June 25, 2011 5 Comments
Zinfandel and Malbec, take a seat…the big dog has arrived. I hold in my hand a glass of Petite Syrah. This wine looks like red crude oil, weighs as much as a linebacker, blasts flavors like a blow torch and leaves some cotton on the roof of your mouth. Despite the name, there is nothing petite about Petite Sirah. It’s not a small version of the grape known as Syrah. And, for the record, the “i” you see me using isn’t a typo – but if you spell it with a “y” that’s ok as well.
So, if Petite Sirah is not petite and not Syrah, what is it? The grape is one of those vinous mysteries, solved CSI-style with the miracle of modern DNA testing in the U.C. Davis laboratory of Dr. Carole Meredith.
What we call Petite Sirah, it turns out, is a very old variety born and bred in the1870’s by a French Nurseryman named Dr. Francois Durif. It seems that the good doctor wanted to create a grape that had the flavor components of Syrah and the resistance to powdery mildew of a grape known as Peloursin. He crossed Peloursin and Syrah and named the resulting grape, like any proud father, after himself. Durif became a minor success, was planted in quite a few vineyards, and was used as a blending grape in Rhone Reds. But, alas, Durif never really became a major French varietal as it failed to produce high-quality, distinguished wines in the South of France.
Durif migrated to the United States in the 1890’s, where it fared somewhat better. Durif thrived in the California sun, was easy to grow and produced a high yield of four to eight tons per acre in the Sierra Foothills and Central Valley of California. In those days, Durif was a major player in the red blends of the Golden State. However, the name got lost along the way. In the early days of California wine making, most wines were field blends – wines made from a variety of grapes grown together in one vineyard with little regard to varietal pedigree. Later, when someone needed a name for the varietal, the grape was named “Petite Syrah” due to its Syrah-like flavor and the small size of the grape – the only possible explanation for the moniker “petite”.
Those small grapes grow in big clusters with very thick skins and high tannins. It was this thick skin that most likely enabled the varietal to survive what I like to call our national disgrace – American Prohibition.
During prohibition most vineyards were destroyed. Those that survived negotiated good contracts with the church (I can only imagine there was a huge increase in demand for sacramental wine in 1930), or were shipped around the country as “flavorings” or juice. Casks of wine grape “flavorings” from California were often shipped via slow-moving trains to New York and Boston with labels warning: “Do not allow juice to come in contact with two ounces of dried yeast…do not allow juice and yeast mixture to remain at room temperature for two weeks, do not stir mixture twice a day, and under no circumstances should you filter and chill the resulting liquid. Do not, at any time drink the resulting liquid because if you did it would be illegal.”
Due to its thick skins and high levels of tannin, Durif grapes held up well under the long, hot journey east and therefore, many of its vineyards survived. After prohibition ended, Durif, now known by the name “Petite Syrah” was widely planted in California and was often used to punch up flavor, body, and color in the ubiquitous red blends of the region. Rumor has it P.S. was a major player in Gallo’s well-known jug wine, “Hearty Burgundy”.
A good Petite Sirah has a deep red color, a hefty somewhat “rustic” feel and substantial but ripe tannins. Walk carefully around this wine…it can pack quite an alcoholic punch, sometimes reaching as high as 15%. In the bottom of the glass you will find rich fruity aromas including of sweet plum, blackberry, cherry, currant and cassis. Take a sip and you’ll notice the rich fruit flavors…I think this wine defines the term “jammy”. Go ahead and take another sip…look for the flavors of black licorice, chocolate, coffee, black pepper, vanilla, and cedar. This wine can be quite complex…you might also find aromas and flavors of herbs, violets, brown sugar, orange peel, clove, and cinnamon. It’s got a lot going on.
Petite Sirah is still grown inFrance, although like many a local celebrity, it was never much appreciated in its homeland. Australia has a few vines, as well as Argentina, Chile, Israel, and recently,WashingtonState. The one region to really take to Petite Sirah is California…wine producers there even have their own advocacy group called “P.S. I Love You” and aficionados call the wine by the affectionate nickname “Pets”. The grape is grown throughout California and does particularly well in the warmer regions of the Golden State such as Lodi and the Sierra Foothills. For my Texas readers, rest assured that since it thrives in hot climates and is mildew-resistant, Petite Sirah seems a natural match for Texas.
Here’s my all-time favorite:
Texas Legato Petite Syrah, Texas Hill Country, 2009 – This wine was the hit of the weekend the last time my entourage and I took a Texas Winery Road Trip. Rich and jammy with concentrated flavors of blackberry, chocolate, raspberry and black pepper, this wine paired beautifully with the Italian food we had for lunch. I and each and every one of my pals on the road trip took several bottles of this wine home, and it tasted just as good with my roast pork, my grilled steak, and by itself on my back porch.