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Saturday, 31 March 2007

Clearing Up Some Vinous Misinformation

Shiraz is undoubtedly Australia's king of the wines, but its origins are elusive and many erroneous stories have surfaced.

We know the shiraz we have in Australia was brought from the hill of Hermitage by James Busby in 1832. We also know that due to an aphid known as phylloxera devastating Europe's vines in the late 19th century, Australia is now the possessor of the oldest shiraz vines on Earth. But did they originate on the Rhone Valley's hill of Hermitage? Perhaps the Iranian city of Shiraz is the correct birthplace? Then again they might have all started in the Sicilian city of Syracuse (which is why shiraz is commonly known as 'syrah').

The most popular story runs as follows. A French knight by the name of Gaspard de Stérimberg brought cuttings back from the city of Shiraz (in the country then known as Persia) and planted them on a hill. He became a hermit and built a chateau on the hill that was consequently named after him  Hermitage. The vines were then naturally named after the city of their origin.

And here's the facts: Gaspard was a knight, he was injured on a crusade, built the chateau and planted the hill with vines.

The problem with the story is that he was injured on the crusade of Albigeois in 1224. This was a crusade of Catholicism on the Cathars and was fought in southern France. Shiraz during this time was well within the Persian Empire and was not subject to any crusades. So unless Gaspard de Stérimberg was one of 13th century France's greatest travellers, he never went anywhere near Shiraz. The city itself had a reputation for producing the finest wines in the Near East. Perhaps he named his vines in honour of the Persian capital.

Syracuse  is home to one of the world's greatest ever mathematicians, Archimedes  still grows shiraz to this day and produces delicious Sicilian wines from it. Syracuse is much closer to France than Shiraz, so perhaps Gaspard named his vines 'syrah' after some great wine he had tasted from Sicily. Perhaps the word 'syrah' was corrupted to 'shiraz' somewhere down the line and this is why it is known as shiraz in Australia although the French, Americans, Sicilians and many others know it as 'syrah'.

Whatever the truth of its name, DNA testing has been able to unlock its place of origin and it is…the Rhone Valley.

What Gaspard de Stérimberg named shiraz came from the Rhone Valley and certainly not from Shiraz or Syracuse where he almost certainly never was. Shiraz's parents, the undistinguished monduese blanche and dureza, are also both Rhone Valley varietals.

So it's a French grape after all, with a name that is either Italian or Persian and with a distinctly Australian flavour.

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