02/22/2012 10:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Petite Sirah: French Reject Excels in California

Robert Biale's excellent Petites are benchmarks for the grape

Petite Sirah is, along with Zinfandel, one of California's heritage and most distinctive grapes. It can produce wonderfully complex, rich, black fruited wines, often with floral, blueberry, tar, licorice and peppery dimensions.

With several years of bottle age, the wine's huge tannins start to soften and additional savory characteristics start to show. I have had wonderful examples with 20 years or more of age.

Petite Sirah has been grown in California since the 1880s. Its true origins, however, weren't finally established until 1998.

Turns out that over 90% of what's been identified as Petite Sirah in this state was originally the result of a cross between Syrah and Peloursin, an obscure French grape with resistance to powdery mildew. This crossing happened in southern French vineyards tended by Dr. Francois Durif, a botanist at the University of Montpellier in the 1870s. Dr. Durif gave the resulting vine his own name, Durif, and marketed it starting in 1880 as a mildew-resistant alternative to Syrah, a condition that plagues Syrah in many parts of France.

Unfortunately, the grape also inherited from its Peloursin parent thin skins and a tendency to bunch very tightly. These characteristics made it highly prone to grey rot when grown in the relatively humid conditions of most French vineyards. As a result, farmers there quickly quit using it and it became virtually extinct in France.

Fortunately for those of us who love the big, bold flavors of the wine and its tendency to age well, the grape also made its way to California in the 1880s. Here it was typically planted along with other black grapes, like Syrah and Zinfandel, in field blends. Some growers called it "Petite Sirah," which was a name by which it was known in France, because the grapes were smaller than Syrah grapes. Eventually, in the Italian winegrowing families in which very old vines of the grape became a legacy, the name contracted to something like "pettasera."

While it was suspected among grape experts that many old vines identified as Petite Sirah might be Durif, due to their appearance, a definitive answer wasn't available until U.C. Davis Professor Carole Meredith published her 1998 DNA study showing that over 90% of the old vines known as Petite Sirah in California were actually Durif. Those that aren't Durif are misidentified vines of Syrah, Peloursin or a crossing of Peloursin and Durif.

U.C. Davis Professor Emeritus Carole Meredith

California's relatively warm, dry wine-growing climates allow Durif to ripen with relatively little of the grey rot that derailed the grape in France. The grape likewise does well in Australia's warm Rutherglen region, where it has been grown since the early 1900s.

Because of its dark color, high tannins and strong black fruit flavors, it was historically used as a blending grape. A small percent helps to make more structured and ageworthy Zinfandels. Ridge and Rosenblum are among the producers that have long included it in many of their Zins. It was also added to Cabernets and Pinots in years when those grapes lacked color or needed a shot of tannin.

Livermore Valley's Concannon was the very first producer to bottle wine from the grape under the label Petite Sirah, in 1964, after prodding by a Pasadena grocery store buyer who promised to take the whole production. Now there are dozens of Petite Sirah producers in California, and it's become a very popular grape among many winemakers.

A Petite Sirah advocacy organization, PS I Love You, was formed in 2002 after a symposium devoted to the grape was held at Foppiano Vineyards. This past Friday, over 55 producers of Petite Sirah participated in the fifth annual public event devoted to the grape -- an event called Dark & Delicious -- at Rock Wall Winery in Alameda.

"Dark & Delicious" annual Petite Sirah tasting event

There I got to check in on a lot of producers whose wines I've enjoyed over the years, as well as to learn about a couple of new ones whose wines were quite good. I highly recommend the event too for the delicious food that's offered, by over 35 purveyors, to show how well Petite Sirah/Durif pairs with a variety of food, from barbecue, pulled pork and meaty pastas to dark chocolate.

Producers who do an excellent job with the grape, and whose wines have a track record of aging well, include Corté Riva, Foley, Freemark Abbey, Ridge, Robert Biale, Rosenblum, Stags' Leap and Turley. Other newer producers who are producing delicious versions are Aver Family, David Fulton, Gustafson, Heringer Estates, Mettler Family, Stanton and Tres Sabores. A brand new, small Sonoma-based producer I was quite impressed with is Trueheart. Good producers of bargain priced versions of Petite Sirah are Concannon and Lava Cap.

On the downside for a lot of wine consumers is the fact that some of the best Petites require several years of aging to show their best. I cannot recommend highly enough, however, the ultimate rewards of letting these bottles sit for awhile.

See the full report on the tasting on my blog for notes on 77 wines sampled from 42 producers, including indications of which ones are ready to drink now and how long it will take before some of the bigger, more tannic versions are ready for drinking.