Yes, it’s confusing. And yes, one’s first inclination is to make a joke – or several (and there is a wine called K Syrah).
But given the increasing popularity of syrah and shiraz, it’s probably a good idea to remain straight-faced – at least long enough to explain the difference between the two, as well as to figure out where their much less known cousin, petite sirah,, fits in.
First, syrah and shiraz are the same grape. Wines from the Rhone region of France, California, and the Pacific Northwest are called syrah, while those from Australia are called shiraz. Petite sirah, on the other hand, is not the same grape. It’s genetically similar to syrah, and almost certainly evolved from it, but it’s not as intense or as bright (though still a fine wine grape in its own right).
The real difference is in style. Generally, shiraz is much less subtle than syrah, and syrah is not a subtle wine to begin with. The reason is mostly climate. Australia has a longer growing season than the Rhone, California and the Pacific Northwest, so the grapes get riper, which means more intense flavor and more sugar. And more sugar means more alcohol during fermentation, often as much as 1 ½ to 2 percentage points more.
These two wines show the contrast between the two styles. It doesn’t get much more Aussie than Nine Stones Shiraz McLaren Vale ($15). It's a chewy, almost ashy wine with an inky color, made in the style that the Wine Magazines drool over.
Meanwhile, Domaine Gramenon Cotes du Rhone Les Laurentides ($16) is classic southern Rhone wine. This is about two-thirds grenache, but the one-third that is syrah gives it its backbone and an intriguing spiciness.