Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Grape You should Know About – Petite Sirah

In the 1860s, French botanist Francois Durif  went into his nursery where he was growing Syrah and Peloursin and he saw another vine growing, a new cross between the two. The new grape was called (not surprisingly) Durif and because of its resistance to mildew was planted in the south of France. However, the wines that were produced were inferior, so the grape fell out of favor and is rarely seen in France at present.

The grape was introduced to Australia where it is still called Durif, and to California and Israel where it came to be known as Petite Sirah. The grape became very popular during the American Prohibition because it is very durable and along with Alicant Bouchet could be transported around the country for home wine making. In fact, by the Repeal in 1923, two thirds of all plantings in Napa were to these two grapes. Some of the oldest vineyards in California are planted to Petite Sirah.

During these early years, field blending was common and often a bit of Alicante Bouchet, Zinfandel, Mourvedre, or Peloursin can be found in these vineyards as well as genetic naturally occurring crosses between them. As a result few Petite Sirah vineyards are “pure” and the wines produced are technically blends. It is estimated that 90-95% of Petite Sirah in California is actually the original Durif.
The wines from these vineyards are so similar that the single varietal designation is indeed justified.

Petite Sirah gets its name from the small size of the grapes which result in a large skin to juice ratio. This, in turn, can result very tannic wines if juice goes through an extended maceration period. The grapes form tightly packed clusters so are prone to rot if grown in rainy environments. French oak is often used in aging these wines, softening the tannins and imparting chocolate overtones to the aromatics.

Petite Sirah produces dark, inky colored wines that are relatively acidic with firm texture and mouth feel. The bouquet has herbal, chocolate and black pepper overtones. On the palate, these wines offer flavors of black fruits, plums, vanilla and especially blueberries. It is darker than Syrah, the grape it is often confused with, and is typically rounder and fuller in the mouth. The wine tends to have a wonderful brightness because of the ample acidity. This same acidity along with the well developed tannins allow this wine to age gracefully, often improving in the bottle for several years. If there is one flaw in this otherwise excellent wine, it is the rather short finish that the wine can have. For this reason, Zinfandel or Petite Verdot is often blended in small amounts to lengthen the finish and complete the wine. 

Petite Sirah is often combined  with other grapes to produce some of California's most well known red blends. The Prisoner, Marietta Old Vine Red and Bogle Phantom all have significant amounts of this grape in their mix. These are all big, fruit forward wines that are a mouthful of flavor. Especially in years where rains or poor growing seasons lessen the quality of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah is often added in small amounts to give deeper color and more backbone. It is also added to Zinfandel to help overcome the  “overdone” almost raisiny quality, that can sometimes occur in this varietal

Despite being a commonly blended grape and one used to improve or repair other varietal wines, Petite Sirah is truly special on its own. We have lots of these wines on the shelf. When someone comes in who drinks and enjoys red Zinfandel or Aussie Shiraz, I often suggest that they try this varietal. The big fruit flavor that these people enjoy will be enhanced by more complexity and structure. Newer techniques of developing fruit concentration and flavor has allowed for shorter maceration times resulting in wines with tannins that support nicely the fruit rather than overpowering it. Finally the acidity  adds a vibrance to the wine that is often missing in Zins and Syrah.
Bogle makes a really nice example of this varietal for the cost of a mere $11.99. the typical characteristic blueberries on the palate is unmistakeable. Actually, of all the wines Bogle makes at the entry level, this is by far my favorite. Peirano Estate, at $13.99 and David Bruce at $22.99 are good ones to try as well.

The one that you can't miss, however, is Michael David Winery's Petite Petit. You will recognize it by the whimsical circus themed label with large elephants. A blend of 85% Petite Sirah and 15% Petite Verdot, this wine offers an explosion of black fruit, vanilla and of course, blueberries,  that coat the mouth offering remarkable richness and a lingering finish. This dense, full bodied whopper of a wine is a must have at $17.99. The same winery makes a more expensive wine, called Earthquake Petite Sirah, which is what your palate will feel like it got hit by when you get a mouthful of this monster. Knock your socks off with this one for about $25.99.

Petite Sirah is a wine everyone should try, as well as the blends that this grape is so influencial in. I'm willing to bet you'll come back looking for more

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