There’s a buzz around shiraz in South Africa that appears to show no signs of letting up. It’s a grape and wine that’s cool – or hot, whether it’s labelled shiraz or syrah.

What’s the difference between a wine labelled syrah and one labelled shiraz? Absolutely none. They are both made from the same grape. There are those who would have unwitting consumers believe that syrah is a wine made in the classic, elegant and restrained style of the Rhône in France and shiraz is essentially New World in style, modelled on the ripe, fruity, upfront and approachable style popularised by the Australians in the 2000s. Truth is that most folks who make the wines label it however they want!

South African shiraz is popular. It’s the second most planted red grape in the national vineyard. Only cabernet sauvignon boasts more acreage than shiraz which has between 9% and 10% of the country’s total 92 000 hectares.

It’s been through so many evolutions over the years. Records reveal that shiraz formed part of Groot Constantia’s vineyards as far back as the 1890s. However, varietal labelling – or calling the wine by its grape name – really only started becoming popular once legislation was introduced in the 1970s which specified limits. So if you wanted to label a wine as cabernet sauvignon, it had to contain a minimum of 75% of that grape. Prior to the Wine of Origin scheme it was pretty much a free for all…

The first producer to proudly release a bottled shiraz on the market was Bellingham – in 1957. Not much really happened until the 1990s when Lievland began to move the needle. Its owner at the time was Cape Wine Master Paul Benade and his winemaker was Abé Beukes. Bearing in mind that this was when South Africa had just become the Rainbow Nation and international markets were clamouring for our wines, so the prevailing wisdom was to follow the Australian method which worked so well for them. That meant grapes were picked ultra-ripe when they actually started to shrivel slightly on the vine and develop “ou mens gesiggies” or wrinkles. But very ripe grapes made for higher alcohol levels, comfortably 14.5 or 15%. The market realised that these wines were somewhat sweet and also tiring to drink. You could enjoy a glass but not two or three because the alcohol and the sweetness were off-putting.

Wine tasters could pick out shiraz in a blind tasting by looking for meaty, bacon kip aromas or else leather saddles. Those were the clues on the roadmap to identifying the wine! Nowadays shiraz wines are as a rule much more restrained, lower in alcohol and sweetness and altogether more refreshing since the acid levels are more balanced.

The next fad in shiraz evolution happened during the boom in the early 2000s. Newer French clones of shiraz became available and wine farmers couldn’t plant the stokkies in the soil fast enough. It was a time when some cutting edge vintners were trying to emulate what some of their colleagues in the Rhône did, by co-fermenting shiraz with the white viognier grape. One of the leaders of the pack was Anthony de Jager, the winemaker at Fairview in Paarl, with his personal label Homtini – but others followed suit, like La Motte, for example.

But it was when a few canny guys started to differentiate their wines on the basis of terroir – or the soil the grape was grown in – that it really took a serious turn. Leaders of the pack in that regard were folks like Eben Sadie of Sadie Family Wines with his Columella, Carl Schultz of Hartenberg with the Gravel Hill shiraz and Mark Kent of Boekenhoutskloof. Probably the most high profile exponents of this nowadays are the rock star couple Andrea and Chris Mullineux with their Mullineux Granite, Iron and Schist syrah. The couple met while working the harvest in France – in the Rhône of course! – and American-born Andrea followed her heart (and Chris) to South Africa. The success of what they do has been recognised critically with Mullineux Wines having been South Africa’s top performing winery in the Platter Guide five times in less than a dozen years!

Eben Sadie and the Mullineuxs played a pivotal role in the Revolution, an annual wine event that really put the Swartland and shiraz on the international critical map. It was an annual shiraz fest which began in 2010 and celebrated what the region could do because it had been overlooked for so many years. The informal group or collective agreed on a set of rules about making wines in a way that was suited to the area, the soils and the climate that was minimally interventionist and classical but also allowed for individual expression.

Stellenbosch and Paarl were no longer the heartland of shiraz – the grapevine had sprawled – and it continues to do so. Some of the most exciting examples of the wine which can be found on store shelves these days are cool-climate shiraz. Vineyards are planted in Agulhas, the genuine southern tip of Africa, with producers such as Trizanne Signature Wines, Strandveld, Black Oystercatcher and Lomond making cracking examples. Then in the Koue Bokkeveld and on the Ceres Plateau, there are vineyards popping up. Finally, there’s Sutherland – the place in the Karoo with the telescopes keeping an eye on what’s happening in the universe and which also regularly records the coldest temperatures in the country during winter. Daniël de Waal’s Mount Sutherland was the pioneer at 1500m altitude and he’s been joined by some other hardy souls such as Rogge Cloof.

Local wine writer Angela Lloyd posted the following comments by winemakers in a blog about shiraz.

“In winemaking, Trizanne (Barnard) reckons her most important change is that she now harvests on the taste of the grapes and phenolic ripeness, a move allowing gentler vinification and less extraction. With this approach, she also captures Agulhas and Elim’s specific saltiness, white pepper, and silky tannins in an elegant wine but one with gravitas.

“The Swartland is a decidedly warm and dry area. Chris and Andrea Mullineux farm naturally for healthy soils and the balanced vines this encourages. Complexity comes from a mix of sunlight and shade, so fully open vine canopies are avoided. The goal of expressing a sense of place in the wines is realised via a similar natural approach in the winery, including very little new wood. Unsurprisingly, the Mullineux’s view is that a Swartland shiraz should reflect its warm, sunny demeanour, lovely texture, freshness and firm yet unaggressive tannins.”

Different approaches with the same grape, but in markedly dissimilar climates, conditions and soils. The people who ultimately benefit are the consumers who get to taste the differences for themselves and decide which one they appreciate more.

A sight seldom seen in South Africa, vineyards covered in snow – but that’s what happens in Sutherland, one of the coldest places in the country.