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Petite Sirah

Big, bold and powerful American red wines come in many varieties. But for me, full-bodied, well-crafted Petite Sirahs are where many palates have been heading the past 20 years. Substantial, dark and eminently drinkable, these wines should be tried and experienced.

Petite Sirah, however, gets little recognition in the general marketplace. Although many wine industry folks love Petite Sirah, it still represents just a tiny blip in production and overall wine sales. According to Nielsen’s U.S. supermarket and other large volume off-premise outlets, in 2015, Petite Sirah sold just about 300,000 cases for a minuscule 0.2 percent share of table wine volume. This really should change.

Lisanne Leask, assistant winemaker at Rutherford Hill said: “I love how Petite Sirah ages. It is such a powerhouse of tannin and can be unapproachable initially, but I am in awe of how fresh and intriguing it can be after 10 or 20 years.”

A brief history of Petite Sirah

Petite Sirah began its life when an amateur French botanist named Dr. Francois Durif crossed grape varietals Peloursin (mother) and Syrah (father) and created a grape he named after himself (Durif). He brought his creation to California in the late 1880s, and at some point in the late 1880s, growers changed the name to Petite Sirah, possibly due to the berries’ diminutiveness.

For years, Petite Sirah grapes were widely planted throughout California vineyards, but mostly used as a blending grape that provided other wines with needed dark color and tannins. In 1961, Concannon Vineyard in the Livermore Valley became the first winery to varietally label Petite Sirah and helped put this zesty grape on the map.

In fact, Concannon (which has been around since 1884) still makes an entire series of Petites, including their smoky Heritage Petite Sirah. A few winemakers today are going back in time and naming their wines Durif instead of Petite Sirah.

As for where it is grown, according to the USDA California 2016 Grape Acreage Report, most Petite Sirah is cultivated in San Joaquin County (2,583 acres), followed by San Luis Obispo (1,656 acres) and Sacramento (955 acres) counties respectively. By comparison, Napa County grew 824 acres of Petite Sirah, Yolo 753 acres, Sonoma 633 acres and Solano County a mere 168 acres.

Wines produced from Petite Sirah grapes tend to be inky, some nearly black, others exhibit purple or very dark blue pigmentation. (Yes, they will stain!) Descriptors include fruit forward, powerful, tannic, black pepper, spicy, concentrated and recognizable blueberry and blackberry profiles. Often rounded with oak, winemakers have learned how to tame and refine Petite Sirah to bring out this grape’s intricate complexity and wonderful flavors while softening its rough edges. As a bonus, most Petites cost much less than comparably intense Cabernets or Cab based blends.

“Dark and delicious; The only thing petite is the name,” said Miro Tcholakov, longtime director of winemaking at Sonoma’s Trentadue Winery. “I’ve been making standalone Petite Sirah for more than 25 years for Dry Creek, Trentadue and Miro Cellars.”

I recently conducted an extensive tasting of current Petite for this article and can say the overall quality was excellent. My favorite and best of breed is:

Stags’ Leap Winery Petite Sirah 2014 Napa Valley ($32). So elegant, this wine is the less expensive of Stags’ Leap Petites. Smooth, expertly balanced, berrylicious; a rewarding mouthfeel and great finish, this is such a delicious wine. Big red wines drinkers should certainly try Stags’ Leap’s Petite Sirah to understand how good this varietal can taste.

Coming in a close second was Biale’s 2015 Royal Punishers ($45). This big, blue-black Petite from Napa’s Oak Knoll District features floral tendencies on the nose, then strong tannins, grand berries and chocolatey notes. Plus, a long and resounding finish. This is one confident wine that can pair with hearty foods or enjoyed on its own.

Other finalists included:

Boeger 2015 El Dorado County ($20). A fine wine at a great price. Vanilla on the nose, approachable and easy to drink. Still, make no mistake, this is a sturdy wine and sure crowdpleaser.

Quixote 2009 Petite Sirah ($90). This big boy from Napa is yummy, expensive, but quite delectable.

Tenbrink 2015 Suisun Valley Petite Sirah ($50). Very cherry berry, and good typicity. A masculine Petite Sirah people will enjoy.

Other worthy Petite Sirahs from my marathon tasting:

Stanton Vineyards Saint Helena ($45). A bit smoky, deep and dark, rich and mysterious.

Maxville 2014 Napa Valley ($65). Very well balanced, nice nose and mouthfeel.

Mangels 2012 Suisun Valley ($20). Deep purple, easy-going, a friendly wine. 2015 Rutherford Hill ($50). From Calistoga vineyards, this wine is both strong yet nuanced. Very good.

Tratorre Farms 2014 Petite Sirah ($60). This luscious wine is restrained, yet still packs a fig and chocolatey punch.

“Petite Sirah is experiencing a major renaissance; word is spreading that PS is truly velvet in the bottle with its deep purple color and thick silky mouth feel,” said Theodora Lee, Theopolis Vineyards (Yorkville Highlands), proprietor and viticulturist.

For more information about Petite Sirah producers, stories and events see: PS I LOVE YOU, a Petite Sirah advocacy group. www.psiloveyou.org/

Dave Pramuk, co-Founder, Biale Vineyards on Napa’s Big Ranch Road said, “Petite Sirah is the most underrated Californian varietal for sheer pleasure and longevity. The best are beautifully hedonistic and collectors know they have tremendous staying power.”

Red wine lovers should seek out a good Petite Sirah. You may be surprised at how rich and satisfying these wines can be.

Bob Ecker is a Napa-based wine writer and photographer

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