The winegrape Durif is an interesting specimen. It is a red variety that usually produces tannic wines of deep color, with a spicy-plummy flavor profile. The grape is a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, and originated from the Rhône-Alpes region in eastern France. It is primarily grown in California, Australia, France, and Israel, but has also made recent in-roads in Washington, Maryland, Arizona, West Virginia, Chile, Mexico, and Ontario.
So, why is it that most Americans have never heard of the grape? Well, because it also goes by another name, petite sirah, which is the name that most producers give their wines.
Durif/Petite Sirah first came to California in the late 19th century and found an early home in the Livermore Valley, particularly at Concannon Vineyard. Eventually, it made its way into the other growing regions of California, including Napa Valley. Total California acreage of petite sirah peaked at around 14,000 by 1976, but steadily declined over the 15 years to a low of 1,400 acres in 1990. In recent years, due in part to a new-found appreciation of the grape, total vineyard acreage has climbed to roughly 7,500.
Petite sirah is often used for blending with zinfandel or cabernet to add color and structure, but it really shines when bottled as a single varietal. Petite sirah wines from Napa Valley are particularly good examples of how great they can be.
This is what over 25 winemakers, merchants and journalists discovered at the recent gathering of the St. Helena Star/Napa Valley Vintners Tasting Panel. The panel tasted through 18 different petite sirahs from Napa Valley. Needless to say, several individuals had purple teeth after all was said and done.
Three wines in particular stood out from the crowd: Three Clicks, B Cellars and Ballentine Vineyards.
The Three Clicks 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($35) displays a dense inky color with beautiful forward flavors of blackberry, blueberry, gingerbread, nutmeg, licorice, black pepper, vanilla, dried flowers, black tea, and a hint of leather. In the mouth, the wine exhibits a well-crafted balance with a fleshy mid-palate, soft tannins (for a petite sirah), and a complex finish. As a group, panelists felt this was a tremendously balanced and well-made wine.
The B Cellars 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($42) shows great fruit intensity with aromas/flavors of black plum, black cherry, black raspberry, cedar, molasses, cassis, violets, dark coffee, cola, cardamom, and a hint of chocolate. On the palate, it is lush and full bodied, with good structure and a creamy mouthfeel. This wine stood out for its long, lingering finish.
Ballentine Vineyards 2008 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($24) is a deep purple color and exhibits a lot of dark blackberry, blueberry, black pepper, rose petal, sage, cocoa, vanilla oak, and toffee. The wine has a heavy body with firm, dusty tannins with good balance. The group liked this one for its complexity and richness.
As always, a discussion of the wines took place at the conclusion of the tasting with some poignant observations. Several winemakers expressed how surprised they were that the wines were so varietally consistent overall. They expected to see more variation. Alison Crary of Sterling Vineyards summarized the tasting as a “crash course on petite sirah.” Consequently, as a group, the wines showed very well.
That said, however, the panel was drawn to the younger wines in the tasting. While there were 2006 and 2007 vintage wines present, the 2008s as a whole were preferred. Hugh Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards made the point that the older wines seemed out of balance and lacked the vibrancy and youth of the 2008s. This led to a question by Eric Carpenter of the St. Helena Wine Merchants: “Do petite sirah wines lose their fruit too quickly?” To which most of the winemakers in the room agreed that the fruit does “fall off” with age. It was obvious from this discussion that the panel preferred their petite sirah fresh, lively and fruity.
In conclusion, David Stevens from 750 Wines probably summed it up best: “Why wait for it?” So, drink them while they are young, and enjoy!
(Michael Wangbickler is a senior account manager at Balzac Communications and Marketing in Napa. He holds a diploma in Wine & Spirits (DWS) from the London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE). The wines tasted were provided by member wineries of the Napa Valley Vintners, the nonprofit trade association representing nearly 400 wineries. Not all wines submitted are tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program. Visit www.napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.)