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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Neil Beckett

Apart from black and white pepper, sweaty saddles and a couple of degrees ABV, what's the difference between Syrah and Shiraz? About 40% in sales terms, according to Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, a buyer for Sainsbury's. Howard-Sneyd says that when the company was forced to relabel two southern French Shiraz' as Syrah' - Wild Pig and Rserve St Marc (both 3.99) - sales almost halved, a dive which he attributes directly to the change in name. Howard-Sneyd says he was astonished to be informed by the Wine Standards Board (WSB) that the former label was illegal under EU rules. John Boodle, technical inspector at the WSB, explained to Harpers that France did not submit Shiraz as a permitted synonym for Syrah in the governing EU wine regulation (3201 of 1990) and that a French wine could not, therefore, be sold as such. He conceded that many retailers in the UK might like to be able to sell Australian wannabes', but that the EU regulation would need to be changed first. The best way to apply the necessary pressure would be for big UK players to get their suppliers to lobby the French Agriculture Minister, he suggested, though the Wine & Spirit Association (WSA) might also be able to help. At the WSA, Gillian Charlesworth, head of European and commercial affairs, and secretary of the French Wine Committee, revealed that Sainsbury's is not the only company to have been caught out over the last year, and that others have been experiencing exactly the same problem with Italian Shiraz'. She said, There is clearly a belief that Syrah will sell more, and at a higher price, as Shiraz. It's perhaps a rather sad state of affairs, but it appears to be the case. There's an argument that French Syrah tastes different from Australian Shiraz, and that the difference can be reflected in the names. But let's have flexibility. If somebody wants to sell the wine as Shiraz, let them. If somebody wants to sell the wine as Syrah, equally, let them do that.' She explained that while the WSA has raised the issue with the agriculture representatives at the French Embassy in London, asking them to report to ONIVINS, the relevant authority in France, the WSA is also encouraging UK shippers to speak to their French and Italian suppliers, in the hope that they will lobby from their side more successfully. Charlesworth said that the issue is exactly the sort of thing' that should be tackled under the review stimulated by the Berthomeau Report, submitted to the French Agriculture Minister last year. But she added that while everything has been in the melting pot, it seems to have gone off the boil recently,' following the appointment of a new Agriculture Minister in the new French Government. She concluded that the WSA hoped the momentum would not be lost. As long as those on both sides of the Channel don't adopt a fatalistic, case Syrah sera approach, French wine may yet benefit from being sold under the name of a town in Ancient Persia.