There are many legends about the origins of the dark-skinned, red-wine grape known as both syrah and shiraz.

The grape thrives in France's Rhone Valley, where it is called syrah and produces wines that, while not overwhelming, are packed full of tannins with generous flavours of ripe blackberries and strong hints of black pepper.

A DNA profiling conducted by the University of California, Davis, in 1999, found syrah to be the long-lost offspring of two rare grapes - dureza and mondeuse blanche - from southeast France. The first mention of what historians believe to be syrah is found in the works of Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, who, in AD77, wrote about a prized wine made from a dark-skinned grape called allobrogica.

Another story about syrah links it to the city of Shiraz, in Iran, where a wine called shirazi was produced. One version describes how the Phocaeans took the wine to their outpost at Marseilles (then called Massalia), which was founded in 600BC by the Greeks. The grape then somehow made it overland to the Rhone Valley, which had not been colonised by the Phocaeans. Another version of the story suggests syrah, which was then called scyras, was brought over from Shiraz by Persian hermits who cultivated the grapes. Syrah's foremost claim to fame is found in Hermitage - specifically the hill above the town of Tain-l'Hermitage, in the northern Rhone Valley. There is a chapel at the top of the hill where a famous hermit, Gaspard de Sterimberg, was reputed to have settled after the Crusades. Today, Paul Jaboulet makes a sought-after 100 per cent syrah wine, called Chevalier de Sterimberg, in tribute to the recluse.

Other delicious examples of syrah can be found in the appellation of St-Joseph, where it is unblended. These wines were a favourite of the court of Louis XII, who owned a vineyard in St-Joseph. Today that vineyard is owned by the Guigal family.

In Australia, the grape is widely known as shiraz. The country has been producing shiraz wines since at least the 1830s. Early documents refer to it as scyras, but that seems to have evolved into shiraz.

Australian shiraz has found its home in the Barossa Valley, northeast of Adelaide, and McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide. The oldest shiraz vines in the world were planted in 1847 by Johann Frederick Fiedler on Lot 1 at Hundred of Moorooroo, in the township of Tanunda, and are still producing grapes, for Turkey Flat Vineyards. Shiraz wines from this area are intense - in their youth they give explosions of ripe fruit and spice on the palate, and become more mellow with age. A popular style is the GSM, a blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre (also called "mataro").

McLaren Vale shirazes are softer on the palate, with exuberant berry fruit, raspberry, chocolate and licorice notes. The grapes here are naturally smaller, which gives the wine more tannins. Shiraz is usually made on its own but some winemakers add a touch of viognier, to add complexity to the fruits in the final wine. A terrific example of a McLaren Vale shiraz is by Geoff Merrill - an old-school winemaker who still insists on using corks and who ages his wines himself before release.

Syrah should not be confused with petite sirah, which is a different grape entirely. Petit sirah is another name for durif, a cross between syrah and peloursin that was created in the 1880s.

Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers.