Where does it come from?
France is known for Syrah. It's a cross between two other obscure Rhone varieties. It has been the predominate grape of the Rhone area of southern France for about 300 years. Syrah is in the top ten of most planted grapes in the world.
What is it?
Syrah is a dark, full-bodied (heavy), somewhat tannic (mouth-drying) red wine. You can compare it with Cabernet Sauvignon in this way. Flavor descriptors tend to be dark fruit, pepper, smokey, and maybe tobacco. And dry (there are those tannins again). For me, its the pepperiness and smokiness that are Syrah's best qualities.
Syrah / Shiraz
siRAH and shiRAHZ are the same grape. I wouldn't necessarily call them the same wine. There's an Australian style that's very popular with wine drinkers that doesn't match what comes out of France or the U.S. too often. This is a generalization, but Shiraz compared to the typical Syrah tends to be lighter in color and taste, more red fruit, less dark fruit, fewer tannins, a bit simpler, cheaper, and easier to drink by itself rather than requiring a food pairing. It's this easier drinking and less expensive part that makes Australian Shiraz popular. There are some cool climate Australian Syrahs that are considered among the best (and most expensive) in the world.
Syrah / Petite Sirah
These are two different, but related, grapes. Petite Sirah is a cross between Syrah and another obscure Rhone variety and has only been around since the late 19th century. It is petite in berry size, definitely not in flavor. Those small berries means PS is best described as concentrated with lots of dark color, flavors, and tannins. So in terms of flavor it more of a Super Syrah than a Petite Sirah. And, yes, Syrah is spelled differently in Petite Sirah.
Syrah as a varietal
When grown in coastal California and made with 100%, or nearly 100%, Syrah it will have those big, heavy, tannic characteristics. I have had nice ones, especially with a couple extra years aging. The problem is I often find myself thinking something like, "This is almost as good as Cabernet" because I can't help making the comparison to that other big red wine. And when the price is about the same I find myself preferring Cab.
One of my favorite
spots for Syrah &
Syrah in blends
For me, this is where Syrah shines. Typically, you want to curb some of the heavy body and tannins and you want to add complexity. The classic Syrah blend is a GSM, for Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah -- three grapes from Rhone. You may have heard of Grenache (greNOSH). It is lower on acid and tannins and has a red berry flavor that complements Syrah nicely. The more obscure Mourvedre has similar characteristics as Grenache, but with a bit more tannin.
How do you pronounce Mourvedre? Well, proper French is something like MOORved. When Americanized it often comes out as MooVEDrah.
You can find Syrah blended with everything from Viognier (a Rhone white) to Cabernet Sauvignon to Petite Sirah.
American wines aren't blended very often as we value single varietals, but blending is what Syrah needs.
It always comes down to food with the big red wines because the meal will change your perception of the wine. Those peppery and smokey characteristics of many Syrahs make them great for summer grilling. Red meats, sausages, burgers with smoked Gouda cheese, a meaty pasta dish, or beef stew. You know, all the food that make life worth living -- sorry vegetarians :) I suppose you could have a veggie burger or grilled eggplant.