Food and Wine Pairing: Syrah with Sausage and Peppers


When Shakespeare asks “What’s in a name?”, he’s definitely not talking about wine.  Call an Italian Primativo a Zinfandel and you’re spoiling for a fight; advertise a California Pinot Noir as a Burgundy, and you’ll need an attorney.  A peaceful exception to all this litigiousness is Syrah/Shiraz, One grape, two identities, no lawyers required.

Though climate matters a bit, for the most part, it is a vintner’s choice.  When labeled Syrah, the wines are based on the French model of the Rhone Valley.  More restrained, structured, and complex, they express flavors of spice, tar, and licorice.  When labeled Shiraz, the source of inspiration is Down Under.  These bold fruit-forward wines range from chocolate-y, intense collectibles, such as Penfolds Grange, to the easy, crowd pleasers that have taken the world by storm.

Happily, both are flexible and easy to pair with food.  The Sausage Peppers with Polenta recipe works beautifully with a Syrah, but if you feel like taking the night off, order up a pizza and pop open a Shiraz. A better match is hard to find.

If nothing else, the stories of Shiraz and Syrah prove that people will go very far to get a great glass of wine.   According to French legend, in 1224, an injured knight, Gaspard de Sterimberg, returned from The Crusades in desperate need of rest.  World weary from the incredible carnage and blood shed, he appealed to the Queen Blanche de Castille for permission to live as a hermit on the slopes of the Northern Rhone Valley. She agreed, and Gaspard de Sterimberg dedicated the rest of his life to meditation, and the vine cutting he brought back from the Persian city of Syrah. 

Under his careful cultivation, Syrah thrived and eventually became the basis of the most extraordinary wines of the Rhone, including Chateuneuf de Pape, Cornas, Cotie Rotie, and, of course, Hermitage.  Unfortunately however, our knight must have gotten his cuttings confused. Though he put the hermit in Hermitage, Syrah is not from Persia at all. It is indigenous to France, and evidently has been used in French wine since Roman times.

Shiraz, however, is not indigenous to Australia.  Most likely, the pioneer was the tireless James Busby, an immigrant originally from Scotland.  In 1832, after painstakingly clipping his way though the vineyards of France and Spain, Mr. Busby set sail for  Australia with over 700 cuttings below deck.

After planting all the vines in Sydney’s Botanic Garden, he discovered that the “Hermitage” which he also called “Shiraz” after the same Persian city, grew exceptionally well.   While somewhat inaccurate, the name Shiraz is, indeed, very marketable.  No wonder many consider Busby to be the father of the Australian Wine Trade.

The image of a bloodstained vine clutched in the hands of a forlorn knight is a touch more impressive than a crazed botanist scuttling below deck to care for hundreds of clippings, but only a touch. Thank goodness for the wine-obsessed.  Try a few selections below and see what all the fuss is about.