Rethinking Petite Sirah

Do you have preconceived ideas about different grapes? For example, do you generalize that all Chardonnays are oak-y and buttery or all rosé wines are sweet? I am a proponent of having an open mind when it comes to wine. But, we all have preconceived ideas of how something will taste and sometimes those notions block us from reality. As open minded as I think I am with wine, I found out that I had a preconceived notion about Petite Sirah. So, I challenged myself to taste 18 different wines and wrote about my new perspective in the Napa Valley Register which you can read here.

In wine, there are no absolutes. “Always” and “Never” are two words that should not be used in wine. We cannot say that Chardonnay is always oaked, or Sauvignon Blanc is never oaked.

And, when I am offering wine education tips to people, and they tell me that they “do not like any white wine” or “never drink Chardonnay”, I always respond that they have made very generalized statements. There is an entire world of white wines out there, and I am sure I could find a few they would like. And the same goes for Chardonnay. I am sure I could find at least one that would change the person’s mind.

But recently, I caught myself not heeding my own words. I am always open to trying new wines and love exploring new grape varieties. I have my go-to grapes as well. But one wine I found myself avoiding was Petite Sirah. I would never seek one out in a wine store or on a wine list. I had a preconceived notion that Petite Sirah was an overpowering, jammy, inky wine. I thought it was time to revisit the grape that I have been avoiding. And while Petite Sirah is neither petite nor Syrah, I was completely wrong about it, and am here to admit it.

Petite Sirah was discovered by botanist Francois Durif in the 1860s in southwest France. Called Durif, it is a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, a nearly extinct grape variety. Petite Sirah made its way to California in the late 1800s and was the most commonly planted grape in Napa Valley for nearly a century. In the 1930s, there were approximately 7,500 acres of Petite Sirah in California, and in 1976, acreage peeked around 14,000 acres.

Petite Sirah became a popular grape among winemakers who would use it to add color, fruit or structure to another wine, such as Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon. But Petite Sirah never got the merit it deserved. It has been disparaged by many (I was not alone) and by 1995, California’s Petite Sirah acreage diminished to a low of 2,400 acres.

Petite Sirah deserves much more attention and fortunately, there have been some strong proponents of the grape. In 2001, acreage grew to 4,000 in California. Petite Sirah has continued to grow, and today the 2020 U.S. Department of Agriculture Report number for Petite Sirah is 12,169 acres.

While Napa Valley pulled out Petite Sirah to plant Cabernet Sauvignon, leaving less than one percent planted, Petite Sirah is grown in the north coast of Sonoma, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Mendocino, Lake County and Lodi.

In 2002, Foppiano Vineyards produced the first annual Noble Petite Sirah Symposium. While brainstorming for the symposium, a discussion led to the creation of P.S. I Love You, the marketing advocacy group for Petite Sirah. The mission of the group is “to promote, educate and legitimize Petite Sirah as a noble wine grape variety, with a special emphasis on its terroir uniqueness.”

Wine marketer Jo Diaz, one of the people who brainstormed the idea, became the executive director of P.S. I Love You. The first year, there were 30 growers who joined the group and today there are 60 members of P.S. I Love You.

Petite Sirah is a small, intensely colored berry that produces an aromatic wine with deep, rich flavors of blueberry, blackberry, marionberry, chocolate, earth, and spice.

Petite Sirah is high in tannins, which winemakers today can manage through choices in vinification as well as barrel aging. Petite Sirah is also high in acidity. Petite Sirah has aging potential. But best of all, it is a good wine for pairing with food. Petite Sirah is not as full-bodied as I had thought. Any preconceived ideas should be thrown out the door as Petite Sirah works with a wide variety of proteins, from big robust meat dishes to a lightly grilled steak or roasted pork.

— Vincent Arroyo Family Winery 2017 Petite Sirah, Calistoga (13.7% alcohol) [$42], 868 cases

Established in 1974 by Vincent Arroyo, today Matt Moye, Vincent’s son-in-law, is the owner and winemaker. The family winery has 85 acres in Calistoga where they dry farm 10 varieties. Petite Sirah is their favorite grape and they produce four different Petite Sirah bottlings. Petite Sirah loves the heat and Calistoga is a great area to grow it in. Some of the vines date to 1975. This wine is a blend of different blocks, each fermented separately.

This wine is aged in 30 percent new American Oak and 70 percent two to three-year-old American Oak barrels. The wine has a perfume of dark fruit notes, especially black cherry and black plum, chocolate, and spice and sandy tannins. Moye said he loves the color of Petite Sirah, “a great all-around drinking wine.” He says, “Cabernet Sauvignon is great but Petite Sirah has so much going on. It is unique and not the same old wine that everyone else drinks. But drink too much and your teeth turn purple.”

— Berryessa Gap 2017 Petite Sirah, Yolo County (14.3% alcohol) [$28], 85 percent Petite Sirah, 8 percent Zinfandel, 7 percent Peloursin, 650 cases

Winemaker Nicole Salengo did not think she liked Petite Sirah when she first tried it. Having played around with how to make it, she has created a rounder, lighter style Petite Sirah. Sourced from the Berryessa Gap Vineyard in Yolo County, the Petite Sirah thrives in the hot days and cool nights. This Petite Sirah is co-fermented with Zinfandel and Peloursin and then aged for 18 months in neutral French oak. The wine is light and bright with notes of sour cherries, baked apple, dusty clay, and chocolate- covered cherries. On the palate, the wine is smooth with lively acidity and finishes with blueberry and spice notes.

— Robert Biale Vineyards 2017 Petite Sirah, Royal Punishers, Napa Valley (14.9% alcohol) [$49]

At Robert Biale Vineyards, winemaker Tres Goetting specializes in heritage vineyards of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The Royal Punishers Petite Sirah is grown in Rutherford. The name Royal Punishers is an anagram for the parents of Petite Sirah, Syrah and Peloursi. The trellised vines are 15 years old and are rather vigorous. The wine is aged in Burgundian Oak, 30 percent new, for 17 months. This is a big wine with aromas of blueberries, currants, blackberries, quince, violets, and graphite. It is a structured with smooth sandy tannins.

— Robert Biale Vineyards 2017 Petite Sirah, Palisades Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa Valley (14.8% alcohol) [$58], 145 cases

The Palisades Vineyard is located on the eastern side of Calistoga. With plantings dating to 1878, the oldest vines on the property are Petite Sirah vines planted in 1968. Today there is a total of 11.3 acres of old vine, head trained, dry farmed Petite Sirah. This Petite Sirah is aged in Burgundian Oak, 30 percent new, for 18 months. The wine has deep dark aromas of blueberry, lavender, and mineral notes, with a hint of chocolate. The wine has grippy, slightly drying tannins yet the fresh acidity keeps the wine lingering on the palate.

— Davis Estates 2015 Phase V, Calistoga (15.9% alcohol) ($105), 141 cases

The Davis family purchased the century-old estate winery in Calistoga in 2011. Their Phase V wines are limited production wines, made by Philippe Melka and available to members of their Founders Club. The Petite Sirah spends 28 months in 80 percent new 400-liter French oak Puncheons and has aromas of plum, black cherry, blackberry, currant, black tea, violets, chocolate, graphite and earthy notes with drying tannins and a spicy finish.

— Legacy Wines 2017 Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley (14.5% alcohol), 88 percent Petite Sirah, 12 percent Syrah

Founded in 1990 by Jess Jackson, the Legacy label was first created to mark cellar-worthy reds from the mountainous Stonestreet Estate. The Field Stone estate vineyards located in the Alexander Valley are more than 120 years old. The Petite Sirah blocks were first planted in the stony soils in 1894. The 2017 has pretty aromas of violets and chocolate covered blueberries with drying tannins and fresh acidity.

— Merisi 2017 Petite Sirah, Diener Vineyard, Lake County (15.35% alcohol) ($60), 500 cases

Owner and winemaker Mandy Donovan was introduced to Petite Sirah as a consumer. When she first got into the wine industry, she made Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But eight years ago, she was offered Petite Sirah grapes. Today, Petite Sirah is one of the grapes she focuses on. She likes to offer familiar alternatives to customers, replacing Cabernet Sauvignon with Petite Sirah. A versatile wine, she says it is a surprise to people when they try it. Her Petite Sirah is sourced from Lake County. It is a full-bodied wine with plush blueberry fruits, lead pencil and cocoa powder. But the wine also has restraint.

— Miro 2018 Petite Sirah, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County (14.7% alcohol) ($30), 297 cases

Owner and winemaker Miro Tcholakov first encountered Petite Sirah 30 years ago. Immigrating from Bulgaria, he had never heard of Petite Sirah, Durif or Zinfandel, but he immediately fell in love with the grape. Miro described it as “very American in a way. Petite Sirah can be big and extracted. It can be petrol-like to thick in concentration to light bodied. It is limitless in a way.” Miro approaches Petite Sirah like Pinot Noir, doing gentle extractions, short pump overs, minimum skin contact and tannin management.

This wine, sourced from the Coyote Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, is aged in 25 percent new European oak barrels for 11 months. It has aromas of black raspberry, blackberry, crushed violets, and vanilla. The wine is medium bodied with soft tannins and a juicy finish. It is a wine I would describe as fresh elegance.

— Miro 2017 Petite Sirah Reserve, Coyote Ridge Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County (15.2% alcohol) ($48), 124 cases

The Coyote Vineyard is a dry-farmed vineyard with red manzanita soil. The Petite Sirah vines are 50 years old. Aged for 18 months in 40 percent new French and American oak barrels and 60 percent neutral older barrels, this wine has a pretty nose of blueberry, blackberry, plum, violets, licorice, white pepper, cinnamon, and cedar with chocolate undertones. The wine is juicy on the palate with drying tannins.

— Scheid Vineyards 2016 Estate Petite Sira, Hames Valley Vineyard, Hames Valley, Monterey (14.9% alcohol) [$36], 311 cases

Al Scheid purchased 10 acres in Monterey County in 1972. Today, Scheid Vineyards encompasses 12 estate vineyards along a 70-mile spread of the Salinas Valley, encompassing four primary climate zones. The Hames Valley Vineyard is located in the southern part of the valley where there are long, warm days and diurnal swings at night.

The wine is aged for 20 months in 43 percent French oak, 36 percent American oak, and 21 percent Hungarian oak. The nose is ripe with bold aromas of blackberry jam, cloves, and cedar. The palate has a firm structure and drying tannins with fresh acidity.

— Scheid Vineyards Stokes’ Ghost 2016 Petite Sirah, Hames Valley, Monterey (14.5% alcohol) [$34.99]

Fewer than two percent of the grapes grown by the Scheid family are used for the Scheid Vineyard wines. Stokes’ Ghost, named after the British sailor James Stokes, who was a phony physician in the 1800s in Monterey, is another label exclusively of Petite Sirah. Aged in American, French, and Hungarian oak for 12 months, the wine is bold with dark black fruit and chocolate notes. A full-bodied wine, it coats the palate with soft tannins and bright acidity.

— Stanton Vineyards 2017 Petite Sirah, Saint Helena (15.3% alcohol) [$45], 231 cases

The Stanton family began growing grapes in the Napa Valley in 1947 but did not start making wine until 1999. Owner Doug Stanton, a fan of Petite Sirah, began designating some of the Petite Sirah for a single bottling in 2004. The 2017 is the 14th consecutive year to produce this Petite Sirah, which spent 20 months in American and French oak barrels. Dark black fruits, cola and chocolate aromas open to an elegant wine with smooth tannins.

— Stags’ Leap Winery 2017 Petite Sirah Napa Valley (14.1% alcohol) [$47], 31,687 cases, 85 percent Petite Sirah, 6 percent Syrah, 6 percent Grenache, 3 percent mixed Rhones

CEO and winemaker Christophe Paubert was introduced to Petite Sirah when he was hired at Stags’ Leap Winery. Petite Sirah and Stags’ Leap Winery have a historic connection. Petite Sirah was planted in the vineyard in the 1880s. Carl Doumani purchased the property in 1970 and fell in love with the grape. According to Christophe, the idea is to not overdo it. It is a grape that should not be overextracted. If it is made to be approachable, it is a “wine of plenty” with all the aromatic families, fruity, floral, spicy and earthy.

The 2017 Petite Sirah has a pretty nose of violets, spice, blackberry, and earth. The wine is bigger on the palate with added notes of leather. The fine-grained tannins are slightly gripping and elegant.

— Stags’ Leap 2016 Ne Cede Malis Estate Grown Petite Sirah, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley (14.5% alcohol) [$150], 500 cases, 85 percent Petite Sirah and 15 percent other varieties

The family motto of Stags’ Leap founder Horace Chase is ‘Don’t give in to misfortune,” or in Latin “Ne Cede Malis.” This wine is sourced from a five-acre single block that includes Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, and Syrah, as well as Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, and others. This field blend was planted in 1929, before Prohibition, and the vines are all head-trained. The grapes are co-fermented and then aged in American oak barrels, 30 percent new, for 14 months. The nose has fresh aromatics ranging from blackberry and violets to spice and chocolate. On the palate, it is a delicate yet structured wine with softly drying tannins and an elegant finish.

— 2017 Trentadue Estate Heart’s Desire Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley Estate, Sonoma County (14.8% alcohol) [$32], 239 cases

The Trentadue family purchased 208 acres in the Alexander Valley in 1959. They were one of the first wineries to bottle single variety Petite Sirah in 1969. Miro Tcholakov has been the winemaker for 20 years. The average age of the vines is 35 years old. This wine is a blend of eight handpicked barrels by Miro. The final blend, which consists of 78 percent Petite Sirah, 19 percent Syrah, 2 percent Merlot, 1 percent Montepulciano, is aged in 60 percent new oak barrels.

The wine has a pretty nose of black cherry, cassis, blackberries, and chocolate. The tannins are soft, yet gripping, and the acidity is fresh adding a bright lift to the wine.

— Trentadue Winery 2018 La Storia Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley Estate, Sonoma Country (14.9% alcohol) [$34] 2,446 cases

Made from a blend of the best blocks of Petite Sirah, there is 10-15 percent of Syrah and Zinfandel added to soften the Petite Sirah. A concentrated wine with notes of blackberry, blueberry, baking spices and cacao, the wine is bold and rich on the palate. The tannins are soft yet drying and the fruit notes continue through the finish with added earthy notes.

— Tres Sabores 2016 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley (14% alcohol) [$45], 100 cases

Julie Johnson, owner and winemaker of Tres Sabores, bought her 35-acre property in Rutherford in 1987. She found Petite Sirah already on her property that had been planted in 1971 and decided to keep the original vines to pay homage to the grape’s history in Napa. When Julie first came to Napa, she tasted a lot of Petite Sirah but had not fallen in love with it. But she started adding it to her Por Que No wine because it needed an earthy background. Today, Julie makes two separate bottlings of Petite Sirah.

The Tres Sabores 2016 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley is primarily sourced from her dry-farmed estate vineyard in Rutherford that sits on the valley floor and consists of alluvial fan with rocky loam soils. A small amount of Petite Sirah is blended in from the Guarino Vineyard in Calistoga where the soil is almost completely of volcanic origin and ranges from gravelly loam to a heavy clay-silt soil. After gentle pressing, the wine is put into 100 percent American oak, 30 percent of which is new, for more than 24 months. The Tres Sabores 2016 Petite Sirah has a beautiful aromatic freshness with notes of dark blackberry and Marionberry as well as chocolate and cedar. It is a lively wine that Julie describes as “fun and scrumptious.”

— Varozza Vineyards 2015 Petite Sirah, St. Helena, Napa Valley (15% alcohol) [$50], 250 cases

The Varozza family has been in the Napa Valley for 100 years and five generations. They have 38 acres in the heart of the St. Helena appellation. Their property is home to Petite Sirah vines that are more than 60 years old. The 2015 is full-bodied with aromas of blackberry, fig and prunes, as well as notes of black tea, graphite, anise, cacao and coffee. On the palate the wine has grippy tannins and juicy fruit finish.

Tasting 18 different Petite Sirahs was an eye-opening experience. On the one hand, Petite Sirah is a consistent grape yet on the other hand, it is diverse and can be stylistically different. What I most enjoyed about tasting all of these different Petite Sirahs was the perfumes and the acidity. Petite Sirah is not petite but it can be elegant and gentler, or it can be hedonistic. It is a grape that many have fallen in love with and I must confess that I have come around to Petite Sirah.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.