For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.
PS: The Prohibition Grape
It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.
Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household. Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)
So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.
Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.
But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS. There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.
PS Renaissance: Why Now?
Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.
But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.
The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel. That’s why I planted it: a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.
I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.
People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese. At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well. My main source of PS is up in Calistoga. Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.
A Certain Smile
Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.
If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 - 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.
“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located. … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!
In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.
Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel? Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.
I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.
Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.