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Syrah vs. Sirah: Is There a Difference?
Within the last couple of years, more and more bottlings of California Syrah have entered the marketplace, making a very small dent in the amount of shelf space allotted to Cabernet Sauvignon and other red wines.
Early on, this new-to-California varietal was a hard sell to consumers who weren't already fans of the wines from the Rhone Valley in France, where Syrah has been growing for hundreds of years on the hillsides along the Rhone River from Vienne to Valence.
In the northern Rhone Valley, Syrah is used to produce the fabulous Hermitage and Cote Rotie reds, reputedly the "manliest of all wines." In the southern Rhone, Syrah provides the backbone for the Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends, which contain not only Syrah, but also Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault, plus several other varieties unfamiliar to most Americans.
In youth, French Syrah is spicy, fruity, sometimes smoky and meaty, and shows plenty of tannin. Slow to age, at maturity the wine can display incredible layers of flavor and complexity, a smooth, silky texture and wonderfully spicy aromas that sometimes include violets and rose petals. The flavors revolve around blackberries and black plums, freshly cracked black pepper and an almost indescribable "animal" element that can resemble saddle leather and raw red meat.
California vintners and growers have every expectation that the Syrah they plant here will produce wines as good as, if not better than, their French counterparts. They base their hopes on California's Mediterranean-like climate for vineyards which, in general, mirrors the dual-climate conditions of the Rhone Valley -- our cool appellations near the coast resemble the cooler, "continental" growing area of the northern Rhone, and our warmer inland growing areas come close to Southern Rhone conditions.
So far, California Syrah bottlings generally reflect the same characteristics based on climate as their French counterparts, with pronounced black pepper, green olive and spice aromas appearing in wines from cooler regions and raspberry-red cherry and earthy notes in Syrahs from warmer regions.
Almost 500 acres of producing Syrah vines now exist in California, plus another 270 acres planted but not yet in production. Compared to more than 24,000 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is just a drop in the bucket. But, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is found in all of the state's major wine growing regions -- from Mendocino in the north to Santa Barbara County in the south. And therein lies its potential.
In the early 1990s, one would have been hard pressed to find more than six or seven varietally labeled California Syrahs. Today, more than twenty wineries produce Syrah, and additional Syrah acreage is planted every year.
With the emergence of Syrah as a delicious alternative to Cabernet and Zinfandel, some consumers inadvertently confuse it with Petite Sirah, a wine made from grapes grown under that name in California since at least the late 1800s.
While Syrah and Petite Sirah are both Rhone grapes, they are not related. French viticulturists who examined California's Petite Sirah plantings in the 1970s told the growers that what they had was definitely not Syrah, but rather a grape called Durif (sometimes spelled "Duriff"), an unpopular variety grown in tiny quantities in the Midi of southeastern France and which was named after a Dr. Durif, who first propagated the grape around 1880 in the Rhone Valley.
It's probably not that simple, what with a hundred years or more of growing in California vineyards in among Zinfandel, Carignane and Mourvedre (which is also called Mataro). The possibilities for clonal distinctions developing from such interplanting over time are pretty good.
In fact, Lou Foppiano, whose Foppiano Vineyards has always treated Petite Sirah with the greatest respect, says that "Current research at the University of California, Davis, indicates that at least three entirely different varietals are going by the name 'Petite Sirah.'" The identities were determined by DNA testing. Foppiano goes on to state that
"It is now known that of the five accessions of 'Petite Sirah' in U.C. Davis' own vineyards, one may be Duriff, while the other two are definitely not Duriff. Similar findings have been discovered in commercial Petite Sirah vineyards, including Foppiano's estate vineyards."
The confusion gets a little deeper when the winery chooses to spell "Sirah" as "Syrah." In California, "Petite Syrah" is the same wine as "Petite Sirah," and shouldn't be confused with "Syrah." In France, although I hesitate to mention it, growers distinguish between Grosse Syrah and Petite Syrah, the latter being the better grape, and both being true Syrah. This may be one of the causes of the mislabeling in California.
Petite Sirah used to be one of California's most popular wine grapes. In 1978, at the height of its popularity, more than 14,000 acres were planted to the varietal in most of the state's wine-growing regions, with major concentrations in Monterey and San Joaquin counties, and significant acreage in Napa and Sonoma. By 1994, the figure had dropped to 2,481 acres. The good news is that most of the remaining vines are old, some over 80 years of age, with low yields which result in intense fruit. More than 50 California wineries make Petite Sirah, some of which do so with great enthusiasm.
When treated with some respect (instead of being used simply as a blending grape for a generic red wine), Petite Sirah produces a very dark, almost inky wine that tends to be massive, tannic and long lived. It's similar to Syrah in flavor, but usually exhibits heartiness in place of Syrah's elegance.
One other element in the Syrah-Petite Sirah confusion is "Shiraz," which is what the Australians call their Syrah, so named after the city of Shiraz in ancient Persia where the vine is believed to have originated. Shiraz and Syrah are synonymous, and until recently, Shiraz was the most widely planted red grape "Down Under," making Australia a Syrah lover's paradise. Geyser Peak's Australian-born winemaster, Daryl Groom, labels the winery's best Syrah as Shiraz, and thus has added the name to California's wine vocabulary.
So, let's recap: Syrah and Petite Sirah (or Petite Syrah) are not made from the same grape; and Shiraz is the same wine as Syrah, but with an Australian attitude.
Once one gets the nomenclature sorted out, the thought occurs whether it's possible to detect a difference in a blind tasting of California wines called Petite Sirah (or Petite Syrah), Syrah and Shiraz. That's what the Vintners Club wanted to know when it put together just such a tasting last fall. Five of the twelve wines were labeled "Syrah," four "Petite Sirah," two "Petite Syrah" and one labeled "Shiraz." Prices ranged from $7 to $30.
When one considers that Syrah is considered a "noble" or classic red varietal (right up there with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot), while Petite Sirah is less highly regarded, the results were somewhat surprising.
Two of the top six wines were not Syrahs. Fourth place went to a 1991 reserve Petite Sirah "La Grande Petite" from Foppiano Vineyards ($20) and the sixth-place wine was a 1992 Vintner's Select Petite Syrah from David Bruce Winery ($8.50).
What this suggests is that well-made Petite Sirah can be as appealing as true Syrah, especially to tasters who appreciate a generous and robust red wine. For those who look for elegance, the choice is still Syrah.
A word of advice about serving any Rhone-style wine: Decant the wine from the bottle and allow it to "breathe" for at least an hour before drinking. This will allow the fruit to open up for better aromas and flavor.
1993 Geyser Peak Reserve Shiraz, Alexander Valley ($30)
No surprise here. Winemaster Daryl Groom made Australia's greatest wine, Penfolds Grange Hermitage, a legendary Syrah/Shiraz now sold without the word "Hermitage" on the label, from 1985 through 1989, after which he took over winemaking duties at Geyser Peak. One of the first things Groom did in his new job was to arrange the planting of 30 acres of Syrah in an estate vineyard in the Alexander Valley. The first Syrah, from the 1991 vintage, was released in 1993 and was called Syrah on the front label and Shiraz on the back label. Groom was sufficiently proud of the '93 Reserve Syrah to dub it Shiraz.
Blended with 10 percent Malbec, 8 percent Petite Sirah and 2 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, this reserve is an elegant wine offering attractive aromas of tobacco leaf, ripe strawberry and blackberry fruit and a hint of leather. Round, soft and smooth on the palate, the delicious flavors replicate the nose. Fine balance.
1993 Swanson Syrah, Napa Valley ($30)
Full-bodied and concentrated, showing lots of spice, vanilla, fresh cherry-berry fruit and an intriguing green olive note in both the flavors and nose, which is accented by smoky oak, anise, lavender and chocolate. There's plenty of oak here, but it complements the fruit, rather than intruding. A delicious wine with medium tannins and good aging potential.
The grapes for this Syrah came from the Schmidt Ranch Vineyard which, until the 1991 harvest, was the source for Sean Thackrey's celebrated "Orion" Syrah. Thackrey found a replacement source in the much older Rossi Vineyard in St. Helena for his 1992 release, which he calls a "Orion, Old Vines, California Native Red Wine" because of the field-blend nature of the vineyard's varietal make-up.
1993 Zaca Mesa Syrah, Zaca Vineyards, Santa Barbara County ($13)
Modeled after the traditional Cote Rotie wines of the northern Rhone Valley, this is the first American Syrah to contain just a touch (5%) of Viognier, a white grape, in the blend. The Syrah contributes rich flavors of cassis, black cherries, green olive and black pepper, while the Viognier adds an exotic note of flowers, tangerine and lychee. The overall effect is a sturdy, yet elegant, wine with excellent complexity and balance. A real bargain at $13 that beats the French at their own game.
1991 Foppiano Reserve Syrah "La Grande Petite," Napa Valley ($20)
This was the darkest wine in the group, almost inky black and opaque, which suggested a wine of massive concentration and depth. It is that, certainly, and delicious, too. Deep, jammy aromas of ripe blackberries, green olive herbaceousness and spicy oak are accented with a touch of warm earthiness. And the flavors! Opulent blackberry, current and cherry fruit mingled with lots of freshly cracked black pepper plus licorice, green olive and cedar notes. A chewy and assertive wine with big, though moderated, old-style Petite Sirah tannins. A magnificent titan of a wine!
If this style of wine appeals to you, grab this bottling if you find it, for it is the last hurrah from a 75-year old Petite Sirah vineyard in the Napa Valley. Shortly after the 1991 harvest, this venerable vineyard was plowed under to make room for housing -- an infamous crime for which the developers should have been boiled in oil (unless, of course, the vineyard was lost to phylloxera before the developers got their hands on it).
Ninety-eight-year old Foppiano Vineyards has been one of the major proponents of Petite Sirah throughout its history, having planted the varietal on its Russian River Valley estate when the winery was founded. Foppiano publishes a quarterly "Petite Sirah Report," which offers ongoing news and information on the varietal. To receive the issues at no charge, write to: "The Petite Report," P.O. Box 606, Healdsburg, CA 95448, or telephone LeftBank Communications at (415) 389-0177; Email: email@example.com.
1993 Cambria Syrah, Tepusquet Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($30)
Shy cherry-berry fruit, peppery spice and tobacco leaf define the nose, which opens with airing. Tarry and brambly in the mouth, exhibiting ripe, plumy blackberry fruit and dusty herb (sage) flavors. A rustic style of Syrah with excellent acidity that will improve with a few years of bottle age. Right now it needs grilled red meat, the rarer the better.
1992 David Bruce "Vintner's Select" Petite Syrah, California ($8.50)
Very aromatic, almost flowery, nose offering scents of lilac and orange blossoms mingled with spicy cassis, blackberries, smoky oak and a hint of old leather. Exuberant and supple on the palate, with jammy berry-cassis fruit that pushes the ripeness envelope and a hint of mint, plus a note of tobacco leaf in the finish. A lot of wine for the money. Best now with rustic cuisine, such as barbecued steak grilled over grape cuttings.
1993 Guenoc Petite Sirah, North Coast ($7)
Forward, appealing scents of cherry-berry fruit, rose petals, anise, black pepper, mint, vanilla and smoke. Full bodied and slightly hot, the wine offers deep, ripe berry-cassis fruit, dark chocolate and peppery spice. A bold, take-no-prisoners-style of Petite Sirah that would be a great match for grilled steak, blackened foods or chili.
1991 Stags' Leap Winery Petite Syrah, Napa Valley ($18.50)
A rich and full bodied wine, offering generous blackberry and black cherry fruit, black pepper, mild spice and a hint of vanilla in both the nose and palate. Smooth and luscious with medium-full tannins.
Stags' Leap Winery considers itself a caretaker of one of the few remaining historical plots of Petite Sirah (they spell it "Syrah") in the Napa Valley. The foundation for the winery's 19 acres of Petite Sirah is a 5-acre plot planted in the 1930s, which contains at least three different clones of Petite Sirah, as well as rustic mixture of Carignane, Mission, Mourvedre and Burger.
1992 Joseph Phelps "Vin du Mistral" Syrah, Napa Valley ($22.)
Fragrant and appealing aromas of berry-cassis fruit, peppery spice, cigar box herbaceousness, warm earth, and vanillan oak. While it is 100% Syrah, the ripe, almost jammy flavors exhibit a fair amount of Grenache-like strawberry fruit along with cassis and black pepper. Medium-full to full tannins are a bit puckery now.
Joseph Phelps pioneered post-Prohibition commercial Syrah production in California when he released a Syrah in 1974 made from ten tons of grapes purchased from an experimental vineyard planted by Christian Brothers, which also provided Phelps with budwood for his own vineyard. The winery offers a full range of Rhone-style wines under its "Vin du Mistral" line, which include not only Syrah, but also Viognier, a peppery Grenache Rose and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend called "Le Mistral."
1993 Parducci Petite Sirah, California ($7)
Fruity nose of black cherries mingled with warm cinnamon-clove spice and a light dusting of black pepper. Smooth with medium body, the cherry berry fruit is buoyed by excellent acidity. A mouthwatering and delicious wine in a lighter style, with a pleasant vanilla finish. Best paired with roasted turkey or pork.
1992 Ridge Petite Sirah, York Creek Vineyard, California ($18)
Intriguing aromas of ripe blackberries and strawberries with notes of rose petals, black pepper, tar and leather. Rustic and tannic on the palate offering brambly fruit of considerable depth. This is an old-style Petite Sirah to enjoy now with hearty fare and has potential to deepen and develop over the next eight to ten years.
1992 Meridian Syrah, Home Vineyard, Paso Robles ($14)
Plenty of ripe blackberry fruit here, but some tasters found a bit too much green olive-eucalyptus herbaceousness in the nose and palate. Smooth and silky in the mouth offering raspberry-cranberry flavors and elevated acidity, although it seemed to fade with airing.
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.