Cabernet sauvignon had nothing on petite sirah in the late 1800s in Napa Valley. It was petite sirah, among numerous other varietals, that dominated red grape plantings at the time. Some of these early petite sirah plantings were likely syrah instead; grape identification was not the science it is today. Historically, these grapes were blended together in what are called field blends. The varieties did not get a chance to shine on their own.

As varietal-labeled wines came into popularity, grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and pinot noir gained star power, leaving petite sirah and syrah in the dust. Petite sirah was pegged as a dominatrix of sorts: high tannins, high alcohol, and a deep, opaque color that made one question whether they would ever see the light again. Syrah had been thrust up and then discarded as the ‘next best thing’; it’s only fault being that it was not cabernet sauvignon.

Yet, here we are in 2015, and these wines have taken a fierce stance. They are staying in the Napa Valley — and they are better than ever. The thick oak-flavored cloaks that the wines used to wear have been shed; and some of the alcohol or tannin imbalances that existed in these wines have been massaged, with a revised focus on the complex fruit flavors that each of these grapes can provide.

Today current plantings of petite sirah beat out syrah in Napa County. Petite sirah has 832 acres in the region, and is the eighth most planted grape here. Syrah follows in ninth place with 787 acres.

The Napa Valley Vintner and St. Helena Star Tasting Panel recently reviewed 18 wines made from these varietals at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena. Panelists included local winemakers, retailers, restaurateurs and others in the local wine trade. Two flights of syrah from the 2012 and 2013 vintages, a flight of petite sirah and a flight of red blends were tasted and assessed.

Following a blind tasting, the vintages and wines were discussed. Bill Dyer of Dyer Vineyards called the 2013 vintage the best vintage in a long time – since 1985, and preferred the wines from this year. He found balance and a restrained use of oak.

Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards also commented on the balance and restrained use of oak, adding, “there are nice values with many wines priced around $40.”

David Stevens of boutique retailer 750 Wines in St. Helena was another fan of the 2013 vintage, as well as the 2012 vintage. He noted, “It was hard to choose a favorite [in the flights]. The wines were bright, aromatic.”

Josh Widaman, winemaker at Lewis Cellars, said the wines showed a “definition of place and variety” and he enjoyed the “roasty, gaminess of syrah, and also the brightness, more floral aspects in some.”

The following won top spots in each of the four flights:

Broman Cellars 2013 Proprietary Red Wine Napa Valley ($36). A sip of this Broman takes you to a field of red plum trees and ripe raspberry bushes with the slight scent of eucalyptus rising up in the air. As panelist Krysta Scully pointed out, this small producer “kills it in these tastings. The wines are flavorful, balanced, great finds, and made by such nice people.”

PEJU 2012 Syrah Napa Valley ($38). This 100 percent syrah wine is aged in American oak, 25 percent new, for 16 months. The oak-influenced flavors are nicely integrated with vibrant black cherry and blackberry fruit, dried herbs with a touch of lavender. This is a delicious steal for the price.

Rocca Family Vineyards 2013 Grigsby Vineyard Syrah Yountville ($48). Winemaker Celia Welch Masyczek made the first vintages for Mary Rocca and Eric Grigsby. Now Paul Colantuoni has the winemaking reins. This syrah is a big, dark red-berried wine with toasty vanilla and plenty of tannic grip. Not shy on alcohol, you’ll want to pair this wine with food (barbecue ribs, beef roast, lamb stew.)

Quixote Winery 2012 Petite Sirah Stags Leap District ($75). This wine is made by Aaron Pott and Damon Bailey, and is a powerhouse of fresh red fruits, pungent spices including black and white pepper, sweet baking spices such as vanilla, and a distinct toastiness. Interestingly, former proprietor Carl Doumani had Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser design the winery in 1996 as a statement against the very serious business that wine has become in the valley.

Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at catbugue@gmail.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.

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