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.
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.