'You say Syrah, I say Shiraz' – why wine names matter

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

05 December 2018

Do wine names matter?

We might like to think that wine is solely about what’s in the bottle – about the sacred preservation of terroir – but it’s not. At least, not for the general public. There are a whole raft of complex, often subconscious calculations being made every time a customer chooses a wine. And right up there, helping them make their decision is what’s on the list/label in front of them.

Can they pronounce it? Does it sound good? Does it fit their mood? A black mark against any of those three and they’ll move on to the next one on the list. Wine names, in short, matter. And research released last week from the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre in Australia backs this up.

Professor Eddie Oczkowzki and his team looked at varieties that had synonyms, such as Shiraz/Syrah, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Sauvignon/Fumé Blanc. They discovered that wines named a certain way were likely to be noticeably more expensive.

On average, Fumé Blancs were 9% more expensive than Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Gris were 14% more than their Grigio equivalents, while Syrahs commanded a whopping 27% premium over wines labelled Shiraz. That’s quite an uplift in profit for two letters-worth of difference.

Since you work with wine every day, I can already hear you starting to tap your objections into social media.

Surely, you’ll say, this isn’t just a question of name. There must be stylistic differences between the wines to explain why they’re called something different. And yes, like you, I’d expect a wine called Pinot Gris to be richer and more textural than a Grigio, a Fumé Blanc probably to be riper/oaked and a Syrah to be spicier and more elegant than its broad-shouldered z-containing brother.

But while we might assume that, it’s not necessarily the case. In fact, I’m sure we can all think of examples where a wine didn’t taste like its name suggested it might.

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I tasted a Chilean ‘Syrah’ that was more Côte Fruity than Côte-Rôtie. And professor Oczkowzki himself is sceptical of the ‘stylistic’ argument. ‘There’s evidence in blind tastings to suggest that these differences may not always be apparent,’ he says tactfully.

In other words, calling an Aussie wine Syrah might not make it Hermitage, but it should earn you a few more dollars when you come to sell it. The wine names issue, though, goes way beyond grape varieties and into entire cultures. Some languages, to put it bluntly, just sound better to your customers than others.

What do you think is an easier sell: Pinot Noir or Späetburgunder? Kékfrankos or Chianti? Aghiorgitiko or Merlot? I know that Eastern Europe and the Balkans are attracting the attention of somms across the UK at the moment – and quite rightly. There’s amazing value for money, centuries of heritage and fascinating local grapes to explore. But however good the wines are, whether you like it or not you’re going to have to get over the language difficulties if you’re going to sell any of them.

It’s not just the words, either. It’s the country itself. Thirty years after the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe is very different to how it used to be when it was behind the Iron Curtain, but consumer preconceptions take a long time to shift.

Take Germany. It has an amazing battery of go-ahead, passionate, quirky young winemakers, who are transforming the wine scene there. But the country’s national image is still one of solid reliability rather than passion and artistry. If you were running a business, you’d hire Germany to work for you, but you’d rather sit next to crazy, fun Spain or Italy at the Christmas party. And it’s heart rather than head that rules most wine purchases.

It’s why most punters would pick Pinot Blanc over Weissburgunder. One sounds soft, silky, sexy. The other sounds like a mouthful of horse chestnut casings.

So here’s the question. If you took critically-approved, but hard-to-sell wine styles like Riesling or Furmint or Feteasca Alba, put them in an Italian wine bottle and called them, say Sinatra Bianco or Bambino Mio, would they sell? I reckon they would – by the bucket load. Unlike with fino sherry, which is a challenging taste profile, the problem lies at least as much in customer perception as in the products themselves.

And if you want a home-grown example of a wine style that seriously needs to get its name right, look no further than English fizz. Yes, everyone in the trade loves it,but it's losing the marketing war.

Just take a look at the wine names of its competitors. ‘Champagne’? One word. Sounds elegant. ‘Prosecco’? One word. Sounds fun. ‘English Sparkling Wine’? Three words. Sounds dull and stodgy. It’s a product description, not an aspiration.

And it’s aspiration that sells wine. Just ask the guys who call their Shiraz as ‘Syrah’.

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