A grape and wines about which we could talk for hours, but better to do it in relatively few words and, if possible to do it as I am now, with a glass of Hermitage on the desk.
Known widely as Syrah in France and Shiraz in Australia, the story of the origins of this grape has a certain amount of humor built into it. For many years most people were convinced that the grape took its name from the ancient Persian city of Shiraz. This in turn led to the common belief that the grape originated there as early as 600 B.C., and was brought to France only many years later when the crusaders transported root stock to France in their saddlebags.
A great story, full of charm, bloodshed and romance but one now known to be without any basis in reality as the grape most definitely has its origins within France, the parents being the Mondeuse Blanche and Duerza grapes. Interestingly these are two grapes, neither of which is capable of producing an interesting wine on its own but as a marriage, one of the happiest ever in oenological history.
As is the case with nearly all grapes, Syrah (by whatever name) responds to soil and climatic conditions, in the northern Rhone probably coming to its very best with Hermitage and, more recently Cote Rotie, both of which can be exceptionally long-lived wines. Also to be considered from the Northern Rhone is Crozes-Hermitage which is so tightly closed during its youth that it only becomes approachable after 5 or more years. In the Southern Rhone, Syrah has also become an integral part of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Recent years have also seen growing popularity in Provence and other of the southern regions of France.
The grape was first introduced to Autralia in the early 1830's. At that time the grape was known as Scyras (for every person who thought the grape came from Persia, others thought it came from the Syracuse). Many of the Shiraz wines from Australia are of very high quality and the best are also quite long lived. One of the finest expressions of the grape from Australia is, of course, Penfolds' Grange although others approach that quality and even more are well worthy of our attention.
I'm going to avoid New World/Old World arguments here by simply summing up and saying that at its best Syrah/Shiraz can produce wines that combine intensity and muscularity with great elegance, often needing a good deal of time in the bottle to come fully into their own. As to general traits I would say that many of the best examples are full-bodied, firmly tannic on release but even when quite young showing inherently fine balance and structure. Plums, currants and cassis are among traditional fruits and among other things to be noted on the nose and palate are distinctly peppery, sometimes earthy-minerals, and not infrequently leathery and bitter or bittersweet chocolate.
As a point of possible interest, Syrah/Shiraz started its rise to popularity in Israel about six years ago and that climb has not yet reached its peak. And, of course, the grape is now widely planted in California.
You asked specifically about the spicy aspects of the grape. Indeed, these are as traditional to Syrah as litchis and rosewater are to Gewurztraminer or as blackberries and blackcurrants are to Cabernet.
Do keep in mind that as not all wines made from any grape are going to be excellent our outstanding, so it is with Syrah as well. Do some comparative shopping, talk with friends and, if you like, request tasting notes.