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Bold and Flavorful Petite Sirah

by Steve Pitcher

People who love BIG RED WINE have a passion for Petite Sirah, a wine with an incongruous name, since it certainly isn't petite and not quite syrah and probably not even sirah. But while the nomenclature is somewhat confusing, Petite Sirah's ardent fans cheerfully overlook such technicalities and revel in the wine's honest, teeth-staining fruit and robust tannins. There is, in fact, an enduring enthusiasm for this wine that borders on fanaticism. According to winemaker David Jones of Lava Cap Winery in the Sierra Foothills, "we sell out of our limited-production Petite Sirah within a week of release. It's a cult item."

His sentiments are echoed throughout the Northern California wine country by producers who include lovingly crafted, varietal Petite Sirah in their product line. Says Ehren Jordan, winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars in St. Helena, which allocates by numbers of bottles, rather than cases, its massively proportioned, vineyard-designated Zinfandels and "Petite Syrahs" (their nomenclature) to a clamoring throng of buyers on its customer list, "the Petites are always the first to sell out, not just because there's less of it than our Zinfandel, but basically because the same people come back vintage after vintage wanting as much of the Petite as they can get, even at $25 and $30 and more a bottle."

Turley Wine Cellars has 1997 Petite Sirah in barrel from three old-vine vineyards -- Aďda, Rattlesnake Acres and Hayne. Never inexpensive (the 1996 Hayne Vineyard Petite cost $38), the Turley Petites are truly dramatic, monumental wines: purple-black in color and massively proportioned, yet still balanced in every detail. Jordan says the trick to keeping the tannins under control is "lots of racking and aerative pump-overs." The 1997 Hayne Vineyard Petite is the darkest of the three with an intense nose of black raspberries and white pepper, accented by a loamy earthiness. The dark berry fruit is enormous, simply breathtaking, reminiscent of a newborn Hermitage. The other two barrel samples are almost as massive, but show more black than white pepper spice. Any one of these teeth-staining, brawny titans would satisfy the most demanding Petite Sirah aficionado. There's a waiting list, of course. Telephone (707) 963-0940; fax (707) 963-8683.

Origins of Petite Sirah

Ever since a grape called petite sirah first appeared in California vineyards in the 1880s, it has been masquerading under an alias. As one might expect, the grape's origins lie in the Rh┘ne region of southeastern France, which was, and remains, the home of syrah, the noble varietal that is the basis for Hermitage and C┘te-R┘tie. There, in the early 1880s, a nurseryman named Dr. Durif, who propagated grape clones for the wine industry, noticed that a new vine had been created quite fortuitously in his nursery as the result of the crossing of two varietals in his care. A grape cross happens when the flower of the "mother" vine is brushed with pollen from the "father" vine. The new winegrape, which Durif named after himself, was important for his purposes primarily because it demonstrated resistance to downy mildew, a fungal disease that had been causing widespread damage to European vineyards since before 1878.

While durif (sometimes misspelled "duriff") may have been mildew resistant, it never impressed the French with its wine, which accounts for the fact that today it is virtually nonexistent there. Nevertheless, a nursery imported it into California in the mid-1880s and gave it the coined name "petite sirah," which was a variation of "petite syrah," a name used by vignerons in the northern Rh┘ne for true syrah.

In short order durif, alias petite sirah, became immensely popular with growers and winemakers because of its excellent blending qualities, important in a wine industry focused on producing "Burgundy" blends rather than varietally labeled wine. Its inky color, intense, peppery flavor and substantial tannins were ideal for pepping up even the palest and most spineless wines. By the turn of the century, petite sirah rivaled the two most popular winegrapes, zinfandel and mourv╦dre (called mataro in California) in range and acreage, and it was often interplanted in zinfandel and mataro vineyards to enhance popular field-blend wines.

Until just recently, the identity of the two varietals Dr. Durif had crossed for his eponymous varietal was the subject of considerable confusion and speculation in California. In 1974, French ampelographers -- experts at identifying and describing vine species -- examined California plantings of petite sirah and identified them as durif. In ensuing years, research into the true nature of the varietal proceeded under the direction of Dr. Carole P. Meredith, a renowned grape geneticist at the University of California at Davis. However, it wasn't until 1997 that a combination of state-of-the-art DNA "fingerprinting" or typing and physical examination of old vine petite sirah plantings in Mendocino vineyards provided the tools to positively identify the true nature of petite sirah.

Petite Sirah's Parents

According to Dr. Meredith, "petite sirah in California is almost all durif. Nine vines out of ten of what we call petite sirah is durif; the tenth vine is peloursin, a varietal from the south of France, not necessarily the Rh┘ne. When looked at side by side in the vineyard, it's very difficult to tell durif from peloursin, but DNA testing will distinguish the two." But then, what is durif? "The DNA testing," Dr. Meredith explained, "shows that durif is a cross of peloursin and true syrah. Peloursin is the mother and syrah is the father." She cautions, however, that old-vine petite sirah vineyards often contain a dozen or more oddball vines, the consequence of the once-popular practice of making field-blend wines. In addition to durif and peloursin, onecan occasionally stumble across some beclan, carignane, mourv╦dre, grenache, mondeuse and alicante, among others. Some or all of these grapes could be used to make a wine called Petite Sirah.

Decanting and Breathing Time Crucial

Some maintain that Petite Sirah may become mellow with age, but not gain much complexity. This opinion may have been formed by tasting wines that had not been properly decanted and allowed at least a couple of hours to breathe before evaluation. Decanting and extending airing are crucial to enjoying Petite Sirah, whether young and full of intensity in all its elements, or older and still sleepy and semi-conscious after its hibernation. Especially with older Petites, because the wine is so darkly colored when young, it throws a lot of sediment over time -- much of it quite fine -- which can obscure the complexity that's usually there.

The Mechanics of Decanting

The essential first step in decanting is standing the bottle upright for at least a day, longer if possible. This causes the sediment to sink to the bottom, where it's concentrated around the edge of the circumference by the punt, that thumb-like indentation pushed up from the bottom of the bottle, which in this case does have a function beyond the cosmetic effect of making a 750 ml bottle look bigger and more impressive. Next, while keeping the bottle upright, cut the capsule and slowly remove the cork -- a Screwpull does this best. Then, position a light below the upper portion of the bottle -- either a candle or bare light bulb -- and pour the wine slowly into a carafe, stopping when heavy sediment begins to show in the bottle neck. Discard the remaining wine. A tiny amount of wine will be lost this way, but it's a necessary sacrifice to obtain sediment-free wine. "Double decanting" is employed if bottle display is important. Just before serving, fill the bottle about half-full with warm water, cover the opening and shake it vigorously to remove any film on the sides. After disposing of the water, pour the wine back into the bottle, using a clean funnel to avoid spillage. Voilř, your Petite Sirah is now ready to drink.

Varietally Bottled Petites

Concannon Vineyard's 1961 Petite Sirah from the Livermore Valley was the very first bottling of the varietal, its release followed a couple of weeks later by Lee Stewart's 1961 Petite Sirah under the Souverain Cellars label.

As of 1997, there were approximately 2,700 bearing and nonbearing acres of petite sirah in California. Most of this is in the Central Valley, where a little more than 800 acres are planted to the varietal. Monterey County comes next with just over 400 acres, followed by Napa Valley (328 acres), Mendocino County (320 acres) and Sonoma County (268 acres). Alameda County, home to Concannon Vineyards and the Livermore Valley, boasts 62 acres and Sierra Foothill plantings total 27 acres. Almost all of thepetite sirah vines are older than the state average, especially with all the replanting due to phylloxera. The best examples of varietally bottled Petite Sirah consistently come from Mendocino's interior valleys, Sonoma County, especially the Russian River Valley, the Napa Valley and the Livermore Valley.

More than 60 California wineries produce varietal Petite Sirah, some of which are confusingly labeled as "Petite Syrah." Nevertheless, it's the same varietal whether the label says Petite Sirah or "Petite Syrah."

At least a dozen producers are particularly famous for their Petites (or, as some winemakers refer to them, "Pets"), including some, such as Stags' Leap Winery, Foppiano Vineyards and Concannon Vineyards, which consider Petite Sirah to be their flagship wine.

The Vintners Club panel recently evaluated 12 Petite Sirahs from many California growing areas, including all the top names for this varietal. The vintages spanned 1994 to 1996, and prices ranged from $13.25 to $25. With so many "Pets" on parade, this tasting would be a Petite Paradise for the ardent fan.

While the French were never able to make good wine from petite sirah (a.k.a. durif), it's apparent that Californians are succeeding admirably in producing Petites that are bold and exciting in their youth, and complex and harmonious as cellar treasures.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1994 Stags' Leap Winery Petite Syrah, Napa Valley ($22)
Not to be confused with nearby Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, which is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags' Leap Winery is a 240-acre property along the Silverado Trail which boasts of 23 acres of estate petite sirah, including a 5-acre parcel that was planted in 1939. According to winemaker Robert Brittan, "the petite grapes grow in an area of the vineyard with lots of shale,a soil type of moderate to low vigor. Though the old vines are on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, they don't produce a lot of fruit at this point in their life cycle."

The 1994 Petite Syrah (their spelling) is blended with two percent each syrah and viognier and four percent carignane, and is a full-bodied, supple wine with lots of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, accented on the palate by hints of orange peel, hazelnut and mocha.

SECOND PLACE

1996 Lava Cap Winery Petite Sirah, Granite Hill, El Dorado ($25)
Fragrant, complex and appealing scents of blackberries, cedar spice, vanilla and a hint of black pepper are replicated on the palate, where the ripe blackberry fruit is particularly deep and concentrated, almost extracted. A peppery Petite withexcellent balance.

THIRD PLACE

1994 Guenoc Petite Syrah, California ($15.50)
Guenoc Winery in Lake County is particularly proud of its Petite Sirahs, and boasts that this 1995 offering was the winner of more gold medals and best-of-show awards than any other Petite anywhere. The meaty nose is redolent of bright cherry-blackberry fruit, chocolate and sweet new oak. Smooth, round and very drinkable with medium tannins, the sweet berry fruit shows hints of green olive, leading to a peppery finish.

FOURTH PLACE

1995 Foppiano Petite Syrah, Russian River Valley ($14)
Foppiano Vineyards in the Russian River Valley has been growing petite sirah since its founding in 1896 and bottling the wine as a varietal since 1966. General manager Louis M. Foppiano is fond of saying that his winery will "continue to make a Petite Sirah until my teeth turn purple." The winery publishes "The Petite Sirah Report" on a quarterly basis, providing all kinds of useful information and food-pairing tips. Subscriptions are free and available by contacting editor Tom Wark at P.O. Box 2017, Glen Ellen, CA 95442; telephone (707) 996-6492; fax (707) 996-6494; email is LFTBNK@AOL.COM.

The 1995 Foppiano Petite Sirah offers forward, appealing, smoky aromas of ripe blackberries, chocolate and spice. On the palate, the flavors fairly explode in a burst of boysenberries, black pepper, vanilla and clove, and are wonderfully concentrated and deep and backed by chewy, medium-full tannins. An impressive and delicious "in-your-face" style of Petite that cries out for a thick, juicy, mesquite-grilled steak.

FIFTH PLACE

1996 Fife Petite Sirah, Redhead Vineyard, Redwood Valley, Mendocino ($20)
This wine comes from the brick-red soils of the Redhead Vineyard, located 1200 feet above the floor of Redwood Valley on the Recetti Bench, known since before the turn of the century as one of the best places in the county to grow zinfandel and petite sirah. The Petite is concentrated, dramatic and typical of intense mountain fruit, suffused with extracted blackberry fruit and black pepper, accented by vanilla and warm spice. Big and generous with medium-full tannins that are ripe and smooth, the wine finishes long with a vanilla flourish.

SIXTH PLACE

1994 Concannon Petite Sirah Reserve, Livermore Valley ($20)
Petite Sirah pioneer Concannon Vineyard currently has two Petites on the market: 1995 Selected Vineyard Petite Sirah from the Central Coast ($10), which offers peppery raspberry fruit with plummy richness; and this fragrant, showy wine, the 1994 Reserve Petite Sirah from the Livermore Valley, which offers ripe, medium tannins, smooth textures and generous raspberry-boysenberry fruit that is almost Zinfandel-like. It's like biting into a berry pie fresh from the oven -- simply bursting with flavor.

SEVENTH PLACE

1996 David Bruce Petite Syrah, Shell Creek Vineyard, Paso Robles ($15.50)
Veteran winemaker David Bruce has been making Petite for three decades and currently markets two Petite "Syrahs" from Central Coast vineyards. Why this spelling? "Back in 1968," Bruce explains, "I saw a UC Davis professor and told him I wanted to make a Hermitage wine. He told me the syrah grape was probably the same as petite sirah. So it made sense to use the Y instead of the I in the spelling."

1996 David Bruce Petite Syrah from Shell Creek Vineyard in the Paso Robles growing area is very reminiscent of a northern Rh┘ne wine, from its inky-black color to its smoky, toasty nose of vibrant black fruits and blueberries enhanced by notes of red meat, black tea and dried sage. Explosively fruity in the mouth with similar flavors, this Petite is big and generous with medium-full tannins. The 1996 Central Coast Petite Syrah ($15) is quite similar, but just a bit less big and intense, offering lots of plum and wild berry plus some warm spice.

EIGHTH PLACE

1996 Rosenblum Cellars Petite Syrah, Kenefick Ranch, Napa Valley ($18)
Kent Rosenblum makes a luscious, almost elegant, but unmistakably varietal Petite Sirah from the Kenefick Ranch, an 80-year-old head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard at the foot of the Palisades Mountains in northern Napa Valley that yields less than half a ton per acre. The 1996 Rosenblum Kenefick Ranch Petite Sirah offers lots of ripe blackberry, pepper and vanilla, accented by black olives and exotic spice. Eminently drinkable now and absolutely delicious, it will certainly get even better with time.

NINTH PLACE

1996 Hidden Cellars Petite Sirah, Mendocino ($15)
Hidden Cellars winemaker Dennis Patton was one of many volunteers who took part in the vineyard examinations conducted by Dr. Meredith in the quest to solve the petite sirah mystery. "In the end," Patton recounts, "in-depth DNA profiles showed that Mendocino's old-vine petite sirah vineyards contained five petite sirah clones -- three of durif, one of peloursin and one really bizarre pinot noir clone."

Hidden Cellars currently markets two Petite Sirahs. Less massive is the 1996 Hidden Cellars Petite Sirah bearing a Mendocino appellation, which is quite fragrant with peppery blackberry, black cherry, bittersweet chocolate and vanilla scents, tinged with a dried herb note, and juicy and mouthfilling on the palate with medium-full tannins. It was blended with 12 percent Carignane and 2 percent Zinfandel. The 1995 Hidden Cellars "Mendocino Heritage" Petite Sirah, Eaglepoint Ranch, Mendocino ($25), which I tasted separately from the Vintners Club tasting, is made from 100 percent durif and offers intense, complex aromas of wild blackberries, dark plums and freshly cracked black pepper. Dense, chewy and tannic, this full-bodied giant replicates the flavors suggested by the nose, with the addition of smoked meat notes and sweet, toasty oak. This full-throttle wine and the Turley Hayne Vineyard Petite, discussed above, are soulmates.

TENTH PLACE

1995 Ridge Petite Sirah, York Creek Vineyard, Napa Valley ($20)
Ridge Vineyards has made Petite Sirahs from the York Creek Vineyard on Spring Mountain since 1971. Winemaker Paul Draper often ferments part of the wine with whole grape clusters added to the tank to enhance fruit, moderate the tannins and add complexity. The 1995 Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah exhibits intense berry character and plenty of black pepper plus notes of chocolate, cedar and leather, with substantial tannins for long ageing.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1995 Ravenswood Petite Sirah, Sonoma County ($13.25)
A full-bodied wine with medium-full tannins and loaded with ripe blackberry-black cherry fruit, cedar and warm spice, plus an intriguing hint of thyme. Complex, rich and delicious.

TWELFTH PLACE

1995 Christopher Creek Petite Sirah, Sonoma County ($18)
Still appearing quite young, with jammy, grapey scents accented by toasty oak. Very fruity in the mouth with medium-full tannins, it is comparatively one-dimensional in its black cherry-berry fruit, but tasty, nevertheless.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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