A Special Place for Petite Sirah
When we sampled the six Petite Sirahs we were about to offer at a recent Thursday tasting, it occurred to me this often ignored varietal needed more of this kind of re-visiting. The wines were deep, dark and opaque in appearance--which is typical for these wines--but they all offered something special, elements that lift certain wines above the rest. Petite Sirah makes wines of importance.
So much so, we decided to make one of them--the elegant 2015 Shannon Ridge High Elevation Petite Sirah from Lake County--our May Wine of the Month.
Petite Sirah has always been somewhat of a mystery. Once thought of as an offshoot of the noble Syrah of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie from France's northern Rhone Valley, it enjoyed a lot of popularity during the initial exploration of the wine boom of the 1970s and early 1980s.
When some smarty-pants viticulturists in the 1980s determined that Petite Sirah wasn't a clone of Syrah at all, but an unheard-of French red grape called Durif, you would have thought the world had ended. To make matters worse, subsequent DNA research has discovered that vines identified as "Petite Sirah" were, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, actually a group of three more varieties--Syrah, Peloursin (an obscure Alpine grape and along with the noble Syrah, a parent of Durif), and, astonishingly, Pinot Noir!
This seemed to horrify the wine world. Was this seemingly noble wine an interloper into the high-minded varieties of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhine? Just as Americans were beginning to get a grasp on wine appreciation in big numbers, the rug was pulled out.
When phylloxera hit California vineyards in the 1980s, It gave nervous vintners an excuse to yank out their old Petite vines and replant them with Merlot, or something trendier. Petite Sirah fell off wine consumers' radars, and the varietal became more of a niche curiosity than a vital member of essential wines to drink.
But wait. If, say, grapes that make timeless wines in their respective European homelands fail to make equally compelling wines in the New World, why can't the opposite be true, as is the case with Chenin Blanc and Riesling? Grape varieties of little consequence in Europe might be able to thrive in the lower latitudes and unique terroirs of California.
In the case of Petite Sirah, I think that's true.
And given wine consumers' penchant for dark, rich, heavy red wines, Petite may be close to perfect for our wine-is-wine culture. It certainly bears taking a fresh look at the variety, especially to see how its winemaking has evolved after all its challenges.
It takes a special breed of premium winemaker to champion a variety that has suffered the indignities that have plagued Petite Sirah (and Merlot, for that matter.) True believers who have always championed the variety--Ridge Vineyards of Santa Cruz Mountains, Stags' Leap Winery and Biale Vineyards of Napa Valley, Guenoc of Lake County and Field Stone of Sonoma come to mind--are being celebrated with a ZAP-like advocacy organization called P.S. I Love You.
Producers new and old are now making notable wines from Petite Sirah, and there is increasing attention to the variety in other parts of New World winemaking, most notably Australia, Mexico and South America.
As our recent tasting revealed, there is a real there there when it comes to Petite Sirah. Here are a few places to begin your discovery.
For five generations of farming in Lodi, the Maggio family has been selling its grapes. Then, a few years ago, the Oak Ridge Winery honored the family with its own label for its own wines. The Maggio Petite Sirah is a solid wine for weekday consumption. Dark blood-red appearance, woodsy aromas of ripe fruit. On the palate, the wine has sweet, ripe fruit flavors with fairly good acidity to balance. Uncomplicated, but substantial, it is a perfect confluence of fun and value. I'd like to try this again with a stick of salami and juicy burgers hot off the grill.
$8.99 per bottle
The Line 39 project (the latitude line through Northern California wine country) has given us wines of great value, making Best Of lists for over a decade. The first--and I think best--value for me has always been the outstanding Petite Sirah. With grapes coming from the Central Coast, Lodi and Madera, this super-bargain is a dark ruby-colored, intensely fruity wine with notes of blackberries followed by firming tannins. Bright and fresh tasting, it passes the most important test; after drinking, you want more! Grab some cheeses or serve with a juicy steak.
$9.99 per bottle
Petite Sirah is something of a misnomer: there is nothing petite about it, and it is distinct in flavor from its’ parent, Syrah. Named for the tiny berries with a high skin to juice ratio, Petite Sirah grapes make a dark, inky-brilliant fuschia wine bursting with bold flavors. Winemaker Adam Lazarre describes this powerhouse ‘Gladiator’ best: “… a particularly dark, brooding wine with aromatics of boysenberry and blueberry tied together with sweet cedar and vanilla notes from the new oak. Plum, blackberry, and other black fruit flavors up front. The tannins are pretty immense but the depth of lush fruit on the mid-palate mitigate any perception of astringency. The result is a mouth-filling expression of dark fruits that wrap around the tongue and coat the whole mouth. This is a wine that will stain your soul.” Perfect for winter. Perfect with bacon cheeseburgers, beef tenderloin, and cave-aged gruyere.
$10.99 per bottle
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$13.99 per bottle
The San Simeon label was created by the historic Los Angeles San Antonio winery for its Paso Robles vineyards. Over the past several years, the family winery has produced solid, affordable varietals from its plush fruit. This delicious Petite Sirah is an example. I couldn't get over it magnificent, very rich aroma. Couldn't wait for what came next. At first sip you are greeted with expansive, mouth-filling fruit, a velvet blanket of a wine with drying tannins in the finish.
$16.99 per bottle
If you like BIG but balanced red wines, you MUST try this wine. Full bodied and bold, this Petite Sirah remains well balanced, juicy and fresh despite its full-throated power. Teeth-staining dark purple in the glass, it has bold, bright aromas of dark berries with a hint of spice. There are oodles of bold, juicy, fresh berry flavors and enough natural acidity to give it a balance that is astonishing given the 15.6% alcohol. It goes down easy so be forewarned. AA
$16.99 per bottle
Chris Costales was impressed by this organically-grown wine after discovering it sitting at a wine bar. He admired the opaque, magenta-rimmed appearance, the perfect integration of oak and fruit in the aroma, and the velvety mouthfeel until the tannins kicked in in the finish. Lou Preston began his now biodynamic and organic vineyard over 45 years ago, and vintage after vintage has quietly been producing admirable Zinfandels and powerful Petite Sirahs like this one for decades.
$31.99 per bottle
Robert Biale descended from two previous generations of Napa Valley grape growers, specializing in Zinfandel. It wasn't until 1991 that Robert Biale winery was established specializing in two varietals that have a unique relationship to California: Zin and Petite Sirah. Ever since, Biale's name is mentioned whenever the subject of elite producers of either varietal is mentioned. Sampling "Royal Punishers" with its glass-staining, rich, dark appearance and its toasty herbaceousness in the aroma, you just begin to realize Biale's position in the Petite Sirah firmament. Densely flavored, bold, fruity flavors of blackberries with a take-no-prisoners posture. The drying tannins are bold. This 14.8% powerhouse begs for pork shoulder, pot roast or a fatty charred steak.
$45.99 per bottle