Petite Sirah: The Winemaker’s Wine Forges a New Path
Petite Sirah, black-skinned, ebullient, robust, misunderstood. 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.
It quickly made itself known with its striking color, tongue-coating texture, and the flavors of blackberry, chocolate, ripe plums, black pepper, smoked meat and wild sun-warmed blueberries that so often pervade it. Petite Sirah was introduced in California by Charles McIver in 1884, where it thrived for many years, until it fell out of favor. In 1976, about 14,215 acres of Petite Sirah flourished in California. Just 20 years later, in 1996, only 1,950 remained, and it was frequently used as a blending partner with Zinfandel, where its firm tannins provided structure for Zinfandel’s opulent fruit. It was rarely bottled solo, as its power overawed many.
Despite the cool reception Petite Sirah received by many members of the public, and winegrowers themselves, the grape had a hardcore fan club that embraced the very characteristics many shied away from. In 2002, wine marketers Jo Diaz and Louis Foppiano and Christine Wells of Foppiano Vineyards took matters into their own hands and created a nonprofit fan club for the grape in a bid to promote, educate and legitimize this underplanted powerhouse, and showcase its range of expressions in different terroirs across the sunshine state. It was dubbed, appropriately, PS I Love You.
Perhaps they’re excellent salespeople, perhaps the launch of PS I Love You happened at an auspicious time, or perhaps it’s a combination of those and other factors. Either way, the acreage of Petite Sirah in California has risen steadily, and is currently at 12,000+ acres, and growing.
Now, as more adventurous drinkers are seeking out lesser-known varieties and wines, Petite Sirah is coming into its own. 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: Theopolis Vineyards, Yorkville Highlands, Anderson Valley. The 2017 Estate Grown Petite Sirah is a more feminine and graceful iteration of Petite Sirah, with notes of raspberry, plum, toasted oak, cinnamon, and cola. Pair with Billie Holiday and a decadent platter of cheese and charcuterie.
The why: Theodora Lee, a senior partner and trial lawyer at Littler, is also the winemaker, sales chief, and box packer at the small-production (800 cases) Theopolis. She bought her five-acre vineyard in 2003, after falling in love with the former sheep farm, surrounded by redwoods. After consultations and tests, she discovered that Petite Sirah was the best grape to plant on her land, which has red clay-rich soil and sees long, hot triple-digit days in the summer and snow in the winter. Theodora explains that she aims to tease out the grape’s subtler side by focusing on the fruit, skipping Rhône-style whole-cluster ferments and picking early. She sees a lot of hope for the future of Petite amid more extreme weather, but more importantly, she sees hope for the future, during a time of deep sadness and strife for her fellow black Americans. “This has been a horrific few days,” she says, during a conversation as protests unfolded across the country. “But you know what? I see the possibility of change. My name as a black winemaker has appeared on several lists being shared on social media, and I’ve had the best sales this week than I’ve had in my entire career.”
PS Rock Star
The wine: Merisi Wines, Lake County. The 2017 Petite Sirah is a deep dive through the fruit bowl, with chocolate and savory notes of robust boysenberry, deep mocha, pepper, and lead pencil. An herbaceousness underpins the fruit, with savory notes of bacon and sage. Pair with Patti Smith and a burger.
The why: Winemaker and owner Mandy Heldt Donovan picked her patch of terroir for Petite Sirah “because it achieves some intensity from the heat—but with the cooling effect
from the lake, the fruit retains its acidity better than some sites, which I think gives this wine a particular restraint that’s not always associated with Petite.” She fell for the grape in the first place, she says, because it’s so tied to California’s history of grape-growing, and is also “remarkably adaptable and is able to thrive in a wide range of soils and climates that we have here in California, from Mendocino to Lodi.” Like many other winemakers, she thinks it will thrive on a warming planet. “The magic, I believe, is in those thick skins,” she says. “The heartiness of the skin protects it from moldpotential of the foggy, wetter coastal AVAs, whereas it can also withstand the heat spikes that we invariably get throughout the summer and through September. With ripeness, the fruit characteristics simply intensify but can retain their diversity rather than morph into a mono-aromatic style that we see occur sometimes in more of the Bordeauxvarieties.”
The wine: Stags’ Leap Winery, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. The 2016 Ne Cede Malis Estate Grown Petite Sirah has extraordinary tension and depth with aromas and flavors of blueberry, tart raspberry, mint, lavender, and freshly grated pepper, along with its velvety texture. Pair with Evelyn Waugh and a Cobb Salad, extra bacon.
The why: Stags’ Leap is one of the oldest estates in the District, having opened its stately doors in 1893. Winemaker Christophe Paubert believes that the Stags estate produces a Petite with “high aromatic brightness,” due to the relative age of its vines, one block of which was planted in 1929, and two others that are 38 years old. “Our estate produces the most powerful expression of all of the Petite Sirah we make, with deeper color, higher tannin concentration and greater aromatic intensity.” He sees Petite Sirah as being an adaptable variety, and with the right rootstock, it can be well-suited for dry farming because of its vigor.
The wine: Vincent Arroyo Family Winery, Calistoga, Napa Valley. The 2017 Vincent Arroyo Estate is a powerhouse: ripe black plum, baking spices, leather, cocoa nibs, with a subtle minerality that provides a lift of flavor. Pair this with Howlin’ Wolf and braised short ribs.
The why: The Arroyo family has been growing and making wine since 1974, first on their 23-acre Greenwood Ranch property, and now across 85 acres with 10 varieties under vine. From the beginning, Petite Sirah has been a family favorite. Matthew Moye (his father-in-law founded the winery), owner and winemaker, says their pocket of California produces particularly powerful Petites. “Calistoga is the warmest part of Napa, and we love Petite so much that we produce four. Our classic estate is the one we make the most of and is a blend of different blocks that we dry-farm,” he says. Matt sees Petite Sirah as a survivor, because its flavors are super intense, even when dry-farmed, or under severe stress and picked early. Plus, he sees the “Cabernet Sauvignon phenomenon,” which has dominated press and sales for years, lessening “as people seek out something different. Petite Sirah is a great grape.”
The wine: Kenefick Ranch, Calistoga, Napa Valley. The 2013 Kenefick Ranch Estate Petite Sirah shows the aging potential of this promising grape. Grown in volcanic soil with the area having a diurnal swing in temperatures from morning to overnight, these grapes, at almost 10 years old, are still delivering fresh red-black fruit, midnight chocolate cake flavors, and velvet-soft tannins. Pair with Bach and roast chicken. (Make a note for Thanksgiving: PS is a fantastic Turkey partner).
The why: Kent Jarman, Kenefick Ranch’s winemaker, says that their patch of land brings out the best in the grape. “Petite Sirah is one of our favorites to grow on the estate here,” Kent says. “The Calistoga area is typically one of the warmer regions of the valley, and the west-facing estate makes it a prime recipient of direct sunlight. The grapes’ canopy tends to hold up well in the heat and allows us proper canopy management to protect the clusters. The type of temperatures and exposure that we see out here brings the deeper fresher dark berry fruit components out in the thick-skinned varietal. This helps dilute some of the typically massive tannin impact in the wines, and really allows excellent tannin to balance the fruit palate.”