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Fall/Winter 2010

Petite Sirah Makes a Comeback

It’s in. It’s out. No, the big brute is in again, and rightly so.

by Linda Murphy

There is no wine grape so wrongly named as petite sirah. There is nothing petite about the wine it produces, and many versions show brawn and big shoulders, with tongue-coating tannins, teeth-staining purple color, gushingly ripe black-fruit flavors, and a kick of fresh-cracked black pepper on the finish. Petite Sirah is not a wine for wimps.

And despite its name, it’s not a mini version of syrah, the noble grape of France’s Rhône Valley that is now widely planted throughout the world. While petite sirah and syrah grapes are related, they typically produce very different wines. Petite Sirah flexes its muscles like the Incredible Hulk; Syrah is the more agile, less obvious Spiderman. Yet both are superheroes.

Petite Sirah was in fashion, then out, and now is back in, with a growing number of Napa Valley and Sonoma County winemakers liking its flamboyant personality and compatibility with hearty foods such as roasted and grilled meats, game, stews, and cheese.

They’re learning how to treat the grape gently and make wines with more polish than in the past, taming Petite Sirah’s notoriously powerful tannins to the extent that one no longer has to cellar the wine for 10 years in order to drink it. And there is a growing cachet for Petite Sirah, as there is with Zinfandel, because consumers tend to be fascinated with drinking wines made from vines as old as their grandparents.

Italian and French immigrants began planting wine grapes in the mid-1800s, usually field blends of petite sirah, zinfandel, carignane, alicante bouchet, and other dark-skinned grapes. The clusters were harvested all at once, fermented together, and bottled as “mixed blacks.” A century later, winemakers began adding small amounts of Petite Sirah to Zinfandel and “California Burgundy” jug wines to boost color and body.

At that time, Foppiano Vineyards in Healdsburg and Trentadue Winery in Geyserville began bottling stand-alone Petite Sirahs—or “Pets,” as they are called by members of the varietal’s fan club, P.S. I Love You—from old vines. Yet these wines lost some of their shine when Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and other wines made from Rhône varietals surged to popularity in the 1980s. Foppiano and Trentadue kept the faith, spurred on by a small but extremely loyal group of Pet lovers.

Yet vines in Napa Valley were pulled and replanted with more profitable cabernet. Some growers kept their vines alive, but their earnings for the grapes plummeted. The Rhone Rangers promotional group refused to acknowledge petite sirah (also known as Durif and sometimes spelled as petite syrah) as a true Rhône Valley grape. Only after DNA testing in 2002 proved petite sirah to be the child of syrah and peloursin did the Rangers accept it as a noble grape.

Today, more vintners are discovering petite sirah vines whose grapes are just too good to pass up. Carol Shelton of Carol Shelton Wines in Santa Rosa, a Zinfandel specialist, couldn’t resist adding petite sirah after tasting the grapes from Rockpile Vineyard in the Rockpile subappellation of Dry Creek Valley. Titus Vineyards in St. Helena is another recent adopter.

“After many years of purchasing petite sirah to blend into our Zinfandel, we finally planted our own,” says vineyard manager Eric Titus. He and his brother, Phillip, now bottle a single-varietal Petite Sirah. The 2007 ($36) is deep and dense, with blackberry, pomegranate, and black plum flavors, and hints of black pepper, mocha, and licorice. It’s as sophisticated as Pet gets, with a supple mouthfeel and palate-cleansing acidity to balance the richness.

“Petite Sirah has a rusticity to it, but I find that attractive,” says Mike Officer, owner/winemaker at Carlisle Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa. “If you throw a T. rex steak or Brontosaurus burger on the grill, there is nothing better to drink than a burly Petite Sirah.”

Officer specializes in old-vine and single-vineyard Zinfandels, and Rhône-style bottling from Napa and Sonoma, producing deeply fruited, well-mannered wines. “I’d made Petite Sirah as a home winemaker since 1987 and always liked it,” says Officer, who turned pro in 1998. “It’s hard to avoid the tannins [derived from the thick grape skins]; it’s the nature of the grape. But there are things you can do to mitigate the tannins and buffer the fruit.”

For example, getting the grapes perfectly ripe prevents the astringency that comes from green grapes and seeds. Pressing the grapes gently rather than crushing them (as is done with Cabernet Sauvignon) helps reduce tannin impact. Certain fermentation yeasts can change how tannins are perceived in the mouth, and aging Petite Sirah in specific types of barrels can add texture to the wine, without imparting woody aromas and flavors that can obscure the exotic black-fruit character.

Petite Sirah likely won’t take over wine lists and shelf space, but the varietal is a real pleaser for those who love big, bold, flavor-packed wines.

Where to Find Petite Sirah
Carlisle Winery & Vineyards, (707) 566-7700, carlislewinery.com.
Carol Shelton Wines, (707) 575-3441, carolshelton.com.
P.S. I Love You, (707) 620-0788, psiloveyou.org.
Rhone Rangers, (800) 467-0163, rhonerangers.org.
Titus Vineyards, (707) 963-3235, titusvineyards.com.
Trentadue Winery, (707) 433-3104, trentadue.com.

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