Syrah a bit of history
The origin of the name
Myths about the origin of the name Syrah refer to the synonym Shiraz. Shiraz is a very old city in Iran that produces a famous wine called Shirazi. Folklore says that the origin of Syrah is in Shiraz and that it was later transported to the Rhone. Two versions of the story have been documented that place the introduction of grapes in the Rhone 1800 years apart. In addition, it is believed that the Phoenicians could have brought Syrah to their colony of Marseille (then known as Massilia) around 600 BC, where it was discovered by the Greeks.
Afterwards, the variety potentially spread to the north of the Rhone, which was never under Phoenician control. There is no written evidence to support this speculation or to explain how the grape became extinct in Marseille.
The belief that the Syrah grape has Iranian roots may have a French origin. James Busby wrote in his diary about his recent trip to the main wineries in Spain and France that the 1826 book entitled French Oenology states that, according to local folklore, the vine [scycras] was first brought from Shiraz, in Persia, by a hermit from the mountains.
Some have hypothesized (including Jancis Robinson) that shiraz is a term derived from scyras, in turn derived from syrah. The name Shiraz already appeared in British documents from the 1830s. Old Australian documents relating to grapes refer to it as scyras, but since the mid-19th century Shiraz and Hermitage have been taking over this synonym in the country. Shiraz may have come from the English pronunciation of a French name, although there is no evidence that this occurred in Australia. What is certain is that Shiraz is a widely used name in the country.
An additional story, which finds its roots in the origin of the name, states that the variety was brought to Syracuse, Sicily, by the army of the Roman emperor Probus sometime after 280 AD. However, this story lacks evidence and is contrary to ampelographic analysis.
The wines that built Syrah’s stellar reputation came from Hermitage, a hill with a hermitage on top, in the town of Tain-l’Hermitage, north of the Rhone. It is believed that Gaspard de Sterimberg lived there as a hermit after returning from the Crusades. Hermitage wines have long been renowned for their high quality. Although the Hermitage was very famous in the 18th and 19th centuries, and attracted the attention of foreign winemakers such as Thomas Jefferson, the grape variety fell out of favor and lost surface area abroad in the first half of the 20th century.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, many of the Hermitage wines were shipped abroad in combination with Bordeaux wines. The Claret wines of the time were not as strong as those of today, and there were no naming rules yet. So red wines from warmer climates were added to Bordeaux wines to enhance them. Spanish and Algerian wines also played a role in this process, but it was Hermitage wines that were most frequently used to improve the quality of Bordeaux wines, especially in the worst years.
In 1831, the Scottish James Busby, who is often referred to as the “father of Australian viticulture”, traveled to Europe to collect grape cuttings, mainly from France and Spain, and later introduced them to Australia. Among the varieties he obtained was syrah, although Busby referred to it as scyras and ciras. The cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Garden and in the Hunter region, and by 1839 they had already been brought to South Australia. By the 1860s, Syrah had become an established variety in Australia.