Syrah is like a violin, and shiraz is like a fiddle (but sometimes not)

Syrah in the bottle might be called that on the label, or maybe shiraz, or maybe the grape isn't named at all. Here we see syrah-based wines from Saint-Joseph in France, from left, Washington state and Australia. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune)

Credit: Michael Tercha

Credit: Michael Tercha

Syrah in the bottle might be called that on the label, or maybe shiraz, or maybe the grape isn't named at all. Here we see syrah-based wines from Saint-Joseph in France, from left, Washington state and Australia. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune)

If you’ve ever asked what the difference between a violin and a fiddle is, you may have been subjected to the pithy response: “The way it’s played.”

I guess it’s not an out-and-out untruth, but it’s also not the clearest path to the real answer, which is that “violin” and “fiddle” are two names for the same thing: the string instrument that was developed in 16th-century Europe and is played with a bow. Classical musicians usually refer to their instrument as a violin, and most folk players call it a fiddle. But if an Irish or Appalachian fiddle player chooses to call her fiddle a violin, regardless of how she plays it, she’s not going to be wrong.

In the wine world, the French grape variety syrah is a violin, and shiraz (as it is known in Australia and other parts of the New World) is a fiddle. They are two names for the same grape, of course, a so-called international variety that does well in many parts of the world. Just as Itzhak Perlman plays Bach’s Concerto in D Minor on his violin in a different style than Liz Carroll plays “The Chicago Reel” on her fiddle, syrah and shiraz can be notably different styles of wine.

Both styles are welcome, in music as well as in wine. In fact, I have seen Perlman playing klezmer (another shiraz style of music that features that bowed string instrument), and although it is not the style he is known for, when you’re good, you’re good.

Syrah is good, too, even when it’s shiraz. Either way, this is generally a big wine — often much closer to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony than any Baroque concerto or Irish traditional dance tune. In some iterations, you could even think of it as sort of an alternative to cabernet sauvignon. For the most part, the dark-skinned grape creates wines that are medium- to full-bodied, with deep, dark color, grippy tannins and good acidity, especially in Old World versions. In warmer New World regions, expect brighter fruit, in some cases to the point of being jammy, with less acidity.

Old World syrah and classical violin might present more gravitas to the taster or listener, but in the right hands, shiraz and the spirited, livelier folk fiddle can awaken a soul in a completely different but no less profound way. And don’t count out Australian shiraz entirely when it comes to gravitas; some of those wines can be as big and bruising as any other.

Aromas and flavors in these syrah-based wine styles could begin with floral notes and raspberry, along with blackberry, blueberry or other dark fruits, and move into more savory elements of olive, herbs, tobacco, bacon, roasted meats, leather and smoke, possibly accompanied by some combination of anise, eucalyptus, mint, clove, vanilla, baking spices, chocolate or coffee, plus the grape variety’s signature closer, pepper.

This is not a casual sipper wine. This big red calls out for food partners such as beef, lamb and game, and if that meat was cooked on the grate and open flames of a grill, all the better. These wines, especially the Aussie versions, often do just fine with the smoke and char of succulent, hearty meats.

Scientific research carried out in California and France has concluded that the syrah grape variety — the child of dureza and mondeuse blanche varieties — was born in the Rhone Valley of France and not, as previously believed, in the Middle East or on the island of Sicily. (The grape was thought to have been named for the Persian city of Shiraz or the Sicilian city of Siracusa.)

Northern Rhone syrah-based wines include those from the regions of Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. While grenache is the dominant grape variety in the southern Rhone, syrah does make appearances in Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Cotes du Rhone wines in varying degrees. Syrah also shows up as a blending grape in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, to the west of the Rhone Valley along the country’s southern coast.

Australia is the place that most visibly refers to the grape as shiraz. It is the country’s most famous red grape variety, and it thrives in both the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions around the wine-centric city of Adelaide in South Australia. Besides its widespread use in Australian varietal wines, shiraz is also a key player in another famous Down Under wine style, the blend that goes by the initials GSM (for grenache, shiraz and mourvedre), drawing inspiration from the classic grapes and blends of the Rhone Valley. In Australia, shiraz is also commonly blended with cabernet sauvignon.

In South Africa, where the grape arrived even before it reached Australia, both shiraz and syrah monikers end up on labels, and the same is true in other parts of the New World, where the grape thrives — in California and Washington, and in Chile and Argentina, among other places. Winemakers in these locales are free to use either name on their labels, and perhaps in choosing one over another, they are telegraphing to the consumer the style of wine that awaits in the bottle.

Obviously the words create expectations, just as violins and fiddles do, and once you know that you definitely like the sound of that legendary bowed instrument, or the taste of wines composed of that legendary grape variety, you have a lot of lateral room to explore.

If you like generally big, robust red wines, there is a syrah or a shiraz out there for you. Whether you listen to classical or folk music during dinner is up to you.