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“Petite” Wines are a Big Deal for American Winemakers

“Petite” Wines are a Big Deal for American Winemakers

Photo Credit: Vivino

John Ragan, MS, once hosted a series of training videos on the wines by the glass served in the restaurant group where I formerly worked. On the subject of a Washington State Petite Sirah he memorably remarked, “Nothing petite about it!” and thus began my fascination with petite grapes and the not-so-petite wines they produce.

Petite grape varieties such as Petit Manseng, Petite Sirah, and Petit Verdot are so named not because they result in subjectively delicate wines, of course. These monikers derive from their relatively petite berry structure; small but mighty grapes where a high concentration of both sugar and acid, and the ratio of skin to flesh, often result in massive wines that are contrary to the personalities their names evoke.

While these three grapes produce wines of diverse characteristics, they have more in common beyond just the size of their berries. First, all are not widely used or known for making varietal dry wines in their native France. Second, they have inspired a number of American producers around the country to do precisely that.

Petit Manseng: The Southeast’s Rising Star

Maya Hood White | Photo Credit: Early Mountain Vineyards

Jurançon, the southwestern French appellation whose primary grape is Petit Manseng, is  known more for its botrytized, sweet wines than its dry, Jurançon sec expressions. Not only humidity tolerant, but seemingly humidity-loving, the grape has found a spiritual home in the southeastern United States, where some believe it is poised to become the next great dry white after Viognier. 

Maya Hood White, head winemaker for Early Mountain Vineyards, believes the grape found its way to Virginia care of Dennis Horton, a pioneer of Virginia’s modern wine industry, who planted a wide array of grapes to see what could work in Virginia’s hot and humid climate. Not only did Petit Manseng stick, but it proved to be what some have referred to as bullet-proof.

“It’s a very scraggly looking grape and its open cluster is just not a hospitable environment for rot, so that’s already a plus,” Hood White says. “It has a decent amount of frost protection, and mildew doesn’t seem to be overly attracted to it. It gives a lot of sugar, but maintains a lot of acidity, too.”

Chuck Jones, co-owner of North Carolina’s Jones Von Drehle winery, notes that this unique combination of high sugar and high acid can make vinifying Petit Manseng a challenge, but is one to embrace in showcasing the wine’s distinct personality. “Care must be taken in deciding when to pick to avoid the wine being too hot,” he says, especially when dry wine is the goal, as is the case with most of the Petit Manseng seen in the U.S. “It’s a rare white wine with such an intriguing aroma and mouthfeel.” With no added sugar to offset high acid or alcohol, “we embrace taking it to the limit,” says Jones. “As one chef remarked upon tasting: ‘This is a red wine drinker’s ultimate white wine.’”

Hood White also points out all the ways Petit Manseng is ripe for experimentation, and really expresses the palate or signature of individual winemakers. “We’ll let it go through malo, which it holds really well. Maybe we’ll keep it on lees longer. We’ll co-ferment with reds. We’ll do a little bit of skin contact. We’ll make a lighter bodied blend with Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a single varietal bottling,” she says. “I always find myself occasionally getting paranoid, like Petit Manseng is too good to be true in certain ways.”

Petite Sirah: Some Like it Hot

Petite Sirah Grapes | Photo Credit: Wiens Cellars

Petite Sirah is to Durif what Zinfandel is to Primitivo, which is to say, it’s the same grape, thought to be a variety unique to California until DNA tests proved otherwise. Durif was developed in France near the Rhône Valley in the 1860s, a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, resulting in a spicy, tannic wine with a small berry structure. Unlike Petit Manseng or Petit Verdot, however, Petite Sirah never achieved notability in its native France, where it is now all but nonexistent. It has found a life in the U.S. and other countries, however, especially in hotter climate regions and among winemakers with something to prove.

“Some think anything with ‘petite’ in the varietal name is harder to grow,” says Brian Heath, owner of Texas Hill Country’s Heath Family Brands. “However, Petite Sirah has proven to stand up well to varying growing conditions, and is showing up more in Texas vineyards.” Joseph Wiens, director of winemaking for Temecula Valley’s Wiens Cellars, echoes this sentiment. “It’s well-suited to our [Southern California] climate, and we get pretty good crop loads,” he says. “It doesn’t have as much mildew pressure as some of the other varieties. All things considered, we find it a very easy variety to work with.”

The challenge with Petite Sirah, then, is reframing it as a grape worthy of its own bottle. While typically used as a blending grape to add color and tannin to other, more famous reds, “it makes a wonderful standalone wine, inky in color and fruit-forward,” says Heath, underscored by its alluring color and the firm structure the grape is primarily grown for.

Wiens Cellars has staked an even greater claim on Petite Sirah, offering it in three different varietal bottlings, a definite flex in a region eager to show what they are capable of. There’s a fresh, approachable wine called Bare Knuckle; a reserve Petite Sirah with added age; and the Sage Vineyard selection, a premium, single-vineyard Petite Sirah, grown at a cooler elevation of about 2500 feet. “It has a nice, subtle texture, which I really like about the variety,” says Wiens. “It isn’t as isn’t as brash and angular as some Cabernets can be, and we found in our climate that it can express some roasted pineapple top notes, which is pretty fun,” he says. “You typically don’t think of that in a red, but it has some really nice complexity.”

Petit Verdot: Not Just for Blending Anymore

Photo Credit: The One In A Million

In the United States, Petit Verdot can typically be found where Bordeaux varieties are showcased, especially in places such as Napa Valley and Washington State. Perhaps the most famous among the “petite” grape varieties, Petit Verdot has nonetheless also struggled against its reputation as a grape best suited for blending. “It can be very tannic and aggressive, but rewards with complexity and depth,” says Aaron Pott, winemaker and collaborator at Napa’s The One in a Million, a project founded specifically to celebrate Petit Verdot.

As a late-ripening variety, Petit Verdot also has a little bit of a Malbec story to it: a lesser-appreciated Bordeaux variety that needed to go abroad to find not only better weather, but also those that were committed to cultivating it to its fullest potential. 

As with The One in a Million project, Brennon Leighton, vice president of winemaking for Washington’s House of Smith, also approaches Petit Verdot with the intention of highlighting it. “It’s the opposite of what people usually think of it,” he says. “It has a brightness and vitality to it that I really like. When you’re drinking other Bordeaux varietals, they typically don’t have a lot of fruit character to them. Petit Verdot, even though it is a challenge with the tannins and acid, if you manage those really well there’s this beautiful vivaciousness that the fruit brings through that I really enjoy.” 

The One in a Million also proves that a region doesn’t have to be up-and-coming to embrace so-called petite varieties thought to be challenging. “Petit Verdot has been neglected in California,” Pott says. ”Because it is very hard to grow in Bordeaux, and we have been influenced by that region for so long, people in California simply did not grow the variety. However, the California climate is ideal for Petit Verdot, thus it has established its own roots as a single variety and is planted by those in the know.”

5 ‘Petite’ Wines to Try

Early Mountain Vineyards Petit Manseng

Style: Dry white wine

Vintage: 2021

Appellation: Virginia

ABV: 13.9%

Often described as a “white wine for red wine drinkers,” this rich, powerful, yet nuanced white leads with ripe and tropical fruit characteristics, and finishes with savory, mineral, and herbaceous notes. Long lees aging and full malolactic fermentation imbue it with density and a blooming, weighty mouthfeel. It’s balanced with bright acidity.

Grape Creek Petite Sirah

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2021

Appellation: Texas

ABV: 13.9%

It’s rare to find a Petite Sirah description without a suggestion of blueberries, and this is no exception. Beautiful, ripe fruit notes are rounded by generous black pepper and star anise spices, as well as lift from florals such as lavender and lilac. The winemaker recommends decanting for an hour before drinking while the wine is still young to best showcase its potential for length.

Wiens Family Cellars Reserve Petite Sirah

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2020

Appellation: Temecula Valley

ABV: 15.1%

Wiens Family Cellars highlights Petite Sirah in several expressions, from a budget-friendly, accessible option, to a single-vineyard bottling. I especially like Wiens’ Reserve line, for understanding the unique qualities that exceptional vineyard management and a few years’ aging can produce. The 2020 Reserve Petite Sirah brings plum and blackberry together with cracked pepper and rosemary, underscored by velvety, integrated tannins.

House of Smith B. Leighton Petit Verdot

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2019

Appellation: Yakima Valley

ABV: 14.5%

A cool vintage in 2019, combined with higher elevation vineyards, allowed for these Petit Verdot grapes to ripen well into October, showcasing the variety’s potential for incredible balance. “Supple, charming, and pretty,” says Leighton, highlighting fire roasted chilies, fresh violets, marjoram, and crushed seashells among its complex flavors, unfolding with an elegant mouthfeel and long finish.

The One in a Million Petit Verdot

Style: Dry red wine

Vintage: 2017

Appellation: Rutherford, Napa Valley

ABV: 15.4%

From handpicked clusters and a single vineyard site, The One in a Million applies Napa know-how to a sophisticated, complicated grape. The result is a celebration, splurge-worthy wine with nuanced notes of cherry, thyme, and dark plum underlined by crème de cassis and cocoa.