Petite Sirah /
cultivated and labeled as Petite Sirah only in California, where the variety has many fans among consumers, the
true origin and even the proper identification of this grape was uncertain until late in 2003.
The majority of vineyards identified as Petite Sirah
were found to actually contain mixed varieties of a dozen or more distinct types,
but often including grapes with confusingly similar characteristics,
such as Durif, Peloursin, and Syrah.
over 3,200 acres of grapes identified as petite sirah were
planted in California as of year 2000. Although only a portion of these vineyards
have been surveyed, recent DNA evidence from research led by
Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis
has confirmed most plantings to be the same grape as durif.
About 10% however, may be either peloursin or béclan, which, observed in the field,
are practically indistinguishable from durif, even by expert
was long theorized that petite sirah was
the same as the lackluster French variety known as durif,
a cross of peloursin, yet another unremarkable variety,
with the true syrah. A French nurseryman, Dr. François
Durif, trying to breed natural resistance to powdery
mildew, in the 1870s, propagated the grape and named it after himself. The inability
of durif to produce distinguished, high quality wines in France
effectively nullified the value of its mildew-free attribute,
especially since the grape's compact clusters left this variety
particularly susceptible to bunch rot.
Linda Vista Winery owner Charles McIver introduced durif to California in 18841, planting cuttings of it and other French varieties at his Mission San Jose vineyard. He was most likely the first to call the variety "Petite Sirah".
Petite sirah was a popular grape during the period of National Prohibition, because its tough skins held up well for cross-country shipping to the "home" winemaking markets. After Repeal in 1933, petite sirah and alicante bouschet together made up more than 2⁄3 of all vineyard plantings in Napa Valley.
the 1940s, Larkmead and Louis Martini sold wines labeled "Duriff" and plantings in McDowell Valley were documented in 1948.
The fruit source for these wines was probably what later became
known as Petite Sirah. Most plantings of Petite Sirah were made
before the 1960s, when vintners were mainly concerned with producing
copious amounts of flavorful blends of generic "Burgundy". Wines
that showed sensory characteristics of specific varietal identity were of little consequence.
was the common practice during this time, with many varieties often interplanted.
As a result, few vineyards identified as petite sirah are "pure".
Vineyard blocks are often peppered with vines of alicante bouschet,
carignan, grenache, mourvèdre, the aforementioned peloursin and béclan,
or zinfandel. The reality therefore is that wines from these
vineyards labeled "Petite Sirah" to at least some degree are
blends, accidentally if not purposefully.
the nomenclature is similar and petite sirah is a true
offspring of syrah, the vines and grapes of parent and
child are quite different and distinct from one another and
these varieties should never be used synonymously. In April,
2002, the TTB
announced they will forthwith consider Petite Sirah and Durif
to be synonymous for use on wine labels.
Only one clone of petite sirah has been identified (FPS 03). Another older selection from Napa Valley is undergoing virus trials and therapy toward certification at UC testing facilities.
California plantings have increased to over 6,000 acres now and as
many as sixty wineries today produce varietal Petite
Sirahs. The first to do so were Concannon
and the original Souverain, both from the 1961 vintage. Some
vintners choose to spell it as "Petit Sirah", "Petite Syrah",
or "Petit Syrah" and , although this is no doubt intended to
provide some advantage in the marketplace, it merely serves
to confuse consumers and defer their attention. These variant
spellings are also used in other countries where the grape has
migrated: Argentina, Brazil and Mexico.
four to eight tons per acre, Petite Sirah is a fairly good producer.
The vines are sturdy and fairly long-lived and thrive in many
types of soil. The berries are somewhat prone to sunburn. Their
tight grape clusters are also subject to rot when damp or rained
upon. The grapes typically a ripen mid season, however, so this is not usually
a problem in California.
Sirah has long been an important blending grape, prized primarily
for its deep color and fairly intense tannin. It is the variety
most often chosen to blend into zinfandel for added complexity,
structure, and to tone down the tendency of zins toward "jammy" fruit. As a base wine or stand-alone varietal, vintners often introduce a small portion of white wine into Petite Sirah to calm the intensity with little effect on color.
its own, the appeal of Petite Sirah is more visceral than specifically-flavored. Usually high in pigment and tannin, young wines may show dark berry and plum fruit characteristics. On poor soils, when severely pruned and fully ripened, some black pepper spice may add to typical full body and meaty density. Mostly Petite Sirah can be described as "vinous" and, although agreeable,
pleasant, and sometimes delicious, not highly distinctive. Nevertheless,
wines made from Petite Sirah age slowly and can survive fairly
long cellaring of ten years or more.
SIRAH: A CELLAR LESSON
Among the Petite Sirahs that truly impressed me early
on, particularly the 1969, '71 and '74 vintages, were
those made by Freemark Abbey and Ridge, both sourcing
grapes from Napa's York Creek Vineyard on Spring Mountain.
Deeply fruited, with lavish richness and round, massive
tannins, each begged the question of cellaring potential
for this varietal.
to revive the memory, we followed our March, 2002, Petite
Sirah tasting (NOTES),
by opening a bottle of 1974 Freemark Abbey, recently acquired
from a well-kept private cellar. Although
not completely gone and still possessing considerable
tannin, the aroma was but a hushed whisper of black licorice;
the bouquet was sadly dominated by musty staleness; the
flavors also dull and dank.
savor our memories (...wistful sigh!) and be reminded
to review our personal cellar lists, with eyes open and
corkscrews at ready, prepared to spare any and all bottles
of more than a decade-old from similar fates.
1. It is likely that McIver at the same time imported peloursin and béclan, the other varieties sometimes planted in California vineyards that have been historically known as petite sirah.
Winemaker Dennis Fife has an article on the Fife
Winery site with much more detail about the identification
of this grape and its history in California: "What
Really Is Petite Sirah?" (in
I Love You is an organization of producers and consumers
whose mission is to advocate and promote appreciation of this
variety. Their web site includes news and events, Petite Sirah-matched
recipes, membership information, a historical time line of developments
significant to Petite Sirah and also a transcript of Dr. Carole
Meredith's speech to the First Petite Sirah Symposium, detailing
her findings on the grape's origin.
1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006
2. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998
3. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003
4. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996
5. Doris Muscatine, Maynard A. Amerine, Bob Thompson (ed), The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1984
6. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996
7. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010
8. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983