NOTHING PETITE ABOUT PETITE SIRAH

These days I find consumers are more interested in experiencing wines with unfamiliar flavor profiles and more reasonable prices. If you are looking for full flavored wines that provide a lot of wine for the money, consider Petite Sirah. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

The roots of the petite sirah vine can be traced back to the south of France in the 1880s, where Dr. Francois Durif propagated a crossing of syrah and the obscure variety peloursin. The resulting vine naturally was designated “durif.” Although the grape never caught on in France, it was brought to California and became valued as a blending grape to give wines structure, body and color. In fact, many of the generically labeled red wines produced during the following century contained large amounts of petite sirah. Now, DNA testing has proven that the vast majority of what has been known by that name in California is actually durif.

Concannon Vineyard is credited as the first California winery to bottle a varietal Petite Sirah in 1961. Foppiano Vineyards, another Petite Sirah proponent, followed soon after. Interestingly, these prescient families staked their reputations on a grape that had declined (from about 7500 acres in the 1930s to around 4500 during the 1960s). It paid off because acreage subsequently grew to a peak of about 14,000 acres by 1976, as the grape often was used to improve the quality of many generic red wine blends. Then the grape went into decline again during the 1980s and 1990s and acreage dropped to around 2400 in 1995. Since then, though, many vintners again have come to realize the quality possible from the grape and plantings almost tripled by 2005 and reached about 7500 acres in 2010.

Wineries up and down the state now are making varietal Petite Sirah wines. And a promotional organization, P. S. I Love You (www.psiloveyou.org), which was founded in 2002 with 39 charter members, has more than doubled to 81 winery members in 2011. I think it’s fair to say that organization and its founding director, Jo Diaz deserves much of the credit for the grape’s growing popularity.

Despite its name and origins, petite sirah grape is not a lesser version of syrah. It is a distinct variety that happens to have syrah as one of its parents. Thus, it can display a similar flavor profile to syrah – dark berries, tobacco, leather, earth, mineral and pepper, with an ability to age well. But there are differences – it often produces bigger, denser, more rustic wines that generally age quite well.

Petite Sirah also is a good companion for full flavored foods, including red meats, game, strong cheeses, mushroom dishes, stews and the like. It also would be a fine companion for grilled foods and barbeque. One serving note, though. These wines generally are so full flavored and tannic they will stay fresh for several hours and, in some cases, even a few days after opening a bottle.

I wrote my first review of Petite Sirah in 2003. Although most of the wines were quite good and showed nice dark berry fruit, they also revealed the rough edges and strong tannins of the grape’s rustic nature. I often appreciate rustic wines but many took it too far. With my second tasting report in 2007, I noticed more refinement in the wines but many were still big and tough, a bit exhausting to drink. This time, I was impressed that as a group (20 producers and 24 wines tasted blind), the wines showed more abundant fruit, more complexity, smoother textures, more manageable tannins, and overall better balance. My favorites most clearly reflected these qualities on my palate.

To the extent any of my tastings are representative of California Petite Sirah in general, I perceive this as a positive evolution in style and quality. My favorites most clearly reflected these qualities on my palate. One thing that hasn’t changed, though: Petite Sirah still delivers a lot of character for the money.

I have to say the biggest surprise of my tasting is that Miro Tcholakov made my two favorite wines. His 2008 Miro Cellars ($30) uses fruit from Rockpile, a northern Sonoma County appellation. And tons of fruit there is, along with subtle complexities like licorice and a concentrated, yet elegant impact. The only downside is there are just 50 cases. Miro also is responsible for the 2009 Trentadue Alexander Valley Estate ($18). I really loved this wine’s berry pie fruit, silky texture and powdery tannins. I should add I also liked the reserve style 2009 Trentadue “La Storia” ($28), which showed more woodsy, tobacco notes but also strong acids that suggest a long life.

And there were other good wines from Sonoma. The 2007 Field Stone “Staten Family Reserve” ($35) from and Alexander Valley vineyard planted in 1894 that is now farmed organically and sustainably, was rather brooding and tough at first but eventually yielded to time and revealed deep fruit to go along with the strong tannins. From one of the earliest Petite Sirah advocates, the Foppiano Russian River Valley ($20) had nice blueberry fruit accented with cinnamon and tobacco aromas and toasty, peppery flavors.

And then there was another surprise. Two of my other favorites came from Cabernet country, the Napa Valley: 2008 R & B Cellars “Pizzicato” ($28) and 2008 Ballentine “Fig Tree Vineyard” ($25). Both wines come from single vineyards and both are concentrated, tannic wines that would benefit from cellaring. The R & B adds black licorice, pine and tobacco notes, while the Ballentine goes more to ripe berries and spice.

Other northern California wine regions also were well represented. From El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills, the 2007 Lava Cap “Granite Hill Vineyard Reserve” ($30) began big and brash with touches of mint and cinnamon but later opened up to reveal lovely sweet fruit. From nearby Lodi, the 2007 McCay ($24) seemed reticent to show its fruit at first. Burnt notes and tight tannins dominated the wine but that dissipated and later the wine showed good rasiny fruit and hints of cinnamon and mint. By contrast, the 2007 Shannon Ridge ($24) from Lake County, although finishing with tough tannins, immediately displayed its intense blueberry fruit. Despite considerable size and weight, it had an enticing texture.

I also enjoyed two wines from Paso Robles. A 2007 Clayhouse Red Cedar Vineyard ($25) offered spice and coffee in the nose but lots of fruit and soft tannins on the palate. The 2007 Vina Robles “Jardine Estate” ($26) was dominated by dry forest and spicy herb notes but presented a nice core of red fruit with black licorice followed by a hint of bitterness.

Finally, there also were several notable values.

• 2009 The Crusher “Grower’s Selection” ($14). One of three wines in my tasting from Don Sebastiani & Sons, a company that offers an extensive portfolio of wines made with grapes from numerous regions in the state. This one benefits from Clarksburg fruit that yields tasty currant and raisin fruit balanced with soft tannins. Their 2008 Smoking Loon California ($9) is a bit too syrupy for me but that is offset with tobacco notes and fresh tannins. It should be a crowd pleaser.
• 2008 Bogle ($11). This winery, well known for its value priced wines, has been producing Petite Sirah since 1978. Juicy black fruits are offset with minty peppery notes.
• 2007 Parducci (Mendocino) ($11) is made with organically grown grapes from the oldest winery in Mendocino. Parducci is deeply committed to sustainability from the vineyard to the winery and has produced a juicy wine with fresh fruit and admirable intensity.
• 2008 Concannon “Conservancy” ($15). This winery, founded in the Livermore Valley 1883, has sourced the grapes for this wine only from growers who have placed their land in a legal trust that protects the vineyard from urban develop. That’s especially good for consumers because this wine is full flavored and large scaled.

Although Cabernet Sauvignon is by far still the most popular red wine, producers and consumers alike have become interested in alternatives both for more reasonable prices and to experience different flavor profiles. If you haven’t tried it lately, I suggest you consider Petite Sirah. If you are looking for full flavored wines that generally provide a lot of wine for the money, I don’t think you will be disappointed.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.