If wine can be confusing — and it can — three grape names that add to that perplexity are syrah, petite sirah and shiraz.

Syrah is the hearty, powerful grape that has been growing in France’s Northern Rhone Valley, maybe since before Christ.

Petite sirah is not syrah at all, but in most cases a descendant of a minor Rhone grape called Durif. But when the two grapes became popular in California in the 1970s, many winemakers and consumers used the two names interchangeably. Only more recently, with DNA testing, are the two grapes properly understood to be separate varieties.

To add to the confusion, along comes shiraz. In 1831, Australian grape growers imported syrah grapes from France, planted them widely, and took to calling them shiraz. It’s generally understood now that syrah and shiraz are the same grape — maybe changed a bit by mutation in the past 182 years. Got it?

Today, here’s how the three grapes — and wines — are different. Syrah is the signature grape of the Northern Rhone Valley, also very important in California and elsewhere. It makes wines that are big and powerful and hearty and smooth, but without the muscular tannins and acids of, say, cabernet sauvignon. In the Southern Rhone, syrah is blended with softer grenache and other grapes to make the popular Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape red wines.

Petite sirah today is coming into its own, especially in California, as an individual variety, inky and august, with powerful tannins and blackberry fruit. It’s muscular enough that it’s also used in small quantities to give backbone to zinfandels, pinot noirs, merlots, malbecs and other red wines.

Shiraz, in Australia, is often softer, sweeter and smoother than its Rhone Valley forefather, Syrah. It’s often blended with other grapes, with the combination of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre so popular it’s called “The Holy Trinity.” This blend makes soft, approachable wines similar to those of the Southern Rhone.

And now, just to add a final touch of confusion, a few California vineyards are making softer version of their own syrah and calling them “shiraz” as well.

Highly recommended:

•  2010 Tower 15 Petite Sirah, Paso Robles; aromas and flavors of black plums and black pepper, firm tannins, crisp acids, a hefty wine; $18.

•  2009 Amapola Creek Zinfandel, Monte Rosso Vineyrd, “Vinas Antiguas), Sonoma Valley (91.2 percent zinfandel, 8.8 percent petite sirah): aromas and flavors of black raspberries and black pepper, big and rich and spicy; $36.

•  2011 Robert Mondavi Private Selection “Coastal Crush” Red wine, Central Coast (67 percent syrah, 24 percent merlot, 9 percent malbec): light, smooth, rich and mellow, with aromas and flavors of raspberries and mocha; $11.


•  2009 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, “Allomi Vineyard,” Napa Valley (91 percent cabernet sauvignon, 9 percent petite sirah): powerful aromas and flavors of black cherries and black coffee, big, ripe tannins, crisp acid, full body; $28.

• 2010 Morgan Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands (100 percent syrah): deep dark color, black cherry and herb aromas and flavors, rich and mellow; $20.

•  2010 Robert Oatley Signature Series Shiraz, McLaren Vale (100 percent shiraz): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of strawberries and cloves, rich and smooth; $18.

•  2010 Matchbook Syrah, Dunnigan Hills (90 percent syrah, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon): light hint of oak, aromas and flavors of blueberries and mocha, big and round and smooth; $16.

•  2009 Napa Cellars Syrah, “Dyer Vineyard,” Carneros, Napa Valley (100 percent syrah): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of mulberries and licorice, medium body, smooth and round; $22.

• 2010 Exitus Red Blend, by Cecchetti Wine Co., Calif. (60 percent syrah, 20 percent petite sirah, 20 percent merlot): big and powerful, with black cherry aromas an flavors, full body and big, ripe tannins; $25.