Petite Sirah revisited
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.