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Petite Sirah revisited

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Someone whom I don’t know privately emailed me yesterday asking my advice about some Petite Sirahs he could buy that are “the darkest (black) and most earthy minerality (full bodied).” It was nice to know that, while I’m not officially a wine critic anymore, at least one person still appreciates that I have a couple decades-plus of experience under my belt!

I was happy to reply, “Lately, I’ve enjoyed Petites from Turley, Retro, Frank Family, Stags’ Leap, Turnbull (all Napa Valley), as well as Miro and St. Francis (both Dry Creek Valley) and MCV and Aaron (Paso Robles).” I could have added many others: David Fulton, Ballentine, Delectus, Ridge, Grgich Hills, J. Lohr, Proulx among them, but a brief reply to a brief email is not meant to be an article!

Petite Sirah is an interesting wine in several respects, not simply because it can be very good, but because it illustrates the difficulty of getting the consumer to try something he or she night not be familiar with. This is always a huge problem for producers and is why so many California wineries continue to make indifferent Chardonnay. The problem with Petite Sirah in particular also is that despite the considerable quantities of it made in California, not all of it is very good! The grapes can vary in ripeness and the wine itself can be too high in alcohol and above all too tannic. Then too, because Petite Sirah does not fetch as much money in the marketplace as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, there is little reason for vintners to make it as good as they possibly can. When Harry Waugh, visiting from London, tasted his first California Petite Sirahs (in Oakland, no less, at the then home of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who owned Martha’s Vineyard), he found too many of the wines suffered from “oxidation and…volatile acidity,” in other words they were rustic. While Petite’s qualities were strange to Harry, he did find in the best of the wines what he called “a fairly full-bodied Burgundy type,” a description that doesn’t sound like modern Petite Sirah (which you would hardly call “Burgundy type”). However, I suspect that many of the wines at that 1972 tasting were lower in alcohol than Petite Sirah tends to be today; also, that many of them would have been “field blends” of other varieties (Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, perhaps even Grenache) and this may have accounted for the lighter weight. Incidentally, Harry also found, in many of the wines, a “peppery” aroma that mystified him, but that today certainly is a marker for a well-made Petite Sirah.

The variety used to be, and until comparatively recently was, known almost exclusively in California, but there there are suggestions its popularity is spreading beyond our borders. It’s “catching on in the Pacific Northwest,” with wines being produced in the warmer areas of Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope and Walla Walla. Back in California, there’s more Petite being crushed nowadays than ever; 2013’s crush, of 68,000 tons, was a record (alrhough of course the 2013 crush overall also was a record). To put that into some perspective, the Petite Sirah crush was about one-fourth that of Pinot Noir and one-eighth that of Cabernet Sauvignon, but already exceeds that of Grenache, and is nearly half that of Syrah. In other words, Petite Sirah has become quite an important variety in its own right. I suspect a lot of it is being blended into red wine, to make it darker and firmer, an inference supported by the fact that the county with the most acreage is San Joaquin. Oddly, there’s also a lot of Petite Sirah–1,400 acres–growing in San Luis Obispo, although I couldn’t tell you why; SLO county isn’t known for varietal Petite Sirah, so it’s got to be going someplace else. However, the good news is that plantings in Napa Valley are on a sharp increase, up 41% since 2004 to 807 acres, and I’d bet most of that is being varietally labeled. If I had to pick the best spot for Petite in Napa, I’d say the northwestern part of the valley, St. Helena to Calistoga, where the toasty temperatures get the grapes nice and ripe, and where producers have enough money to sort out bad bunches, invest in good barrels, etc.

  1. Jim Frediani says:

    In 1972, the wineries still paid sugar bonuses and penalties. The base sugar for reds was 22 brix; for whites it was 20. 1972 was also the worst year for bunch rot I can recall prior to 2011.
    One of our drivers told me of a load in front of him at one winery that gave off clouds of spores when dumped into the crusher. This also predated most MOG content provisions in contracts. Lots of rain, so sugars didn’t make base a lot of times. And considering our “youngest” Pets were planted in 1960, there was a lot of leafroll. I also believe that 11.5 or 12 was the highest % alcohol you were allowed in wine in those days.

  2. Recently, I was privileged to be included in a group who tasted through 12 years of Switchback Ridge Petite Sirah—1999-2010. I have to be honest, I am not a huge fan of PS, but I am a fan of Karen/Foley Switchback wines. I find PS to be too big and chewy for my tastes. However, I/we were all stunned by the polish, elegance and youth of the first wine, a 1999. Sure enough those that followed were wonderful with several favorites. As we approached the younger vintages, they began to become big and chewy. I love that you never stop learning when it comes to wine! My lesson for the day: PS age gracefully, improving dramatically over time, and will last a long, long time! I am a PS convert, but look for older vintages!

  3. Field Stone Winery in Alexander Valley! The Petite vineyard was planted in 1894 and is one of the blackest opaque purple Petite Sirah wines you can find.

  4. Michael De Loach says:

    The largest and most widely distributed petite sirah is Bogle, still family owned and independent (single brand). I would think that as PS is their #1 sku, and with their skyrocketing growth,they are the main driver of PS grape production in CA. For over a decade they hold Petite Syrah week nationally. Way to go Bogle family!

  5. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for giving Petite Sirah some love and attention. When done right it can be a fascinating wine. It is very popular with my tasting group and I like to steer readers to the best ones. I certainly hope winemakers keep increasing the production of quality PS.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Quoting Wine Enthusiast magazine:

    “Napa’s Freemark Abbey first produced Petite Sirah from Fritz Maytag’s York Creek Vineyard on Spring Mountain in 1969. It still has a limited supply of its 1971 Petite Sirah (hailed as one of the finest ever made by Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine), as well as its 1976 and 1977 offerings, also from York Creek.

    ” ‘Back then, the grapes would come in pretty ripe—really tannic,” says Ted Edwards, director of winemaking at Freemark Abbey. “The wines were just made in a blockbuster style with not a lot of finesse.’ ”

    [Source: http://www.winemag.com/Web-2012/Taming-Petite-Sirah/

    Did Harry Waugh opine on this wine?

    Twenty-plus years ago, Robert Parker in “The Wine Advocate” summarized a tasting he conducted, pitting Guigal Rhones against the same ten vintages of Ridge Petite Sirahs (regular York Creek bottlings and Devil’s Hill bottlings.)

    My wine group recreated that tasting within a few months of Parker’s published tasting notes. And group’s “preference votes” mirrored Parker’s commentary, giving the Ridge wines the nod.

    The stand-out Ridge was the 1985.

    I plan to open and taste a 1968 or 1974 Freemark Abbey Petite Sirah in the coming months, which has been “resting comfortably” in a friend’s cellar all these decades.

    Tom Hill’s notes on older Ridge Petite Sirahs:

    http://www.sbwines.com/trh/desai99.html

    An aside:

    “Petite Sirah is one of my least favorite Calif red wines. I find them often too soft/fat/underacid clumsey/clunky little fruit tannic but unstructured; a Pillsbury DoughBoy kind of wine. They seem to lack that high-toned fruit I like in a red. Good blending material but not attractive on its own. Ridge has always been one of my favorites. A bit more forward fruit that most; they have a hard/ tannic structure to them that begs for more age. The ’71 York Creek PS was one of my first Calif Petites I had & I fell in love w/ that wine. It was loaded w/ oak from the start & it still has a lot of oak; but the oak really works well w/ the peppery fruit. This ’71 is in incredible shape and will probably last another 10 yrs. Yet it has a complexity that you never find in mature Calif Petite. I regard this ’71 has one of the greatest red wines ever made in Calif; truly a wine of epic proportions. And it’s Petite Sirah!!”

    Related tasting note:

    “Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah ’71: Very dark color; very intense Am.oaked/dusty/ earthy peppery very perfumy/smokey/pungent complex nose; beautiful lively dusty/earthy/peppery/smokey/pungent/complex very perfumed/fragrant flavor w/ some tannins yet; loads of Am.oak but very well integrated w/ the peppery character; an absolutely incredible wine in marvelous condition.”

    ~~ Bob

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    “I plan to open and taste a 1974 Freemark Abbey Petite Sirah . . .”

    As my “Wine Enthusiast” quote states, Freemark Abbey didn’t start producing PS until 1969.

  8. 1993 Stags’ Leap Petite Sirah…..and chocolate….no words….

  9. Very appreciative, Steve. It’s been so lovely to share this variety with you…

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