We met Petite Sirah, a black-skinned, ebullient, robust, misunderstood grape last week. (Read part one here).
The grape was first created in France in 1880 by a grape botanist and breeder named Dr. Francois Durif, who created it from a seed of the rare French variety Peloursin, crossed with pollen from Syrah. California fell in love—then out of love—with Petite Sirah in the 20th century.
But winemakers in the 21st century are crushing on Petite Sirah in a whole new way. The acreage of Petite Sirah in California has risen steadily in the past two decades, and is currently at more than 12,000 acres, and growing.
As more adventurous drinkers are seeking out lesser-known varieties and wines, Petite Sirah is finding a new market niche. Recently, I sampled several Petite Sirahs across a variety of AVAs in California, and I was thrilled by the diversity of flavor. I reached out to their makers to find out how and why they first fell for this big bold grape, and why, in addition to being just generally delicious, it may offer hope for winemakers on the lookout for grapes that thrive in challenging weather.
The wine: Berryessa Gap Vineyards, Winters, Yolo County. The wine is light, bright, but sultry. Flavors of black cherry and purple violets dance on the tongue, with notes of black and blueberry, cigar box, and tobacco. Pair with Miles Davis, chicken in mole sauce.
The why: Winemaker Nicole Salengo attributes the softer side of Petite in her expression to the hot days, cool nights, her decision to pick early, and the fact that its planted and co-fermented with Petite’s parent, Peloursin, and Syrah. “It’s the only field blend we make here and the Peloursin and Syrah add perfume, purple fruit characters, red fruit and floral components.” She sees Petite as a powerful ally in the fight against climate change. “It really likes the heat, and the tight clusters, small berries, and thick skins are all conducive to standing up to warmer climates.”
The wine: Trentadue Winery, Geyserville, Sonoma County. The 2017 Trentaude La Storia Petit Sirah is classic Petite Sirah. It has a stunningly effusive nose, with its flavors of blueberry and blackberry on steroids. Its texture is velvety and robust with tannins that engage but don’t overpower. With air, earth, chocolate, vanilla come through. Pair with Jane Austin novels and butter-roasted portobello mushrooms.
The why: Trentadue’s oldest patch of Petite was planted in 1896, and since 1969, the winery has been releasing single-varietal bottlings, winemaker Miro Tcholakov says. He embraces Petite in the purest sense—working to tease out notes of blackberries, blueberries, plums and violets—by focusing on blocks that are 15 to 20 years old, aggressively head-pruning, picking early and doing “gentle extractions during fermentation to keep tannins under control.” Miro also sees a big future for Petite, noting that during a recent visit to France, wineries in the AOC Hermitage were buzzing about reintroducing Petite Sirah as the region is becoming increasingly too warm for Syrah.
The wine: Davis Estates Vineyards, Calistoga, Napa Valley. The 2015 Phase V Petite Sirah is precise, fearless, shimmering with notes of plum, blackberries, bacon, violet and smooth, supple tannins. Pair with Puccini and roasted rack of lamb.
The why: Everything Davis does is done with forethought and élan. The spectacular estate features wine caves with an octagonal room set within the Vaca Mountains. With just 5,000 cases in production annually, each bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and yes, Petite Sirah is grown and crafted with pride. Davis wines are not inexpensive (they range from $35 to $300 with the Phase V line hovering in the top tier), but they always overdeliver.
The wine: Stanton Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa Valley. The 2017 Petite Sirah has operatic flavors of blackberry, black pepper, mocha, with chewy tannins. Pair with Lord Byron poems and a rare steak.
The why: Doug Stanton started growing grapes, and in the 1990s, began selling Merlot grapes to Stags’ Leap. “The best wine they made in my opinion was their Petite Sirah,” Doug says. “The winemaker at the time was Robert Brittan. At that point we were replanting, and I asked if they’d give me a preplant contract for Petite Sirah. They agreed and supplied the budwood, and we’ve been selling them our Petite Sirah ever since.” In 2004, he produced his first vintage himself, just 25 cases. He recruited legendary winemaker (then a rising star) Dave Phinney, who taught him “a lot about patience in terms of maturity. Having complete control over the growing is essential as in my opinion, it is one of the hardest varieties to grow well. It has a tendency to want to overproduce, so cropping is key, and its large tight clusters mean you are always fighting bunch rot.”
The wine: Larkmead Vineyards, Napa Valley. The wine? TBD, but the team is pretty excited. Last year, Larkmead announced that it is dedicating three acres of the estate to be planted with California heritage varieties, including Petite Sirah and Mediterranean grapes like Aglianico, Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional, in a bid to grapple with climate change.
The why: Larkmead is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and is thinking deeply about the future, winemaker Dan Petroski says. “We’ve had Petite Sirah planted at the Larkmead estate twice over our 125-year grape growing history, and we are looking forward to our third go-round,” he says. “In the last two decades as we have established Cabernet’s quality at Larkmead, we are beginning to realize that some of the things we love about Cabernet—its deep, blue fruit flavors and aromas, it’s intensity and structure—may be threatened as our micro-climate changes. So, our decision to plant Petite Sirah in our grape variety research block is two-fold, first a nod to our past and the realization that Petite Sirah is a warm-weather variety and was planted at Larkmead at the wrong time (the time is now); and, second, because Petite Sirah is a proven grape variety in California’s warmer Central Valley where it produces wines of similar flavor and phenolic character of Cabernet, and thus will translate well as a blending variety in our Cabernet-based wines for many years to come.”
Petite Sirah is that unusual (but increasingly less rare) grape that is at once distinctive, and also a complete chameleon. Like a great performer, Petite Sirah can channel the most minute variations in climate and terroir, while still remaining itself, to the core. PS, I love you too, in all of your roles, especially when you’re the star of the show.