Petite Sirah, so the legend goes, produces such a dark and powerful wine that its juice can be used for ink. Once, so the story goes, an artist sketched the old Concannon reserve vineyard in the Livermore Valley with juice from the vineyard’s grapes.
Which explains both its enduring fascination for a handful of winemakers and why the rest of the world has almost forgotten about it. Inky and geeky is one thing, but they’re rarely enough to make a wine popular over the long term.
Grape of confusion
Contradiction has been part of Petite Sirah’s story almost since its inception in a French vineyard as something called Durif in 1880. It was created by a local botanist named François Durif, who wanted to give Rhône winemakers an alternative to Syrah.
It has been regularly confused with Syrah ever since, even though they’re different grapes. And there are several spellings — Petite Syrah in Australia, for instance, where it’s also called Durif. And even though it originated in France, almost none is grown there. The regions where it is grown are less well known and there isn’t much of it there, either. And if it’s used at all, it’s used for blending.
That means there are just over 11,000 acres in 2020 in California, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. That’s only about 1,000 acres more than a grape called Rubired, which is used to make Mega Purple, a concentrate that darkens the color and sweetens mass-produced red wines. By comparison, it has one-quarter the area of Pinot Noir and one-tenth the total of Cabernet Sauvignon. Even the much-maligned Merlot has three times as much acreage.
There is very little grown in Napa and Sonoma; instead, it thrives in less-regarded regions around Sacramento and the Central Valley, including Lodi and Clarksburg. It’s also grown with great success in Australia, particularly in the Rutherglen region, where the grape appreciates the warmer temperatures.
Why winemakers love it
Yet Petite Sirah can produce a complex, structured varietal wine, and there’s a long history in California of just that. Petite Sirah aficionados have fond memories of the Concannon wines from the 1990s, with delicious dark plum fruit, a hint of spice and earth, and supple tannins. Napa’s Stags’ Leap Winery has been making well-regarded Petite Sirah since the early 1990s.
The wines are big, with generally more than 14.5% alcohol, and it can take some work to get the tannins under control. But they also offer structure and complexity — more layered than Zinfandel, for example, but deeper and darker and less obviously fruity.
“It’s just one of those grapes that lost out to Cabernet,” says Jason Mettler, whose Mettler Family Vineyards in Lodi has been producing top-notch varietal Petite Sirah since the early 2000s. “So it has been overlooked, which it shouldn’t be. You can buy a really nice bottle of Petite Sirah for the price of a very ordinary bottle of Cabernet.”
Now, there’s some anecdotal evidence that wine lovers are discovering it once again. And why not? It offers both value and taste, and what more can a wine drinker want?
5 Petite Sirah to try:
Clarksburg’s Bogle has long carried the torch for Petite Sirah, and that such a professional and varietally correct wine is widely available in supermarkets speaks to the winery’s commitment. It hasn’t been dumbed down — dark berry fruit set off by a touch of oak, an attempt at earth and spice, and what the winery calls chewy tannins that balance all the fruit. Pair this with smoked pork or even lamb.
This Australian version of Petite Sirah begs the question: If Shiraz, why this? Because it is different — not as big, not as over the top, and more balanced. Look for blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, a rich and full mouth feel, and surprisingly nimble use of oak for a wine at this price.
The Mettler shows what can be done with Petite Sirah by someone who appreciates the grape’s place in California and understands how to make the variety thrive in Lodi. There’s dark berry fruit, some spice, lots of layers, and a long, rich finish. It’s ready to drink now, but also age worthy. It almost certainly needs food — oven-braised pork or beef, for instance.
This Napa stalwart makes three Petite Sirahs, with French-born winemaker Christophe Paubert showing an especially deft hand with this one. It’s more traditional — not as big and a little more graceful; floral, and with more plum fruit and an almost leathery quality; and the spice is both peppery and herbal. This isn’t as much pot roast as prime rib, and perhaps with an herb crust.
What does it say about Petite Sirah’s timelessness that Ridge — home to one of the world’s great Cabernet Sauvignons and perhaps its best Zinfandels — still makes terrific Petite Sirah? This is a blend, with a pinch of Zinfandel, and the result is a powerful, complex wine that will age for at least a decade. Somehow, the berry fruit is fresh, with a hint of licorice, and a long, almost minerally finish not common in these kinds of wines. Think Beef Petite Sirah, in the style of Boeuf Bourguignon.