So I’ve decided to start a Petite Sirah series–examining one PS per month for a year, all from the Central Coast. What I’ve had so far I’ve liked, yet it’s still relatively unfamiliar to me, so I will be learning as I go.
It’s probably unfamiliar to most of us, because it’s not as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or even Syrah, other major grapes that come out of California. Yet its history and identity is tied intrinsically with this state.
You may know that Zinfandel is an iconic American wine. Like Carmenere in Chile or Malbec in Argentina, it is a grape that came from an Old World country, only to find its best expression in the New World.
Zinfandel is the same as Primitivo in Italy, yet it is here that it has been refined and promoted to the point of being a household name–even a common drink to serve at Thanksgiving.
Petite Sirah has much of the same story. It is a French grape, Durif, that arrived on California soil in the 19th century. The variety is named after Francois Durif, a Frenchman who discovered a particularly hardy and robust plant among his Peloursin vineyards around 1880. The plant had had a chance encounter with some Syrah pollen from a neighboring vineyard, which gave it its unique qualities. Durif then propogated the wine and named it after himself.
“Petite Sirah” was originally a name for a favored clone of California Syrah in the 19th century, and over the next 50 or so years, was used interchangeably to mean Syrah and Durif, for reasons ampelographers have trouble unraveling.
To make matters more complicated, over the same period, Syrah and Durif were often planted together with other red grapes, and vineyard owners had trouble identifying, or didn’t place importance on identifying, the different grapes.
The variety still suffers an identity crisis today, with many people mistaking it for Syrah. (To read more, check out American Rhone, by Patrick J. Comiskey).
During Prohibition, Petite Sirah was a popular grape, because its hardiness meant it could be shipped in grape form to home winemakers all over the country (who said they were making grape juice!) For the same reason, Syrah grapes dwindled because they weren’t as tough.
Petite Sirah survived in these mixed fields in California while Syrah almost died out during most of the 20th century.
Post-Prohibition, it was blended with other red grapes to add color and tannin to wines, especially in the middle of the century, when Californian winemakers weren’t labeling the grapes on their wines, and even calling Petite Sirah blends “Burgundies.”
(This practice would have you out of a job today–red Burgundy is by law the Pinot Noir grape, and only from the French region of Burgundy.)
The grape was not oficially identified as Durif until the mid-90s, though there are some historical references to it being called “Duriff.” A UC Davis scientist, Carol Meredith, used then-new DNA technology to identify it as the French grape.
With that discovery was born an official interest in this plant that had been lurking in blends and “mixed black” vineyards in California for more than a century, and winemakers began bottling it on its own. Some of them even put together an advocacy group called P.S. I Love You.
With that history, I now bring you the first bottle of the series: Stolpman Vineyards 2014 Petite Sirah–Ballard Canyon. A Santa Barbara winery renowned for its work with Syrah.
The color is blackish fuschia, like squid ink mixed with Jamaica. The nose has graham cracker, sandpaper, blood and brambleberries.
The palate is a satisfying overlay of black fruit with strong underlying red fruit, and that special contradiction so inherent in good red wine–appearing ripe and full while still dry and focused, not at all blowsy. There is a weightless quality to the mid-palate finished by sharp, rusty, yet not unpleasant tannins.
On the second day, it tastes like tomatoes roasted in a clay oven, and Jagermeister.
About this vintage, Stolpman says:
The warm nights of 2014 led to further Petite Sirah blackness and coddled the usually fierce tannin. The 2014 wine is the most approachable out of all of our Petite Sirah bottlings – 2009, 2011, and 2012 vintages. The Mediterranean weather created lush, supple wines that are approachable right out of the gate.
About the taste, they say:
The nose shows a ripe purple-black core with just a hint of zesty tangerine to make things interesting. The wine is dense enough to reward the most ardent teeth-stained Petite Sirah fanatics.
Perhaps because it is the most “approachable” of their bottlings, having riper tannins and a warmer vintage, that is why I like this wine. I tend to be a sucker for softer wines that don’t go overboard into flabby territory.
If you get a chance, try this month’s Petite Sirah, from Stolpman Vineyards. They also have a tasting room in Los Olivos, California.