Tim James: Was the Cape behind the naming of Australian Shiraz?

By , 14 March 2022

The story of how syrah came to be called shiraz in Australia (and then South Africa) is a remarkably odd one, replete with confusions – and there’s also a touch of irony here and there. Strangest and most ironical is that the first known use of “shiraz” as the name of a grapevine referred to plant material that had been brought over from the Cape – but which turned out to have nothing to do with syrah/shiraz at all, though the name lingered on….

The first mention of Shiraz in Australia in a handwritten catalogue, 1827.

A few years back, when writing on this website about the history of syrah in the Cape, I mentioned some of this in connection with the meticulous research of Gerald Atkinson in New Zealand into the history of shiraz and other varieties in Australia. He had investigated what was behind the mention of “shiraz” in an 1827 list of plants in Sydney Botanical Gardens. This was well before the well attested import from France of what was called “Scyras” and “Red Hermitage” by James Busby in 1833. (Claims of earlier successful imports seem easy to dismiss.)

As I mentioned in my earlier posting, the first crop of grapes from this “shiraz” from the Cape turned out to be white, not black – and Dr Atkinson came to conclude that they were, in fact, trebbiano/ugni blanc. But here I’m interested in the name, and what he calls the “trail of confusion” that followed the initial misidentification with the grape of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. In the Hunter Valley, where it had been planted, growers were happy to shift when that early crop appeared, and called it “white shiraz”. This itself was to lead to splendid confusions when the great white grapes of the Northern Rhône, marsanne and roussanne, also imported, became known as white Hermitage to balance (red) Hermitage. (You’ll have to read Dr Atkinson’s long and dense paper to find out more of that story and also the other confusing trail involving the related use of “sherry” as a grape name.)

But why was that grape imported from the Cape in the mid-1820s recorded as “shiraz”? There’s no Cape record that I know of from that time that refers to that name (or any of the bewildering range of synonyms/alternative spellings that abounded in France). There are, though, early and later accounts of “Persian” varieties in the Cape. But for a long time there was, in fact, great incoherence about what was actually planted here, and we don’t learn much (or anything, in fact) from knowing that Vergelegen at the end of the 17th century had planted  “Russelaar, Pottebakker and a Persian long white variety”.

The first essential point to this Australian import story, though, is that growers at the Cape clearly thought that they had Persian grapes. And there was likely some connection made with the famous wine-producing Persian city of Shiraz (mostly white wine, incidentally). From there it was not far to the second essential point: connecting to the red grape of the northern Rhône, which was known since the latter 18th century by various versions of “sira”, including, importantly, “scyras”. According to the magisterial Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson et al, that name (sira, scyras, syrah, etc) possibly derives from the Latin serus, meaning “late-ripening”. But the coincidence of sound meant that also in France “sira” was sometimes popularly connected with the city name Shiraz and its legendary wine.

So when William Bird in 1822 wrote nonsensically about pontac in the Cape being “the same as the cote-rotie of the Rhone” (amongst other things), he was presumably just reporting what he was told by farmers and merchants. And it’s more than possible that “scyras” or even “shiraz” was another name being bandied about.

And thus to the third essential point: One of the collection of vines imported in the mid 1820s to New South Wales was called “Persian”. When the locals at the Botanical Gardens  in the 1820s were looking for a name for a mysterious vine they had kept from the imports, it would have been “an entirely plausible choice” to segué from “Persian” to “shiraz”. So argues Dr Atkinson (with a great deal more detail than I can deploy here), and I can happily buy that.

But it seems there’s certainly not a straight line between that first mention of “shiraz” and the name that became established in Australia. The Atkinson paper includes a newspaper quotation from 1888 which mentions that “Hermitage and Schiraz are synonymous” – clearly indicating that these names and spellings had become the dominant names for the variety in Australia. The name that became dominant in France for some reason hadn’t caught on, and I would guess that “shiraz” (with whatever spelling variation) must surely have been preferred because of the influence of that equally established “white shiraz”.

So that’s the plausible contribution of the Cape to the renaming of syrah in Australia – the Cape didn’t send the actual grape (there’s no record I know of it ever having been here), but probably brought about the introduction of the word to Sydney.

And then, of course, shiraz came to South Africa at the end of the 19th century. And because it was imported here directly from Australia rather than from France it came under the name shiraz. (I’ve also seen it written as “schiraz” and “schiras” in local articles from the 1930s.) More than a century later, with the variety having grown hugely in significance, the French “syrah” has made enormous inroads into naming practices since the mid 1990s. For many, the aim of changing the name was precisely to avoid, in international markets, the association with the then-dominant style of Australian shiraz – big, bold, oaky and fruity. (Presumably the dominant use of “syrah” in New Zealand occurred for the same anti-contaminant reason.) It’s a nice extra tangle to this confused link between the two countries’ wine industries, united and divided by the name of the grape.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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