A Taste of California Petite Sirah’s Charm and Diversity

The current diversity and quality of wine around the world can be a bit overwhelming. Not that as a consumer I’m complaining, but it can be a challenge to taste wine from every region let alone every variety. The same applies to the quality and diversity of California wine in my experience. Petite Sirah is one of those varieties that I honestly don’t know very well. In the 20-odd years I’ve been tasting wines seriously I can think of only a handful of times I’ve tasted Petite Sirah as a varietal wine. Mostly, it has been at wine tastings with friends where someone else brought the Petite Sirah.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit in on an online tasting with several winemakers all of whom are dedicated to Petite Sirah and members of the Petite Sirah advocacy organization PS I Love You. The tasting was hosted by Jo Diaz, (Diaz Communications) who is also executive director of PS I Love You. 

Subsequent to the tasting we received these eight wines as tasting samples, which offered the opportunity to get to know Petite Sirah better than I ever have. Both the discussion and the tasting were illuminating and opened my palate to a varietal wine that, even among only eight wines, demonstrated an appreciable difference in style. I found that particularly appealing.

A Bit About Petite Sirah

As I often do when researching a grape variety, I reached for my copy of Wine Grapes to learn about Petite Syrah’s history and pedigree. I found Petite Syrah listed as Durif, Petite Sirah’s French name given to recognize François Durif the French botanist who developed the variety in the 1860s. According to Robinson et al., Durif knew one parent was Peloursin but he did not know the other. The variety was imported to California in 1884 as Petite Sirah by Charles McIver to his Linda Vista Winery near San Jose.

According to a historical timeline on the PS I Love You website, Petite Sirah acreage peaked in California at 14,000 acres in 1976. By 1990 the acreage had dropped to only 1400 acres, but has climbed since then. In 1996 UC Davis’ Dr. Carole Meredith confirmed by DNA testing that Syrah is the other parent of Petite Sirah along with Peloursin.

The only thing petite about Petite Sirah is the size of its berries. This small berry size results in very dark wines with significant tannins. As a varietal wine Petite Sirah generally makes a full-bodied red wine with generous ripe flavors and good aging potential. It is also favored as a blending partner for its flavor and structure.

Let’s Taste Petite Sirah

2017 Vincent Arroyo Family Winery Petite Sirah, Napa Valley photo
2017 Vincent Arroyo Family Winery Petite Sirah, Napa Valley

2017 Vincent Arroyo Family Winery Petite Sirah, Napa Valleydense ruby in the glass with aromas of blackberries, cedar and dried mint. Flavors of tart raspberries, blackberries, dusty earth, cedar and hints of alfalfa hay blend seamlessly. Flavors are supported by juicy acidity with fine, drying tannins that are well integrated with the flavors in a medium body with a medium+ finish. 13.7% abv. SRP $42

Matthew Moye, co-proprietor and winemaker told us that Vincent Arroyo Family Winery farms about 85 acres of vineyards planted to 10 varieties north of Calistoga. He believes Petite Sirah is particularly well suited to warm growing conditions, though dry farming the vineyards can make controlling sugar levels in Petite Sirah a challenge when faced with heat spikes near harvest. 

Individual blocks of Petite Sirah are vinified and aged separately for at least a year before tasting and blending. Matthew prefers American oak, about 30% new, and aims to make a Petite Syrah in the 14% abv range to keep the wine food friendly.

Matthew has succeeded with this Petite Sirah which has nice complexity with bright fruit flavors and plenty of texture. In general his wines have a drinking window of 7 to 10 years and he described this Petite Sirah as still very youthful.

2017 Berryessa Gap Petite Sirah, Yolo County, California photo
2017 Berryessa Gap Petite Sirah, Yolo County, California

2017 Berryessa Gap Petite Sirah, Yolo County, Californialight ruby in the glass with aromas of ripe blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. Flavors lead with tart blackberries, raspberries and blueberries with notes of vanilla in a medium body. Tannins are grippy but well integrated with the flavors and linger with the fruit and juicy acidity on the finish. 14.3% abv. SRP $28

Nicole Salengo, Berryessa Gap winemaker, works with a single vineyard, the Coble Ranch vineyard. The vineyard lies west of Winters along the foothills of the Vaca Mountain Range that separates the Central Valley from Lake Berryessa and Napa beyond that. The soils are rocky and the climate is warm, but nighttime temperatures cool significantly thanks to cool breezes that pass through the Berryessa Gap. Its perfect for Petite Sirah in Nicole’s view.

Nicole said something that resonated with me when she admitted to not liking some of the early Petite Sirahs she tasted because they were too much of a good thing: too ripe, too tannic, poor food partners. Her goal (with all of the Berryessa Gap wines she makes, actually) is to pick on the early side for freshness and acidity.

Interestingly, this young vineyard is planted to a field blend of 85% Petite Sirah, 8% Primitivo and 7% Peloursin and is irrigated to prevent dried fruit flavors in the wine in hot vintages. 2017 was a warm vintage that required gentle handling in the wine cellar for this Petite Sirah. It ages for about 18 months in French oak, once used, sourced from eight coopers.

This is the lightest-colored wine of the group and I found the flavors and textures very appealing and complex.

2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah, Royal Punishers, Napa Valley photo
2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah, Royal Punishers, Napa Valley

2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah, Royal Punishers, Napa Valleydense ruby in the glass with aromas of ripe blueberries, blackberries and plums. Fruit flavors lead with juicy blueberries, blackberry and plum compote accented with mocha and supported by grippy tannins in a medium+ body. 14.5% abv. SRP $49 (2018)

Robert Biale Vineyards‘ winemaker, Tres Goetting, described the winery as heritage vineyards specialists in both Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.

That said, this wine is sourced from a relatively young vineyard. Petite Sirah is sourced almost entirely from the Carpy-Connolly Ranch in Rutherford where the soil in Napa Valley is dense and deep. As a result these 15-year-old, VSP-trained vines produce a generous yield with a lush fruit profile. Tres has discovered optimal yield must be controlled to about 6 tons per acre, but below that the tannins are just too aggressive. 30-35% new French oak is the usual barrel program.

2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah, Palisades Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valley photo
2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah, Palisades Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valley

2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah, Palisades Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valleydense ruby in the glass with more restrained blackberry and dusty earth aromas. Just-ripe blackberries and blueberries are lightly accented by vanilla and supported by juicy acidity and grippy tannins. The flavors are less obvious, but by no means lacking. Very elegant. Medium+ bodied. 14.8% abv. SRP $58 (2018)

This is where we get to the old vines. The Palisades Vineyard is registered with the Historic Vineyard Society as the property was first planted to vines in 1878. The oldest block is Petite Sirah planted in 1968 along with another block that was replanted in the early 1970s. The head-trained vines are dry farmed which can result in dark, concentrated wines.

The Biale Royal Punishers is more opulent, luscious and extroverted than the Palisades Vineyard Petite Sirah, which I found to be complex, richly flavored and textured, but it a less obvious way. Both make me crave smoked pork ribs or braised short ribs.

2018 La Storia by Trentadue Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County photo
2018 La Storia by Trentadue Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County

2018 La Storia by Trentadue Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Countydense ruby in the glass with riper blackberry aromas along with hints of cedar and dusty earth. Flavors of blackberries and boysenberries are supported by juicy acidity and drying, grippy tannins in a medium+ body. 14.8% abv. SRP $34

Trentadue Winery winemaker, Miro Tcholakov, told us the winery was established in 1956 and initially sold its grapes to other wineries. Trentadue was one of the first California wineries to bottle Petite Sirah as a varietal wine and all wines are sourced from estate vineyards.

The La Storia bottling is sourced from three head-trained blocks that are 30-35 years old and yield only 3 – 4 tons per acre. The budwood came from an old planting dating to 1856. Miro told us deficit irrigation is practiced in the vineyard to keep cluster and berry size small.

He prefers to use a blend of 50/50 French and American oak, about 30% new, for aging and blends just a bit of Syrah with the Petite Sirah in this bottling.

2017 Trentadue Hearts Desire, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County photo
2017 Trentadue Hearts Desire, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County

2017 Trentadue Hearts Desire, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Countydense ruby in the glass with aromas of ripe, dark berries. Flavors follow with ripe blueberries, blackberries and plums. Notes of cedar, earth and chocolate float in the background with drying, grippy tannins in a medium+ body. 14.7% abv. SRP $32

The Trentadue Hearts Desire is a blend of handpicked barrels of Petite Sirah sourced from Block 405 aged in 60% new oak.

The blackberry and boysenberry flavors and aromas in the La Storia are absolutely gorgeous. The Hearts Desire is less obviously fruity, but a delicious blend of earth and berry flavors. Both have substantial, but well-integrated tannins.

Miro grew up in Bulgaria and studied Agronomy and Viticulture there before coming to Napa Valley, then Sonoma County where he studied winemaking. He has become a Zinfandel and Petite Sirah specialist after being introduced to both varieties in California. Miro makes Petite Sirah under his own label, Miro Cellars, as well.

2018 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, Dry Creek, Sonoma County photo
2018 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, Dry Creek, Sonoma County

2018 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, Dry Creek, Sonoma Countydark ruby in the glass with aromas of blackberries, berry bramble and dusty earth. Fruit flavors of blackberries, blueberries and raspberries combine with notes of dusty earth and a savory quality. Tannins are fine and drying in a medium+ body with juicy acidity. 14.7% abv. SRP $30

Miro sources Petite Sirah for this bottling from a 50-year-old vineyard that yields less than 3 tons per acre. He described the head-trained vineyard as beautifully balanced between canopy and fruit.

2018 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, Coyote Ridge, Dry Creek, Sonoma County photo
2018 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, Coyote Ridge, Dry Creek, Sonoma County

2018 Miro Cellars Petite Sirah, Coyote Ridge, Dry Creek, Sonoma Countydark ruby in the glass with flavor of ripe blackberries, dusty earth and hints of cedar. Flavors are bright with black raspberries and blueberries scented with cinnamon and dried herbs all lifted by juicy acidity. Tannins are fine and drying in a medium+ body. 14.8% abv.

Miro finds Petite Sirah to be a reliable variety in the vineyard and relatively easy to grow. The two issues that can arise are the variety’s susceptibility to sunburn and its tendency to rot if rained on. The first issue is easily managed in the vineyard, according to Miro, by leaving enough of a canopy to protect the grapes. Because Petite Sirah doesn’t contain significant levels of pyrazines extra sunlight to control green flavors is unnecessary. Petite Sirah is a relatively early ripener so it doesn’t often get rained on in California, but when it does Miro told us the loss in the vineyard can be swift and widespread.

Wine diamonds photo
Wine diamonds

Both wines have appealing combinations of berry fruit flavors and it would be difficult to choose a favorite. The single vineyard Coyote Ridge slightly edged out the Dry Creek Petite Sirah because it’s a bit more earthy and because I discovered wine diamonds on the cork – a sign to me that the wine isn’t over manipulated in the cellar, which I greatly appreciate.

What I Learned About Petite Sirah

  • Petite Sirah is generally a reliable variety in the vineyard and in the wine cellar. It is reflective of where it is grown and malleable in the hands of the winemaker.
  • Along with controlling ripeness, tannin management is essential for making balanced Petite Sirah. Crop yield in the vineyard, picking time and gentle handling in the wine cellar (short skin contact, gentle pumpovers) are tools winemakers now understand very well.
  • Petite Sirah has the potential to age beautifully (think 10 to 12 years for some.) With regard to aging Jo observed, “There is something about Petite Sirah that is magical.”
  • Most makers of Petite Sirah as a varietal wine are small producers who sell their wines from their tasting room. Talk to them about their Petite Sirah.
  • If you don’t know were to start with Petite Sirah begin with the PS I Love You member list. Every one of these winemakers is dedicated to Petite Sirah and, yes, they love it.
  • If you had asked me before this tasting if I liked Petite Sirah I would have wrinkled my nose. My bad for not being curious enough to move beyond a cursory exploration of the variety. I have learned from my oversight and since this tasting have purchased several Petite Sirahs to taste and review. Stay tuned. As the weather cools we will begin opening them and pairing them with meals. My second goal is to discover that magical quality of aged Petite Sirah. That will take more time.

Cheers!

4 Comments

  1. Tres Goetting

    Great article Nancy! Thank you for all of your efforts and appreciation.

  2. Dear Nancy,

    Speaking of magical, your story is captivating, thorough, and a masterpiece on Petite Sirah. What a lovely story; I’m still savoring every word. Thank you so much on behalf of the members of PS I Love You, Nancy. We really can’t begin to thank you enough.

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