It’s Time for Wine: There is Little Small About Petite Sirah

By Monty & Sara Preiser

Just mention Petite Sirah and “the question” comes soon thereafter. How is it different from (big) Syrah?

Almost all of the world’s easily recognizable grape varieties* are the offspring of two parent grapes. For example, the parents of Chardonnay are Pinot (probably Pinot Noir according to our conversation with the world’s leading grape geneticist Carole Meredith) and Gouais (a now unimportant grape hardly grown any longer). For Cabernet Sauvignon, the parents are today’s more relevant and almost indispensable Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

Petite Sirah, the progeny of Syrah and Peloursin, is its own distinct variety. It was developed in the Rhone region of France (where it is called “Durif” or “Petite Syrah”) primarily to help combat the mildew to which Syrah was susceptible. But then the new vines were also compromised, this time by dry rot in the southern humid districts. Not surprisingly, then, today you won’t find much Petite Sirah under any name in France. It does, however, grow well in the drier regions of the U.S. and parts of Australia. Somewhere along the line, the preferred new world spelling and nomenclature became “Petite Sirah,” though one would not be technically incorrect according to the U. S. Government (the TTB) if either “Petite Syrah” or “Durif” were used in describing the wine.

In July we hosted a tasting of twenty 2002-2008 Petite Sirahs at our Napa home. The wines were divided into flights so that each could be compared next to another with a like harvest date. We seated a stellar tasting panel to join the two of us at the table. They included Mike Drash, owner/winemaker of Tallulah Wines and winemaker for Aratas; Shelly Eichner, National Sales Manager for Swanson Vineyards; Sara Fowler; winemaker for Peju Province; Todd Graff, winemaker at Frank Family; Shari Gherman, sommelier and President of the American Fine Wine Competition; Christina Machamer, master chef and General Manager of B Cellars; Steve Reynolds, owner/winemaker of Reynolds Family; and Florida chef Lee Blakely.

The exercise was to taste blind, comment, and then arrive at a group decision as to what medal each wine might receive at a competition. Two added elements to the evening were the presence of a film crew from the American Fine Wine Competition who were capturing how judges actually go about their charge, and the inclusion of certain wines (those with later vintages in flights 3 and 4) that could earn invitations to the next competition based on their showing.

After tasting, commentary, and debate, results were agreed on by the panel, though sometimes more reluctantly than others – sort of like a United States Supreme Court decision. The best of the older vintages were the 2004 Quixote Stags Leap and the 2004 Shypoke. For the 2005 flight, the panel favored the Olabisi Suisun Valley, with the Bremer Family, Envy, and Swanson entries receiving some good support. Generally, the wines above not only exhibited excellent balance, but they were aging well, had lost very little integrity, and paired quite nicely with the food served.

Moving to 2007, the clear favorite was the Girard Napa Valley, with the Charter Oak St. Helena also giving an excellent account of itself. A newcomer unknown to the panel (except Monty, who met one of the vintners earlier in the week), was the 122 West Russian River Valley Durif. It won some new fans and garnered a strong (though phantom) Silver medal.

The final flight consisted mostly of 2008 vintages, with one 2009 in the mix. The strongest showing was by the Aratas Napa Valley, while B Cellars Napa Valley and the Simi Dry Creek Valley showed well. Interestingly, this vintage did not produce enough “Gold” votes for any of these wines to achieve that level, even though each of the bottles mentioned highly impressed more than one member of the group. Perhaps the lack of unanimity was a function of the wines’ relative youth. They will, we are happy to say, receive Competition invitations and get another chance in early 2013.

Breaking down all the wines evaluated, medals would have looked like this:

Gold:
Charter Oak St. Helena 2007
Girard Napa Valley 2007
Olabisi Suisun Valley 2005
Quixote Stags Leap 2004

Silver:
122 West Russian River Valley 2007
Aratas Napa Valley 2008
B Cellars Napa Valley 2008
Bremer Family Dry Creek Valley 2005
Envy Napa Valley 2005
Shypoke Calistoga 2004
Simi Dry Creek Valley 2008
Swanson Oakville 2005

Bronze:
Arger Martucci Napa Valley 2005
Jessup Yolo County 2008
Retro Howell Mountain 2004

You may be eagle-eyed and note that we only listed fifteen of the twenty. Well, five did not medal on this particular evening and we see no imperative to include them further. We hope it is sufficient that we certainly recommend you sample any of those listed, as we all felt they were good enough to medal. There are also a number of excellent, more recently released Petites that were not included. Time and space usually dictate the number of wines that can be assessed, and we do what we can. Thus, we urge you to arrive at no conclusions about any wine not listed.

Petite Sirah is a wine growing in popularity, and we are personally happy to see it. The flavor profiles fit our palates well. We look for a full bodied wine with deep color pigmentation and medium to high tannic structure. Spices and peppery red fruit are identifiable in the better bottles, as is a (sometimes) touch of jam (but not jammy like Zinfandels). With the above descriptions, you can see that Petite Sirah is quite perfect with grilled game dishes, medium spiced stews, and duck. If you aren’t familiar with this wine, we recommend you explore.

*The term “variety” refers to the vine or grape, while “varietal” refers to the wine produced by a variety. It is often hard, when writing, to distinguish which one is being discussed, and sometimes it is both or a combination of both. Most people do not distinguish the two, and almost always use the term “varietal.”

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It’s Time for Wine is a column published by wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser that is featured on the Amateur Gastronomer.

Monty and Sara Preiser reside full time in Palm Beach County, Florida, and spend their summers visiting wineries and studying wines on the west coast where they have a home in Napa. For many years they were the wine columnists for The Boca Raton News, have served as contributors to the South Florida Business Journal, and are now the principal wine writers for Sallys-Place.com.  Monty and Sara also publish The Preiser Key to Napa Valley, the most comprehensive guide to wineries and restaurants in the Napa Valley, published every March, July, and November. In fall 2011 the Preisers released the first issue of The Preiser Key to Sonoma. Click here to read more columns by the Preisers.

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