What’s in a name? This week let’s discuss the confusion that can be created from oft-misunderstood nomenclature when it comes to naming wines. You may have noticed, there’s an endless array of selections out there, not just in the sense of who the winemaker is, but in the sense of ‘I don’t even know what these words are on this bottle’. A venture into the wine section can make you feel like a stranger in a strange land, for sure. I can’t clarify all the confusion for you, but I’ll address the fact that every grape used in the production of wine has multiple different names. Some grapes (like Pinot Noir, for example), can have hundreds of different names. To really witness the horror, you should check out Wikipedia’s ‘List of Grape Varietals’, which immediately dashes my hopes of ever truly being a ‘wine expert’; truly, there can be no such thing. Putting these cross-regional, cross-cultural semantics aside, alternate names can distinguish the grape to a particular country or region; a way of creating a regional ‘brand’, as is the case of Shiraz and Pinot Grigio.

¿Que?…. Syrah, Shiraz….

Shiraz (pronounced most commonly as “Shir Ahhz”, but up for debate) is actually the same grape as Syrah, the well-known varietal from the Rhone Valley of France. Shiraz was actually the name of an ancient city of Persia (present day Iran), known for its wine (“Sher Raz” meant “good grape” in the ancient language). I’ll skip the rest of that history lesson though, and simplify it to what you should know when shopping: In today’s market, the general tendency is that if the Syrah grape is grown in Australia or South Africa, it’s called Shiraz, and if it’s from the United States and Europe, it’s ‘Syrah’. European, Rhone Valley-styled Syrah is typically more elegant, tannic, smoky, and restrained; whereas Australian-styled Shiraz is typically more fruit-forward, peppery, and higher in alcohol. Australian Shiraz is an example of a ‘regional branding’ scenario, whereas a lot of people think Shiraz is ‘only from Australia’- as undoubtedly Australia would like you to believe, which is generally true, but not specifically true. Another confusing naming nomenclature is Petit Sirah, which is a commonly misspelled as Petit Syrah, which is not Syrah at all, and definitely not ‘petite’ in nature. If you like a powerful Cabernet, as opposed to the more delicate Syrah, then give Petit Sirah a shot at your next steak dinner.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio

Pinot Grigio (pronounced pee noh GREE joe) is actually the same grape as Pinot Gris (pronounced GREE). In Italy, wine producers growing Pinot Gris typically prefer harvesting earlier in the growth cycle as opposed to their French counterparts– the grapes less ripened, resulting in a greener, more tart, more acidic profile. To highlight this difference in approach, gris (French word for “grey”, due to the greyish hue of the grape) was translated to the Italian word for grey, “grigio”, creating the French/Italian hybrid name, Pinot Grigio, and became widely popular. If Italy could have its way, “Pinot Grigio” would be trademarked as an Italian product, but you’ll find Pinot Gris from many places outside Italy labeled as Pinot Grigio.

Come stop by the Wine Shop at SoGourmet for more tidbits, or just to explore these great examples of Syrah, Shiraz, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Grigio–we’d love to help you find the right selection!

2015 Italo Cescon Pinot Grigio, Veneto, IT – true to the ‘Grigio’ style, crisp and refreshing

2010 Domaine Ostertag Fronholz Pinot Gris, Alsace, FR – true to the “Gris” style, with powerful expression & minerality

2012 Domaine Tournon “Shays Flat Vineyard” Pyrenees Shiraz, Victoria, AU – Qualities of both a “Shiraz” and “Syrah”

2013 Stolpman Estate Syrah, Ballard Canyon, CA, USA – Hedonistic power, like a Shiraz but without the pepperiness