labelled “Shiraz” are generally more robust, jammy, full-bodied and with strong vanilla hints. They correspond more to a typical style of Australian wine. Put plainly, you can expect wines labelled “Shiraz” to carry a New World style, while wines labelled “Syrah” bring with them an Old World style. These days, however, you can also find French wines labelled “Shiraz.”