How to distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz in blind tasting

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Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz are popular and renowned around the globe. So how do you go about separating them when blind tasting?

Image: Cabernet Sauvignon (left) © CIVB and Syrah (right) © Inter Rhône / Christophe GrilhéImage: Cabernet Sauvignon (left) © CIVB and Syrah (right) © Inter Rhône / Christophe Grilhé

In appearance, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah tend to have lots of colour as they are thick skinned grapes. If they come from climates which are not terribly hot, then both grapes have a medium intensity of colour, but a warmer climate produces much deeper colour. That being so, Shiraz may at times have a greater amount of purple tint, but it’s very hard to say there’s a clear difference between these varieties for certain.

In our commonly used tasting systems, I should be talking about aroma/flavours next. Cool climate Syrah is easy to distinguish as it has a distinctive black pepper smell (from Rotundone)– however beware! About 10% of the population cannot smell this, so if you are insensitive to this, you will always have problems with tasting cool climate Syrah.

However, I have found that distinguishing various black fruits like blackcurrant and blackberry is very challenging to most Chinese students due to unfamiliarity. So, I feel that it’s more important to focus on the structure of the wine rather than flavour. Also, because these wines often have a strong oak influence which can overwhelm the fruit, it is easier to focus on structure.

Usually the acid level of Cabernet Sauvignon will be on the high side, refreshing and lively, whereas Syrah tends to be a bit lower. However, to some students, Shiraz tastes high in acidity; but this is not acid, rather it is the high alcohol that they mistake for high acidity: both can feel rather fierce.

However, you must keep in mind that coming from hot climates, Shiraz is capable generally of reaching a high alcohol level (easily over 15%) than Cabernet Sauvignon. And it is this high alcohol that can feel strong. However, if the mouthfeel is from high alcohol only, the initial salivation dies down quite quickly and doesn’t last in the way that acid makes your mouth water.

But it is the tannins which help the most in distinguishing the two, with each having different textural properties. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz can have a lot of tannin, but they have very different structures. Cabernet Sauvignon is more angular in feel, with more protruding and a more obvious grain, whereas Syrah tends to have a rounded, more smooth and fine grained feel to it.

Thus, cooler climate Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are most easy to distinguish based on a presence or absence of peppery flavour, but with warmer climate examples, they become closer in aroma and are best differentiated by structure within the wine. Good luck and practice, practice, practice makes perfect.

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