Poor Petite Sirah. For the longest time, no one knew of its origins. In fact, it has been confused with many other grapes, and because of the name, people have often grouped it with Syrah and assumed that Petite Sirah was simply a lighter version of its full bodied, peppery counterpart. These days, we know better. Through DNA testing, we now know that Petite Sirah is actually the offspring of Syrah: the Syrah grape was once crossed with another grape, called Peloursin (which is nearly identical to another varietal called Durif), to create the grape that we know as Petite Syrah. It is easy to see how the grape developed an identity crisis!
Its name should not fool you: just because the grape is called “petite” doesn’t mean that its flavors are small: Petite Sirah has the potential to be one of the most full bodied grapes. Its dark color, (sometimes compared to ink), and its dark fruit, plus its bold tannins and pepper flavor give the wine a unique and distinguished flavor.
Many wine professionals theorized that Petite Sirah was also the French variety known as Durif (which is nearly unrecognizable to its relative, Peloursin) crossed with Syrah. In the 1870s a French nurseryman, Dr. François Durif, propagated the grape trying for resistance to powdery mildew and named it after himself. Although he succeeded in producing a powdery mildew-resistant grape, they produced poor quality wines that were susceptible to bunch rot, and the grape never really took off.
Linda Vista Winery owner Charles Melver introduced Durif to California in 1884, planting cuttings of it and other French varieites at his Mission San Jose vineyard. It is believed he was the first to dub the variety “Petite Sirah”.
Historically, the majority of vineyards plantings identified as Petite Sirah were actually mixed varieties of a dozen or more distinct types, but often including grapes with confusingly similar characteristics, such as Durif, Peloursin, Zinfandel, and Syrah.
California and Australia lead the production of Petite Sirah, but it also produced in Isreal, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.
DNA fingerprinting shows that the majority of wines in California labeled “Petite Sirah” are actually Durif. Over 60 wineries in California grow over 6,000 acres of Petite Sirah. The first wineries 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” although the true spelling is “Petite Sirah”. Today it also grown in Mendocino, Sonoma, Lodi, Sonoma, Monterey, and the San Joaquin County, and it is predominantly a blending grape. I happen to love the wines from the Clarksburg and Healdsburg areas.
Viticulturalist Francois de Castella brought Petite Sirah to Australia in 1908 with Durif. Today it thrives in Victoria, where the grapes produces dark, inky wines with plumbs, firm texture and mouth feel, noted for their cellaring ability. They are also a prime contributor to some of the region’s outstanding vintage and tawny fortified styles. It is also grown in Riverina and Riverland.
Much like in California, Israel historically used Petite Sirah as a blending grape to add body to inferior wines. However, Petite Sirah has recently experienced somewhat of a revival, both in high-end blends and bottled as a single or majority variety. Winemaker and Ph.D. chemist Yair Margalit, (a fellow UCD alumn: Go AGS!) became familiar with the grape from his time in California, and has recently showed Israel wine lovers that Petite Sirah is deserving of recognition when he blended small portions into his reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Seeing that Israeli terroir could grow great Petite Sirah, wineries such as Recanati followed suit with Petite Sirah blends, while others like Sea Horse, Carmel, and Vitkin have made single-varietal Petite Sirah in addition to using it for blending.
Petite Sirah is often used to blend with Zinfandel for added complexity, body, and to tone down the tendency of Zinfandels toward “jammy” fruit.
Bottled on its own, Petite Sirah is high in tannin, incredibly dark and inky, with dark berry fruit and herb characteristics. Pepper, meaty characteristics, chewiness are common descriptors as well.
So why is it called petite? The name comes from the berries, which are very small. Because the berries are small, the ratio of skin to juice is much different than with other varietals, resulting in a high amount of tannins. At times, there can also be a chocolate aroma once the wine is placed in oak barrels.
Petite Sirah pairs well with most anything you would pair a Cabernet Sauvignon with: red meat, wild boar, hearty stews, and any braised dish (especially when the chefs use an ample amount of dried herbs).
Serve Petite Sirah at 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If the wine is young, make sure to decant it for an hour.
I enjoy the Bogle Petite Sirah (and old love from my days of being 21: still a great bargain and still delicious!), J. Runquist, and Tomero.