When browsing international wines you’ll notice that the shiraz variety is found almost exclusively on Australian bottles. But as a country in which grapes aren’t an indigenous species, why is shiraz only found in Australia?
The truth is that any bottle labelled ''syrah'' is produced from a genetically identical grape. Almost every other wine-producing nation on earth calls the variety syrah, so why have we chosen to be different?
The historical waters are somewhat muddied on this question. The earliest importation of syrah vines into Australia described them as ''Scyras'', with some historians putting the eventual label of ''shiraz'' down to the broad Australian accent contorting this original name. It’s understandable in a part of the world where Sharon quickly becomes Shaz. There are however English documents from around the same time that name the grape as Shiraz; presumably an anglicisation of the original French term.
Whatever the origin, by the mid-nineteenth century the grape was universally referred to as either shiraz or Hermitage, and has been ever since.
A heritage in Hermitage
Why Hermitage? This question brings us neatly to the origins of the variety.
A lack of hard evidence makes the formation of a reliable historical timeline of the syrah grape problematic, although DNA research has concluded that it was born of the Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche varieties. Because both of these grapes originated from the northern Rhône region of France it is fair to deduce that syrah followed suit.
While written recordings of the syrah grape stretch back centuries earlier, its surge in popularity only occurred in the 1700s. And credit for this surge can be placed almost entirely upon the slopes of a small hill in the northern Rhône.
Above the town of Tain-l’Hermitage sits Hermitage hill, a piece of land that produced some of the world’s most famous wines throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Oenophiles the world over would make the pilgrimage to this sacred site for the chance to sample its famous syrah. It’s from this spot that the ‘Hermitage’ name was pilfered for use on Australian bottles, a practice that continued until legal issues brought it to a halt in the mid-1980s.