Petite Sirah: a consideration
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 , 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.