Zinfandel vs Syrah: Two Bold Reds Compared

Zinfandel vs Syrah

These two red wine varietals boast deep colors and berry fruits. Are there more similarities or are they very different?

A big part of enjoying wine is not only the pleasure of drinking what is in your glass but also learning its story. So, let’s see if we can answer that question by doing just that.

What is the Origin of Zinfandel?

By the 1850s, Zinfandel had established itself in northern California and was prized for its productivity. It thrived in the warm climate and was the most planted dark-skinned grape variety of the West Coast. Zin’s origin was a mystery for years, but it was thought to be indigenous to the USA. It became a project for historians to figure out.

The unraveling of the mystery took years and discoveries only led to more and more questions until the early 1990s. DNA analysis found that Zinfandel was identical to a grape variety called Primitivo, grown on the heel of Italy in Puglia. Some were satisfied, but others thought there was more to the story. Finally, a breakthrough revealed that the grape did not originate in Italy or any other iconic wine region in Europe. Instead, the grape was born in Croatia.

In the early 1820s, a horticulturist in New York received shipments of grapevines from Vienna, Austria. It is believed that the Zinfandel vines were included in those shipments.Were they from Italy, Croatia, or both?  We don’t know but the vines made their way across the country during the California Gold Rush and the rest is history.

What is the origin of Syrah?

The story of Syrah, also called Shiraz, has also been one of myths and legends dating back centuries. The ancient Romans may have planted the fruit in France based on writings of Pliny the Elder when he talked about a dark-skinned grape call Allobrogica in AD77.  Others believe it may be even older, cultivated by the Greeks in 600 BC, and then somehow brought to the Rhône Valley.

One legend links Syrah to Iran, suggesting that it was brought to France by a Persian winemaker also around 600 BC. And then there is another myth that links it to the city of Shiraz in Iran, and a wine called Shirazi.

All of these were finally put to rest by DNA testing at UC Davis in California 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.  Fortunately for us, their offspring is popular all over the world,

Where Does Zinfandel grow?

Zinfandel has a medium to large dark-skinned round berry that grows in medium to large compact clusters.  The grapes do best in warm to hot climates that are sunny during the day and cool at night. They also like rocky soils and hillside plantings.

Zin can be problematic in the vineyard and must be managed more carefully because it tends to produce too much fruit.  The vines must be rigorously pruned and the fruit thinned to allow the grapes to ripen.  Also, the grapes tend to ripen unevenly, creating a range of ripe and under-ripe berries on each cluster.  The challenge is when to pick so the ripe ones don’t raisin or rot.

Today most Zinfandel is grown in California. Some consider it the signature wine of the USA because it is as close to an “American” variety as vinifera vines can get.

Other warmer wine regions in the USA, as well as South America, South Africa, and Australia also produce Zinfandel. In Italy, Puglia still grows Primitivo and sometimes will label it Zinfandel for marketing purposes, especially in the USA. And yes, it still grows in Croatia where it is named Crljenak Kaštelanski and Tribidrag.

Where Does Syrah Grow?

Syrah has a small to medium dark-skinned more oval berry that grows in long cylindrical, more open clusters. 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.

More grapes are planted in France than any other country. In its ancestral home in the Rhône Valley, Syrah reaches the peak of expression. It well-adapted to the steep terraces in Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage in the northern Rhône Valley.

Known as Shiraz in Australia, it is the country’s signature red grape with a uniquely bold and fruit-forward style. Australia has the second-most plantings in the world.

In the USA, winemakers in California, Washington, and Oregon have been working with Syrah for many years.  Called the Rhône Rangers, they have shown that Syrah can produce complex, rich wines in those states.

Further south, Syrah has been proving itself in both Chile and Argentina and is finding its own style on either side of the Andes. It has also achieved success in New Zealand and in South Africa,

How Does Zinfandel Look and Taste?

Zinfandel is known for a dark ruby color.  It expresses red and black fruits including raspberries, cherries, strawberries, and plum along with spice and pepper. It is produced in a wide variety of styles with lighter, medium-bodied ones having a focus on red fruits and more acidity.

The big bolder wines that often come from old vines can be very dense and concentrated with jammy, pruney qualities, and a lot of spice and pepper.  These bolder wines are the ones many people associate with this varietal.

Zinfandel has moderate tannins and high acidity which contribute to its bold flavor. Most are best consumed young, to preserve the fruit and freshness.It is generally not thought to improve with age.

How does Syrah look and taste?

Syrah is a bold wine known for its deep purple color and is one of the inkiest, darkest wines you can find.  It expresses black fruits and darker berries such as blueberry and raspberry. French Syrah is known for its black pepper flavor, and many winemakers in the world embrace that style.

Climate also has a role in the flavor. Warmer climates tend to produce a bolder, jammy style with black fruits and smoke on the finish.  Cooler climates often express some red and tropical fruits such as dragon berry with pepper on the finish.

Syrah has high tannins and medium acidity.  Unlike Zinfandel, it improves greatly with age.  The flavors enhance, the tannins soften, and the wine develops a smooth, velvety feel.

What Foods go Well With Zinfandel?

Zinfandel is happiest when paired with meat such as grilled steak, barbecue pork, ribs, leg of lamb,and cured meats.  It goes well with pasta and marinara sauce, pizza, and spicy Mexican or Cajun food.

Try it with hearty soup, and beef or seafood stew. Poultry with hearty sauces and grilled or seared Tuna also work well. Finally, how about good old-fashioned American grilled burgers. It sounds like a classic pair!

Keep in mind that the body of your wine and food should complement each other.  A wine with more tannins (Syrah, maybe?) goes better with the fatty, more marbled cuts of beef. Sweeter BBQ sauces may not go well with the sweetness of the Zin.  Finally, choose lighter and medium bodied varieties when pairing with lighter meats, seafood, and lighter spices.

What Foods go Well With Syrah?

Like Zinfandel, Syrah goes well with meats, especially smoked, grilled, or roasted. Try dry-rub brisket or well-seasoned pork which is both savory and juicy. It also pairs well with duck, lamb, sausage, and game.

Hearty winter comfort dishes work well with Syrah.  Try stews, casseroles, and rich braised dishes.  Any pizza with meat on it and dishes with bold Italian sauces pair well.

Open up your spice cabinet to add deep flavor to grilled or roasted chicken.  Roast a duck or quail and serve with seasoned grilled veggies.  Add garlic mashed potatoes to your meal.

Syrah works with many of the same foods as Zinfandel.  Choose this big bold wine when you cook with big bold flavors in these foods or any other ones.

Are There More Similarities or Differences?

There are both and it seems to be about equal. The best thing to do is to try each wine, with and without food. You be the judge of what you like.