Zinfandel vs Shiraz: Two New World Icons

Zinfandel vs Shiraz

The term Old World refers to grapes from countries that are considered the birthplaces of wine, basically in Europe and the Middle East.New World wines come from countries, many of which were colonies, where wines and winemaking were imported, such as North and South America.

Wines and winemaking in the New World embody an entrepreneurial spirit you would expect from descendants of immigrants seeking a better life.  There is no finer example of this spirit than in California and Australia, the places we immediately associate with Zinfandel and Shiraz.

Old World Origins

Zinfandel’s origin was a mystery for years.  Many thought it was indigenous to the United States.As the most planted grape variety on the west coast by the 1850s,it was thriving in the warm climate of California and prized for its productivity.

The unraveling of the mystery took years and discoveries only led to more and more questions. In the 1960s, a UC Davis professor visited Puglia, Italy, and found a striking similarity between Primitivo and Zinfandel.  Taking it back to California for analysis, he found that Zinfandel and Primitivo were identical.

Another UC Davis professor picked up the research in the 1990s, believing that Croatia was the birthplace and Plavac Mali was the grape. After a decade of research, DNA testing revealed that the grape in question was Crljenak Kaštelanski (also known as Tribidrag).  Plavac Mali turned out to be the grandchild of Zinfandel/Primitivo.

We now believe that the vines came to the United States in a shipment from Vienna and made their way to California during the gold rush.  Today, it is the iconic grape of California.

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 and vines were brought to France around 600 BC by a Persian winemaker.

There is another myth that links it to the city of Shiraz in Iran, and a wine called Shirazi. Some say it was the Greeks that brought the grape to France. And yet another involves the Romans bringing it to France, based on Pliny the Elder writing about a dark-skinned grape called Allobrogica in the 1st century AD.

The myths were finally put to rest by UC Davis DNA testing in 1999.  Syrah was discovered to be the offspring of two rare grapes from the Rhône Valley:  Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.  Neither grape ever gained mass popularity and they are seldom seen today.  Syrah and Shiraz are the exact same grape and France is its historical home.

Syrah arrived in Australia in the early 1800’s thanks to a Scot 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 winemakers began planting it in large amounts. Today, it is the iconic grape of Australia and is called Shiraz there.

New World Grapes in the Vineyard

Zinfandel has a thin dark-skinned round berry that grows in large tight bunches.  The grapes do best in warm but not too hot climates that are sunny during the day and cool at night. They also like rocky soils and hillside plantings. Because of these characteristics, it is not grown widely all over the world.

Zinfandel grows quite vigorously which requires more management in the vineyard.The vines must be rigorously pruned and the fruit thinned to produce concentrated wine and allow the grapes to ripen.  The tight bunches can be prone to rot and the grapes tend to ripen unevenly.  A single bunch can contain raisin-like overripe berries and green unripe ones. On a positive note, Zinfandel is a strong vine, resisting wood-rotting diseases that kill many other vines.  There are many old vines scattered throughout the regions, producing grapes prized by winemakers.

The grapes ripen early and their uneven condition can present a laborious challenge to winemakers. Some choose to harvest the grapes with varying levels of ripeness.  Others choose to hand-harvest the bunches, even by single berries, in multiple passes through the vineyard over several weeks.

Zinfandel is grown in many areas of California.  The five top growing regions in no order are the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys (Sonoma County),  Lodi (San Joaquin Valley), Sierra Foothills (Amador County), and Paso Robles (Central Coast).

Shiraz has a small to medium dark-skinned more oval berry that grows in long cylindrical bunches. It ripens best in dry climates in terroirs and soils that allow for deep root penetration. Relatively adaptable, it grows all over the world in both hot and cool climates.

It is grown all over Australia, but the Barossa region has by far the most plantings. Due to its warm climate, it produces a big-bodied wine with juicy fruit. The Barossa region delivers the classic Shiraz that Australia for which Australia is famous.

There are vines in the moderate to cool regions of Australia as well.Shiraz has a presence in Margaret Valley in the west, Hunter Valley in New South Wales, parts of Victoria (Geelong, Bendigo, Rutherglen, Ballarat, Glenrowan, Yarra Valley) and South Australia ( Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, and Coonawarra).

New World Grapes in the Glass

Zinfandel is known for a dark ruby color. It is both fruity and spicy, expressing red and black fruits including raspberries, cherries, cranberries, and plum.A sprinkling of cinnamon, spice, and black pepper is usually present.

It comes in a wide variety of styles, depending on the terroir, winemaking,and aging.Lighter medium-bodied wines have a focus on red fruits and berries. The big bold wines, often coming from old vines can be dense and concentrated with jammy, prune-like qualities, and a lot of spice and pepper.  These bolder wines are the ones many people associate with this Zinfandel.

The wine can have an alcohol content as high as 15-16%Zinfandel has moderate tannins and high acidity which contribute to its bold flavor.

It has been said that Zinfandel does not age well. If you like vibrant fruit and spice you may agree with that.  Over the years, the signature characteristics of the wine change.  After a long time. it may become unrecognizable as a Zin.  that doesn’t mean it can’t still be an extraordinary wine.

Shiraz is a bold wine known for its deep purple color.It is one of the inkiest, darkest wines produced.  It expresses black fruits and darker berries such as blueberry, raspberry, and spices such as pepper. In addition to the terroir, winemaking, and aging, climate also plays a role in its flavor.

A Shiraz from a warmer climate tends to have the taste of dark fruits, plum, jam, chocolate, and stewed fruits. You often find licorice, black pepper, and smoke in the profile.In cooler climates,Shiraz can be more red and blue fruits, driven by white pepper.  It often has more gamey, earthy elements.

Syrah has moderate to high tannins and medium acidity.  It improves with age.  The flavors enhance, the tannins soften, and the wine develops a smooth, velvety texture.

Food and Wine from the Old and New World

Zinfandel and Shiraz are both food-friendly wines. They are very happy when paired with meats, especially grilled, smoked, or roasted. Choose the bold fruit and spicy style of each varietal to go with bold flavors of your meats.  Shiraz goes better with more fatty cuts of beef and sweeter BBQ sauces.Zinfandel can pair well with spicy Mexican or Cajun food.

Pizza and Italian dishes work with both wines. Shiraz prefers meat on its pizza, but Zinfandel doesn’t care.  Zinfandel appreciates some of the more delicate sauces that Shiraz might not like.

Both Zinfandel and Shiraz wines can work with poultry and seared or grilled fish.  Let your seasonings, sauces, and cooking methods be your guide.

Don’t forget hearty soups, stews, casseroles, rich braised dishes, and tasty winter comfort foods.  Either Shiraz or Zinfandel could complement depending on the flavors.

Finally, let’s create the perfect New World combination:  the classic American burger, grilled to perfection on the barbie in Australia with a glass of each of these iconic wines. Cheers!