Pinot Noir vs Shiraz: A Tale of Two Opposites

The difference between Pinot Noir and Shiraz (also known as Syrah) is dramatic. These two varietals are among the most popular reds enjoyed by wine lovers and you would never mistake one for the other.

  • Pinot is young and fresh while Shiraz is bold and the flavor improves with age.
  • The lighter body and color of Pinot contrast with the lush full body and darkness of Shiraz.
  • Pinot is fresh berries like strawberries and raspberries while Shiraz is jammy like blackberries and boysenberries.
  • Pinot has herbaceous and earthy notes while Shiraz has smoke and black pepper.

Do opposites attract?  Let’s learn more about each of these popular red wine varietals.

Pinot Noir has a long history, dating back to the ancient Romans who began enjoying it due to its popularity in the recently conquered Gaul, which became France. It is widely accepted that France is where the grape originated. The name comes from the French word Pinot (pine) for its tight, pine cone-shaped clusters and Noir (black) for the dark color of its skin.

Its thin delicate skin makes Pinot Noir a finicky and less hardy grape that is extremely sensitive to the terroir, or region, where it is grown. It thrives in cool, dry climates with well-drained rocky soils where the full flavor profile has time to develop. If it is grown in a hot region, it can ripen too early and not develop all the flavors that might be in the skin.

While it is widely grown all over the world, the providence of Burgundy is thought to be where the Pinot Noir grape reaches the peak of its expression due to the cool climate and stony soils. This is why France is the largest grower of Pinot Noir grapes in the world. The United States is the second-largest grower with the Willamette Valley in Oregon having a high concentration of vines producing quality wines. A lot of Pinot grapes are also cultivated in cooler climate areas of California such as the Anderson and Russian River Valleys and the Sonoma Coast.

Most Pinot Noir production is devoted to still wine and it is rarely blended. However, it is often blended with Chardonnay and its cousin Pinot Meunier to make Champagne.

You can learn more about Pinot Noir in this overview.

Pinot Noir is an easy-drinking food-friendly wine that pairs well with lighter, more delicately seasoned foods.  It complements red meats such as duck and lamb or white meats such as chicken and pork served with steamed vegetables. Pinot Noir and salmon is a classic pairing, but it also goes well with tuna sand other fleshy fish.

Shiraz, also known as Syrah, has a history dating back centuries.  Over the years its origin has been debated and is the subject of legends.  The oldest one claims the grape originated in Iran (hence the name Shiraz, an ancient major city)  and vines were brought to France around 600 BC by a Persian winemaker.  Another involves a Roman Emperor planting vines in France sometime in the 3rdcentury AD.

The myths were finally put to rest by UC Davis DNA testing which showed Syrah was a cross between Montreuse Blanche and Dureza, two obscure varieties that originated in the Rhône region of France. Syrah and Shiraz are the exact same grape and France is its historical home.

When you hear Shiraz, do you associate it with Australia?  Most people do. Syrah arrived in Australia in the early 1800’s thanks to a Scots man named James Busby who is regarded as the father of Australian wine. He brought cuttings all the way from France along with a  determination to succeed. The grape thrived and wine makers began planting it in large amounts.  Often known for their irreverence, the Aussies took to calling their wine Shiraz. Today it is the iconic grape of Australia.

Shiraz is a relatively adaptable grape and can grow in both warm and cool areas. It is grown all over Australia, but the Barossa region has by far the most plantings. Due to its warm climate, it produces a bigger-bodied wine with juicier fruit, smooth tannins, and finishes with spice notes. The Barossa region delivers the classic Shiraz that Australia is famous for.

Although Shiraz is most widely planted in the warm regions of Australia, there are some vines in the moderate to cool regions of Victoria, Margaret Valley, McLaren Vale, and Hunter Valley.  Grown in these regions, the wine tends to be less jammy, have bolder spices, stricter tannins, and a more earthy quality. The finish tends to be more white pepper than smoke.

Shiraz is produced as a stand-alone varietal as well as a blending wine. In Australia, it is widely paired with Cabernet Sauvignon and there is a rich tradition of blending these two varietals from different regions. Barrosa Shiraz combined with Coonawarra Cabernet is a prime example.  These two varietals form the base of many blends from various regions.

In addition to its famous Shiraz, Barossa is home to the best Grenache and Mourvèdre in the country.  Winemakers are creating Shiraz Grenache blends and many of them contain Mourvèdre, as well. These three wines compose the classic French Côtes du Rhône GSM blend. It would seem to be a fitting tribute to the country where their vines originated.

Shiraz is a food-friendly wine that goes well with bold flavors. Think smoky meats (how about dinner on the barbie), richly-flavored stews and sauces, roasted vegetables, and even spicy foods.  When pairing wine and food, think about matching the body and flavors of the food and the wine so that they complement each other.

A tale of two opposites, Pinot Noir and Shiraz seem to have nothing in common. However, let’s not jump to conclusions.  We’ve learned that both grapes have their origin in France after DNA testing by UC Davis finally dispelled the myths about Shiraz.  Swiss botanist and geneticist José Vouillamoz did DNA testing on Shiraz and guess what he discovered.  It is the great-grandchild of Pinot Noir.

Apples don’t fall far from their trees.  Apparently, grapes do!