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Petite Sirah: a consideration

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Fifteen years ago researchers at the University of California, Davis, determined that Syrah and Peloursin, a minor grape variety from the Rhône-Alpes region, crossed to create Dourif [or Durif], also known as Petite Sirah.

One wonders why they even bothered to investigate Petite Sirah in 1997. The grape and wine had lingered on the outer fringes of obscurity in California for decades. In one of the first American wine books published after the Repeal of Prohibition, Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s influential The Complete Wine Book [1934], the authors called Petite Sirah, or rather the wine made from it, “mediocre,” adding that, even in its native France, it was “little esteemed.” Fourteen years later, the Chicago journalist, Julian Street, wrote a little book, Wines: Their Selection, Care and Service, in which he repeated the assertion, eventually proven incorrect, that Petite Sirah was identical to “Shiraz, one of the principal grapes grown in the Rhône Valley.” The American bon vivant and heavy cigarette smoker, Creighton Churchill, in 1963 repeated this error, and further malinged Petite Sirah by calling it, correctly for the time, “more often used for blending” than bottled on its own.

The confusion continued into modern times. Leon D. Adams, writing in 1973, confused it for “Shiraz” in his The Wines of America, which perhaps was understandable since six years previously no less than Maynard Amerine and Vernon Singleton, the University of California experts, in their Wine: An Introduction for Americans, called it the basis for “Hermitage.” By the Eighties the grape’s origins still had not yet been unraveled: the 1984 University of California Book of California Wine called Petite Sirah “an ampelographical tangle”

There were, however, even during that period of uncertainty, more discerning palates, of whom Gerald Asher, as usual, was one. Writing in Gourmet, in a piece whose date I cannot determine but appears to have been no later than the early 1980s, he noted that “there are powerful examples of the California Petite Sirah that share certain characteristic of northern Rhône wines”; the title of that article was Venerable Hermitage, and Asher singled out for particular praise the 1973 Robert Mondavi Petite Sirah.

I never had that wine, nor any other Mondavi Petite Sirah; I believe they stopped making one a long time ago, no doubt due to the absence of demand in the marketplace. Certainly by the time I became a wine writer, in the late 1980s, nobody cared about Petite Sirah, “nobody” being a relative term, since the variety did have its fans, although many of them didn’t know they were enjoying Petite Sirah because the grape usually was blended into Zinfandel. I can’t at this point remember the first Petite Sirah I ever had, but the first I ever reviewed for Wine Enthusiast was a 1997 JC Cellars, from Napa Valley, which I didn’t care for, although it did possess the variety’s inimitably inky black color and sturdy tannins. In the late winter of 1999, though, there came my way a Petite Sirah from Stags’ Leap Winery, which long had specialized in the variety, to which I gave 93 points, still one of the highest scores ever to come from me for a Petite Sirah.

Nonetheless, Petite Sirah remained, for me at any rate, an unexciting wine throughout the first part of the 2000s. Something, however, was gnawing away at the corners of my resistance, or obliviousness, to its charms, and that was the advocacy group, PS I Love You,  which I admit in candid honesty lobbied me heavily. I can’t say exactly when the switchover occurred, but certainly by 2005 it occurred to me how original and special Petite Sirah from California could be, under the right circumstances. Those circumstances are, of course, heavy, rich foods, mainly grilled meats like steak or prime rib and even duck, in a rich, fruity sauce, and beef stews or bourgignons, in which the wine plays a part in the preparation. I have even enjoyed Petite Sirah with Chinese beef and vegetable dishes.

While Petite Sirah has the well-deserved reputation for ageability, I have none in my small cellar. I’ve had enough mature Petite Sirah to know that in old age it becomes sweeter and more mellow but doesn’t necessarily gain in complexity and, in fact, the older it gets the more it loses its basic Petite-ness of muscularity and heft. Among the best Petite Sirahs I’ve had in 2012 have been Turley’s 2010 Hayne Vineyard, Library Vineyard and Pesenti Vineyard, Grgich Hills’ 2008 MIljenko’s Vineyard, Girard 2010, Elyse 2010 Barrel Select and Jacob Franklin 2009 Chavez-Leeds Vineyard. All, not surprisingly, were from Napa Valley.

  1. Steve,

    Thanks for calling attention to this under-appreciated varietal and we’re glad enjoyed the wine.

    Ken Morris
    Grgich Hills Estate

  2. Switchback Ridge does a Petite Sirah that is worth searching out.

  3. What a great birthday gift, Steve…

  4. Robert Mondavi Winery makes no Petite Sirah, but Woodbridge does…the supply is limited and can only be bought at the Lodi winery. It is made from Lodi grapes.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Steve-I got into Petite Sirahs in the late 60′s and over the next few years bought cases of Petites from Ridge, Freemark Abbey, Burgess Cellars, Stags Leap Winery and Vineyards (yes they both produced PS), Mirassou, Rosenblum and more. I was in the wine business for some 20+ years from the late 60′s. Most wine writers at that time said PS was not ageworthy and a lesser quality wine. I have had the pleasure of drinking many of the wines I had at ages from 15-25 years old. Those older Petites were fantastic. The most recent was a 1987 Ridge Petite Sirah that I enjoyed a year ago. Still some tannins, a ton of fruit but definitely more comples and softer than it was upon release and well worth waiting for. I definitely recommend buying and ageing well made Petites. Bob Miller

  6. I second the sentiment on Freemark Abbey’s Petite Sirah. Ted Edwards and Co. are still cranking it out something nice even today. Thanks everyone for the suggestions here for a PS.

  7. Steve,

    While both Turley and Girard pump out good petite, Relic’s Old Vine Petite from the Frediani vineyard in Calistoga is definitely worth searching out. David Fulton’s in St. Helena is also a consistently great petite, and an awesome, friendly family to boot. On the other side of the mountain in Healdsburg, after some low times, it’s good to see the Foppiano family are finally starting to come around again. For more PS, check: http://www.psiloveyou.org/ Cheers to PS.

  8. My Husband and I have drank Stags Leap Petite Sirah in 1978 to now of course that was before wine was cool. and I must say 1978 to 1982
    was the best red wine we drank even until today. And yes we ate alot of Prime rib with that beautiful red wine!

  9. Lava Cap (El Dorado) and Jeff Runquist also make fleshy Petite Sirah, the latter from vineyards in Clarksburg. Benziger made a port of Petite a few years back that was pretty tasty. I believe it was only available at the winery, and I’m not sure if they still make it.

  10. In my holiday six-pack for the family gathering in SoCal is the 2006 Langtry Estate Petite Sirah from Paul Brasset (winemaker) and Richard Camera (viticulturist). This wine is to die for with Mario Batali’s braised lamb shank with oranges and black olives, or any pizza/pasta with spicy sausage, olives… I was lucky to consult for Langtry and discover this wine a few years back. Imagine the challenge to market Petite Sirah, and Petite Sirah from Lake County no less! A gorgeous, rich, faceted wine.

  11. John Roberts says:

    The answer to why “they’d bother” to investigate Petite in 1997 is self-evident in your summation of it’s place in the imagination of the wine-appreciating public through time. Demystifying the varietal undoubtedly improved quality and consistency. Petites can be great, though there’s great variation. I recommend the Peite Sirahs made by Vincent Arroyo in Calistoga. He concentrates on PS and makes Cab a lesser priority. Historically, few wineries have made such bold moves. I’d echo praise for many of the already mentioned producers as well. Some in Dry Creek are excellent too, but many are drink-now type wines. Thanks Steve!

  12. Dick Greenleaf says:

    I used to enjoy the Guenoc Petite Sirah before it was closed. The new Guenoc is ok but lacks the depth of the older version.

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