An ancient Persian tale tells of a beautiful princess who falls out of favor with the mythic King Jamshid. Heartbroken, the young woman tries to poison herself by drinking a jar filled with the juice of spoiled grapes. Instead of death, however, she experiences a rather pleasant, euphoric feeling before falling asleep. Upon waking, she rushes to tell the king of her discovery. Elated, the sovereign welcomes the princess back to his harem and decrees that all grapes grown in Persepolis be devoted to winemaking.
The story may be pure legend, but historians have shown that the winemaking tradition did indeed begin in Persia—what is present-day Iran—when neolithic shepherds in the Zagros Mountains started to cultivate grapes as their goats pruned the vines. Some of the earliest pottery jars discovered in the region, dating from around 5400 BC, were used for storing wine.
The 4,000-year-old city of Shiraz, located about 40 miles from the immaculately preserved ruins at Persepolis, has long been celebrated as the center of Iranian culture, education, and winemaking. Capital of the Fars province, it is known as the “City of Poets” for revered Persian poets Hafez and Sa’di, who were both born and buried there. During the 13th century, Shiraz emerged as one of the most important cities in all of Islam; the region’s Farsi dialect has been adopted as Iran’s official language.
Set at an altitude of 5,000 feet, Shiraz also boasts a perfect climate for grape growing. Until the 1979 Revolution, hundreds of vineyards dotted its fertile countryside. While the wineries may be gone (or at least underground), the city still intoxicates with its lovely gardens and exquisite mosques, particularly Masjid-e-Vakil; its marble alter and massive prayer hall, covered in small cupolas resting on 48 twisted stone columns, are considered masterpieces of the Zand dynasty (1736-1797).
As for how the dark-skinned shiraz (or syrah) grape found its way to France, various fables credit everyone from a Persian hermit to the Phocaeans (who founded Marseilles) to a French knight who, while serving in the crusades, brought cuttings back to his hometown in the Rhone Valley. The legend continues ….
We will be exploring Shiraz on multiple upcoming expeditions: