Monday, May 23, 2011

Grape Migrations

Prince Entertained on a Terrace
from "Divan" by Hafez
For years I’ve been telling friends this story (usually over a nice glass of red wine): Gaspard de Stérimberg was a thirteenth-century crusader who took a wrong turn on his way to the Holy Land. He ended up in Shiraz, the Persian city known for its blooming gardens and lyrical poets—and for its wine. Gaspard took such a liking to the local vintage that he slipped a few grapevine cuttings into his saddlebags before returning to his home in France. There, he planted the cuttings, turned the mature fruit into a full-bodied wine, and named his new vintage after the city of its origin. A few centuries later, the Shiraz grapes went wandering again and put down roots in Australia.

Nice story, right? Too bad it’s not true.

In 1998, Dr. Carol Meredith, a researcher with the University of California at Davis, tested the DNA of grapevines and determined that the Shiraz variety is native to France and did not originate in Persia at all. Other details of the story don’t hold up under scrutiny, either. Chevalier Gaspard was a real knight, but there’s no evidence that he ever left France, let alone traveled to Jerusalem or Shiraz (which was never the target of a crusade anyway). Our valiant knight had joined the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the French region of Languedoc.

In another version of the story, the Greeks brought the Shiraz grape to France in 600 BC and planted the vines in their colony of Massilia (present-day Marseilles). Centuries later, Gaspard de Stérimberg encountered the vintage in this region on his way home from the crusades and transplanted some cuttings to his Rhône vineyards. There, he recovered from terrible wounds sustained in the fighting and lived out his days as a hermit—and presumably a gentleman vintner.

This story is more believable, for although Marseilles isn’t in the Languedoc region, it’s not far from it and the grapes could have easily migrated over the course of nearly two millennia. And the city of Shiraz has been part of a major wine-growing region for thousands of years—until the Islamic Republic banned alcohol in the 1980s. But the stickler this time is this: the wine grapes grown in Shiraz were white, while the present-day Shiraz grapes of Australia and France (where they’re called Syrah) are red.

So what is the true story? I doubt anyone will ever sort out these wrinkles in history. But the Shiraz mystery aside, Persia is likely the place where wine originated. Archaeologists uncovered the earliest evidence of winemaking in the residue clinging to 7,000-year-old pottery shards at Hajji Firuz Tepe, an excavation site in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran.

Photo by Sarah Stierch
Iranians have another story about the origins of wine: The legendary King Jamshid was fond of grapes. He filled his castle cellars with the fruit so that it could be brought to his table whenever he felt a craving coming on. One day, he sent two servants to fetch a basket of grapes, and when they failed to return, he went to see what was taking so long. He found the men collapsed on the floor, overcome by the fumes from a barrel of bruised and fermenting grapes. The king decided the grapes had turned poisonous and warned everyone to avoid them.

Later, one of Jamshid’s mistresses was feeling sad and neglected and decided to kill herself by drinking the liquid left by the poisoned grapes. But instead of dying, the woman soon felt elated and climbed the cellar steps singing and dancing. The king realized that this miraculous juice had the power to turn despair into joy. It’s probably a good thing he never asked her how she felt the next morning when the hangover hit, or perhaps we wouldn’t have wine today.

This story brings us back to Shiraz because Jamshid is believed to have lived in the site that later became Persepolis, the palace of the Achaemenid rulers, which lies just an hour’s drive from present-day Shiraz. Even today, Iranians refer to Persepolis as “Takht-e Jamshid,” which means the “Throne of Jamshid.”

Science may have proven that the Shiraz grape has a French accent rather than a Persian one and that winemaking originated in the Zagros Mountains and not in King Jamshid’s cellar, but I still prefer the legends. I’ll happily lift a glass to old Gaspard, the French hermit, as I picture him wandering among his vines, or to King Jamshid on his throne at Persepolis, sipping a white Shiraz.



  1. Loved the story,Heidi! And the legend, too, even if it's not true. And, it looks like I just learned a new Persian word that means cheers :)
    I still find it interesting where does the name Shiraz came from -- it does not sound French to me.

  2. Oh, the intrigue! Heidi, we need to get to the bottom of this (hic), one glass at a time. And I agree, how did it get the Shiraz name if not for the region?

  3. Lina, salamati does mean cheers, but I think it may be Arabic in origin.

    There is as much mystery surrounding the Shiraz name as there is about the origin of the grapes themselves. Some people say that the botanist who introduced the grape to Australia in the 1830s changed the name because the original French one (Hermitage, after Gaspard's estate) was protected under French law - like Champagne. I couldn't find any explanation of why he would have picked Shiraz over any other name.

    Others say that Shiraz is a mispronunciation of Syrah. I don't quite buy that one. It seems a bit too coincidental. And the only way I can see you getting Shiraz out of Syrah is if the speaker is very drunk! Well, maybe it does make sense then. :)