Wine: Petite sirah deserves some love

Among wine people, it feels vaguely embarrassing to admit that you enjoy petite sirah. Last year, after I recommended a $9.99 Bogle petite sirah as one of several inexpensive, widely available “gateway” bottles for young millennials just discovering wine beyond the Franzia box, a sommelier friend chided me. “Are you kidding me, dude? Petite sirah?” I was sufficiently shamed, for about 30 seconds. Then I asked him what else — from California, at that price point, as easy to find — he’d recommend. I was met with silence.

Can anyone tell me why California petite sirah doesn’t get more love from the cognoscenti? It certainly has some of the elements they love: It’s relatively obscure; it’s confusing; it pairs well with some hard-to-pair-with dishes. Is it the word “petite” that scares away macho wine dudes? Or is it the weird, Americanized spelling of sirah, without the “y”?

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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Certainly the classic taste of tooth-staining, tannic petite sirah isn’t for everyone, but fans like me appreciate the deep, rich flavors and aromas of blueberry, spice, chocolate and sometimes even cedar or eucalyptus, markedly different from American zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon. Mark Oldman, in his “Oldman’s Brave New World of Wine,” calls petite sirah “dark and intense as a dominatrix’s boot.” Even one of the producers I recommend, Villa San-Juliette in Paso Robles, calls it “blueberry motor oil” on its bottle and warns drinkers, “Don’t spill it on your shirt.”

In any case, it’s no surprise that petite sirah producers in California banded together in 2002 to form a support group called P.S. I Love You.

Every great wine country in the world makes wines from an idiosyncratic grape that offers a good-value alternative to the trophy wines. In Germany, silvaner is poured at weinstubes (taverns) in contrast to Riesling; in Italy’s Piedmont, dolcetto is an everyday alternative to the prized nebbiolo wines; and in central Spain, mencia from Bierzo offers a cool change-up to ubiquitous tempranillo. Perhaps we can see petite sirah similarly in relation to the big, expensive Napa and Sonoma cabs.

What is petite sirah, anyway? Most of it is actually a grape called durif, a cross between syrah and peloursin originating in late-19th-century France. Almost no durif remains in France, but some it made its way to California, where it became a catch-all name for a number of grapes, some of which may have been syrah. “They decided to give it a new name, including a French word for prestige, and something a bit easier to spell than Syrah,” wrote Roy Andries de Groot in his 1982 book “The Wines of California, The Pacific Northwest and New York.” These days, petite sirah and durif are synonymous, and California is its prime terroir.

Petite sirah has always been used for blending. If a particular year’s zinfandel was a little flabby and in need of some tannic backbone or a darker purple hue, you can bet petite sirah was added.

I keep waiting for petite sirah to have its moment. In 2000, there were 60 producers of it. Today, there are more than 800. And more wineries are planting the grape: In 1992, 3,000 acres of petite sirah were grown in California; two decades later the total is nearly 8,500 acres. Many believe that the 2010, found on shelves now, might be the best petite vintage since it started being bottled as a single varietal in 1961. I figured it was a good time to do a tasting, so I gathered about 20 bottles, which wasn’t easy.

What I was able to find for the tasting took me on a tour of California, including less-celebrated areas such as Lodi, Clarksburg and Lake County. What I found in the tasting ran the gamut from fresh, bright, young and low-alcohol to big, lush and high-alcohol. What I also found was great value at all price points, with $12 to $17 as the sweet spot. Those seem like perfect wines for rich, fatty meats, such as barbecued ribs or spicy Korean and Indian dishes.

The problem, as usual: availability in the Washington area.

I’d wanted to include the Miraflores Petite Sirah 2006 from El Dorado, in the Sierra Foothills, which I’d tasted on a recent trip to California. I think the Sierra Foothills may just be California’s most exciting emerging wine region. Sadly, here on the East Coast, we see very little wine from the Sierra Foothills; it might well be as exotic as wine from Hungary or Uruguay or Macedonia. Likewise, in local stores, petite sirah can be so hard to find that it feels like an obscure foreign variety.

Wine geeks, take note. Maybe it’s time for a little P.S. love?

Wilson writes about spirits monthly for the Food section. He is editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist. Dave McIntyre’s column will return next week.

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