- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Petite sirah can seem confusing. This California grape is related to, but very different from, syrah, the classic cepage from the Rhone Valley in France. Despite its name, the usually powerful wines made from it taste anything but small or dainty.

Even the spelling can prove puzzling: Some people use an “i” and others a “y,” as in “syrah,” rendering the spelling identical to that of the Rhone grape.

Petite, or “petty,” as old-time grape growers sometimes call it, was once a California mainstay. It now is something of a rarity, as trendier varieties fetch higher prices.

But if you like big, dramatic red wines, petite is well worth getting to know. Many winemakers, particularly those in the searingly hot Central Valley, use it as a blending agent, its virtue being its dark color. But some vintners, especially those up north who have access to old-vine fruit, do bottle varietal versions. These wines can be stunning — particularly when drunk with grilled meats and barbecue.

This grape came to California from France in the 1880s. Even then, confusion accompanied it. Nursery advertisements from the era contain the first recorded reference to the name “petite sirah,” a variation of a name used in the northern Rhone Valley for that region’s indigenous red grape, syrah.

At the time, syrah, specifically syrah grown in Hermitage, made some of the world’s most coveted wines. Did the California nursery owner honestly believe he was selling that grape? Or was he trying to hoodwink his customers? No one knows.

What we do know is that petite sirah quickly became very popular. It thrived in California’s warm, sun-drenched climate, and it yielded a dark, intense, full-flavored wine. By the turn of the century, it had become one of the most widely planted grapes in the state.

We also know, however, that it was not syrah. Instead, it was a hybrid, or cross, that had been created in a nursery in southern France by a horticulturalist named Dr. Durif. He was researching grapes that might be resistant to fungal disease (then wrecking European vineyards), and this one fit the bill.

Durif named the new grape after himself, but it never became very popular in France and is virtually nonexistent there now. (Fungicides proved more effective than replanting for controlling disease.) It was exported, though, and planted not only in America, but also in Argentina, Australia and Brazil — where it is still cultivated today.

For a long time, the one mystery about this grape concerned its parentage. Which varieties had Dr. Durif crossed in his nursery in southern France? That question was not answered definitively until 1997, when Carole Meredith of the University of California at Davis used DNA fingerprinting techniques to identify its ancestry.

According to Miss Meredith, durif is a cross of true syrah and an obscure French grape called peloursin. In fact, those two sometimes grow alongside it, and an old California vineyard may well include all three varieties, if not more. “Some of the petite sirah vineyards in California are very old and typical of old vineyards [and] contain some oddball vines of other varieties.” she says. “Thus, not 100 percent of the vines are always petite sirah.”

This kind of “field blend” exists in old vineyards all over the world. Still, Miss Meredith’s research proves that petite sirah in California is durif. What a grower calls petite, however, may include small percentages of other grapes.

For wine drinkers, the variety’s history is less important than its character in a glass. And petite sirah has plenty of character. It produces tannic wines, with an almost meaty character. Typically very dark, they taste of black- and blueberry fruit, with a smoky, sometimes peppery undertone that makes them perfect partners for hearty grilled food.

Petite is sometimes likened to zinfandel, in large measure because the two grapes often grow near each other in Northern California. Yet while zin tastes briary and spicy, petite seems more savory and earthy. Although few zinfandels benefit from time spent in bottle, petite can age beautifully, becoming supple and surprisingly sophisticated after many years of cellaring.

Whether young or old, a bottle of petite sirah almost always benefits from being decanted and exposed to air before being drunk. It’s an easy exercise. Just pop the cork and pour the wine into a jug or carafe. Then let it sit for an hour or so before serving.

Some of California’s best petites are made in small lots and sold only by mailing lists or at the wineries themselves. Many excellent ones, however, are available in the Washington area. With summer barbecue season on its way, you may want to stock up. Here are 10 of my favorites, listed in a rough order of preference.

Stags’ Leap Winery, Napa Valley, 2001, $37. A pacesetter, Stags’ Leap’s petite is a marvelous marriage of power and finesse. Full-bodied but supple, its forward dark fruit flavors and evocative secondary notes (echoing orange peel, coffee and spice) yield a complete and complex package. This is as good as this grape variety gets.

Foppiano, Russian River Valley, 2002, $21. Foppiano Vineyards has been growing petite sirah in the Russian River Valley since the late 19th century. I’ve been sampling the wines regularly for only the past decade or so, but this full-flavored and extremely well-balanced 2002 is the finest I’ve tried.

Guenoc, North Coast, 2001, $15. This Lake County winery consistently excels with petite, and this particular wine is chock full of enticing flavors, with bright cherry and dark berry fruit, an attractive layer of oak, and a peppery finish.

Rosenblum “Rockpile Road,” Dry Creek Valley, 2002, $45. Extremely concentrated, almost intense, this is definitely a wine to keep. Big and generous, with tons of tannin, it needs time to harmonize and become fully integrated, but it shows plenty of promise.

Bogle, California, 2003, $13. Always an excellent value, this is a great introduction to petite. Neither as complex nor as age-worthy as some others, it nonetheless offers layered aromas and flavors, all at a very attractive price.

David Bruce, Central Coast, 2003, $20. Quite peppery, with an earthy, meaty undertone, this petite is the most Rhone-like of all the wines recommended here. The grape’s French heritage comes to the fore.

Trinitas, Russian River Valley, 2002, $30. From a winery I was unfamiliar with, this petite is dark and almost brooding but has a core of bright, vivacious fruit. Delicious now, it undoubtedly will be even better with a few years of bottle age.

Concannon, Central Coast, 2003, $12. Generous, fresh berry flavors distinguish this softer-styled petite, a wine that is fully ready to drink now.

Pedroncelli, Dry Creek Valley, 2000, $15. A lighter petite (although no petite is ever all that light), this wine is surprisingly nuanced and subtle. It comes from a winery whose reds consistently offer fine value.

EOS “Reserve,” Paso Robles, 2000, $25. Another big, dramatic wine, with lots of fleshy fruit flavor, this one seems almost chewy. It, too, needs time to show its best.

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