Shiraz wine: from Persia to Australia
By Cyrus Kadivar
February 8, 2000
What drunkenness is this that brings me hope -
Who was the Cup-bearer, and whence the wine?
One ancient Persian legend says that Jamshid, a grape-loving king, stored
ripe grapes in a cellar so he could enjoy grapes all year long.
One day he sent his slaves to fetch him some grapes. When they did not
return he decided to go to the cellar himself only to find that they had
been knocked out by the carbon dioxide gas emanating from some bruised
fermenting grapes. One of the king's rejected, distraught mistresses decided
to drink this poisoned potion, only to leave the cellar singing and dancing
in high spirits.
The king realised that this fruity liquid had the wonderful and mysterious
power to make sad people happy. When Alexander overthrew the powerful Persian
empire he entered Darius's palace in January 330 AD. During one of the
conqueror's orgies soldiers raided the wine cellars. In a drunken moment
Alexander ordered the destruction of Persepolis.
Shiraz, lying 5,000 feet above sea level, yet only 100 miles from the
sea, had the essential combination of factors necessary to a successful
vineyards. To the Persians, paradise was called Khollar - a village in
the mountains beside Shiraz. The region supplied Baghdad with wine under
the caliphs. In the 12th and 13th century Persian poets such as Hafez extolled
the beautiful maidens, roses and wine of Shiraz.
According to Jean Chardin, a young French jeweller who spent most of
his time in 17th century Persia, the wine of Shiraz was famous in Europe
and many members of the European trading companies imported it under contract
from governors with royal authorization. Shiraz had its own bottle-making
industry and wine was transported in large jars in baskets over long distances.
Chardin gives a fairly full account of the wine trade in A Journey
to Persia. "This wine which is so excellent and famous, is
called Shiraz, and for the beauty of its colour and the delight of its
taste is considered to be the best in Persia and throughout the East. It
is not one of those strong wines which pleases the palate straight away."
The Shiraz grape was probably the root of the Syrah grape often found
in hot places like the Rhone Valley in France. The wine business was still
in full swing in the 19th century when a British doctor with the telegraph
company, C.J. Wills, wrote how his friend and neighbor in Shiraz , the
Mullah Haji Ali Akbar, approached him with the proposition that they should
make wine together in Dr Wills' house.
"I cannot make wine in my house," said the Mullah. "I
am a Mohammedan priest. But if I ask the Jews to make it for me things
will be even worse, because the wine will be dreadful, and I am a connoisseur.
If I make it at your house, Sahib, it will be first class and I will kill
two birds with one stone. You and I will have good wine and there will
be no scandal about it."
In the 1920s European archaeologists digging in the ruins outside Shiraz
discovered immaculate drinking cups of gold shaped as fierce lions and
winged ibex. Local wine production was encouraged under the Pahlavis. On
the eve of the revolution there were plans to export Shiraz wine with French
assistance. In 1979 many wine bottles were smashed by Islamic fanatics.
A few Shirazis continued to make their own homemade wine despite the threat
of being publicly flogged if caught by the vice police.
These days Shiraz wine is not Persian but rather a produce of Australian
and South African vineyards. Still, many Iranian restaurants in London
will insist that what the customer is drinking is the real thing. It is
a myth that seems to bring a smile to many in exile.