Buying wine can be a complicated business. While most producers list the grape on the label, it can be a guessing game if you don’t know which region to look for. Especially if the label’s in French or Italian.

But one thing we do seem to be confident about is our taste for shiraz. According to data from retail analyst Nielsen, shiraz was the UK’s top-selling varietal red over the past year. We’re slurping more of this reliably rich, dark-skinned grape than any other.

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But do you know your shiraz from your syrah? We look at the story behind its success and why it’s such a winner for everyday enjoyment…

1. Why does it have two names?

Shiraz and syrah are in fact the same grape. It’s syrah (pronounced see-rah) in France and shiraz (pronounced shee-rahz) in Australia. Elsewhere, it can be pot luck as other regions use either name.

2. Where does shiraz grow?

Shiraz wine vineyards in Rhone Valley
Vineyards in the Rhone Valley

France’s Rhone valley is its spiritual home, but shiraz is the most planted grape in Australia.

3. What is its history?

The Persian city of Shiraz is cited as being its origin. According to ancient legend, during the 13th century Crusades, a knight took some cuttings back home to Hermitage in the Rhone Valley, and the name was changed to syrah.

4. What does shiraz wine taste like?

As with any grape, it all depends where it’s grown. There’s powerful Hermitage with peppery, earthy, smoky fruit or more delicate, fragrant, raspberry enriched Cote-Rotie from the northern Rhone wine region.

Australian shiraz is richer, softer and inkier with the same peppery, spicy character – sometimes more leathery chocolatey notes – and concentrated.

Or as Catherine Fallis, master sommelier and author of Ten Grapes To Know (Countryman Press, £14.99) writes: “If I am French, I am shy and reluctant but worth seeking out. If I am from Australia, I am an open book – pleasant, friendly and for the most part will go with the flow.

5. Will shiraz wine improve with age?

Shiraz wine St Henri
Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2015, South Australia

Exuberant shiraz such as a Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2015 (Laithwaite’s) are built to last. This rich, plush red is ready to enjoy now, but the suggested drinking window is from 2020 to 2045. Penfolds is Australia’s most iconic winery and its flagship shiraz, Grange, is one of the most famous and expensive wines in the world.

In France, Hermitage remains one of the country’s most prestigious wines with the potential to age for many decades.

6. Which country offers the best value?

Bottles from the Languedoc region in the south of France, Chile and of course the juicy, spicy, Aussie shiraz most of us guzzle, are the best value for money – and reliably good.

7. What’s the best food match?

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Whether it’s a shiraz or syrah, this full bodied red loves red meats, BBQs, rustic cassoulet, chilli, meatballs, pepper sauces, herbs, while the fruit notes also pair well with savoury spice such as Indian and Moroccan, but keep hot, fiery spice at bay.

8. Is petite sirah another name for shiraz?

Sounds similar but petite sirah (American name for durif) is a red grape grown predominantly in California and Mexico. The wines are robust and tannic with good ageing potential – and anything but petite.

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