Pinot Noir vs Syrah: What’s the Difference?

One of the most fun aspects of wine is trying to decide what to drink on any given night. It can also be one of the more challenging aspects, with thousands of varieties to choose from and hundreds of thousands of labels. To help answer that question, we have written a few articles about the differences between wines commonly seen on a grocery store shelf or restaurant wine list. Check out the rest of the series here:

  • What’s the Difference between Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon?
  • What’s the Difference between Zinfandel and Chianti?
  • What’s the Difference between Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz?
  • What’s the Difference between Merlot and Chianti?

Now, onto the main question: what are the differences between Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz?

First, let’s look at these two grapes separately and explain a little of their history, and outline the most common examples that you’ll see out in the world.

An Overview of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is Burgundy, and Burgundy is Pinot Noir. While Pinot is grown all over the world, in New Zealand, Oregon, California, Northern Italy, Chile, South Africa, and Champagne, the grape first became famous through its cultivation in Burgundy.

The monks of Burgundy, for hundreds of years before the French Revolution, tended to plots of land in Burgundy planted to Pinot Noir. They delved deeply into the terroir of the region, differentiating pieces of land by walling them off into Clos which each had small changes in flavor and wine style. Pinot Noir may be the most terroir-specific grape, meaning that its flavor changes the most depending on the soils, nutrients, climate, aspect, and weather where it is grown. It is also a particular finicky grape, failing in many places where winemakers have sought to grow it, and it is particularly fickle in bad vintages, whether they be hot or cold, dry or wet, windy or still.

In Burgundy in particular, Pinot Noir has become a collector’s item, hardly affordable for even the most basic Bourgogne for the rest of us. Some of the most expensive can be the price of a car, being released at $15,000 per bottle. With it being a relatively hard grape to grow, while the rest of the world’s Pinot is not quite that expensive, it doesn’t tend to be a very cheap grape. And inexpensive versions of Pinot do not even come close to the zenith of the grape’s potential.

Pinot Noir is a light bodied, low to medium tannin grape, with high acidity and bright flavors. Depending on where it is grown it can range from strawberry and earth/mushroom notes to cherry cola and spice.

In Burgundy, its ancestral home, it leans towards the lighter side, with more earthy, savory notes and less fruit. It can be medium bodied in warmer vintages or warmer sites, but generally it is a lighter bodied style.

In California, it is usually a medium bodied wine with cherry cola, blackberry, and baking spice character from the new oak used to age it. Oregon is a lovely blend of the two, with more fruit than Burgundy but more restrain than California.

You can learn more about Pinot Noir here.

How Syrah Is Different

Syrah was originally grown in the Rhone Valley of France, north of Provence and south of Burgundy. In the Northern Rhone, the red wines are made almost entirely of Syrah (sometimes co-fermented with a small amount of Viognier). In the Southern Rhone, it is a component of the GSM blend, or Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre, made famous by Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

While Syrah has spread throughout the world, the second most famous region it is grown is Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. Commonly it is blended there with Cabernet Sauvignon, though it is just as commonly found as a varietal wine with 100% Shiraz.

Some of the oldest planted vines in the world are found in Australia, which was never affected by Phylloxera, a vine louse that killed off a huge proportion of the world’s vineyards in the late 19th century. Many of these old vineyards are planted to Shiraz, with 100+ year old vineyards in some places.

As with other grapes, Syrah/Shiraz can change its taste considerably depending on where it is grown. In the Northern Rhone, in Syrah’s ancestral home in Cote-Rotie, the wine has blackberry, leather, and black pepper notes, with some wines showing meaty, bacon-y aromas. The tannins are present but not overpowering, and it has medium to high acidity and medium alcohol. When blended into the classic GSM wines of the Southern Rhone, Syrah contributes weight on the mid-palate and body.

In Australia, the wines known as Shiraz are much more fruit forward, with plum, chocolate, and tar character shining through. The acidity is medium, and the tannins are smooth and velvety, mostly due to the noticeably higher proportion of new oak used in Australia. Alcohol content can be higher as well with the much riper fruit used.

Differences Between Shiraz & Pinot Noir

The comparison of Pinot Noir to Syrah/Shiraz is best made by generalizing the two grapes. Pinot Noir is light bodied, Syrah/Shiraz medium bodied. Pinot has low tannins, Syrah/Shiraz has medium tannins. Pinot Noir has high acidity, Syrah/Shiraz has medium acidity.

While exceptions are made to almost any generalization, this one holds true most of the time. You would be hard pressed to find a light bodied Syrah/Shiraz or a highly tannic Pinot Noir.

In terms of body, Pinot Noir can be medium bodied in warm regions like the Russian River Valley where they use new oak and let the fruit hang for a long time. For pairing with food, Pinot Noir is best with chicken or richer preparations of fish, although bigger Pinots can stand up to dishes with beef or pork in them. Beef Bourgignon, the classic French Beef stew, usually has a bottle of Burgundy thrown in, and thus a richer Burgundy would be an excellent match. However, any sort of grilled or heavily spiced dishes will ruin Pinot Noir’s finesse and complexity, so it is best to steer away from them.

Syrah/Shiraz, on the other hand, go impeccably well with grilled or barbecued dishes, though not generally if the barbecue is heavily sauced. Syrah can be thought of as a less tannic, more savory alternative to Cabernet; Shiraz, a less alcoholic, more restrained version of Zinfandel.