Taming California’s Petite Sirah

Taming California's Petite Sirah

When Napa Valley’s Frank Family Vineyards, a noted Cabernet Sauvignon producer, released its 2009 Reserve Petite Sirah last year for $65, gasps were heard around the California wine world. $65? For Petite Sirah?

A meaty red with historic roots in California, Petite Sirah is known as a structured, inky wine that’s tough on its own and used to add tannins and acids to blends. But over the past decade, it has cultivated a rapidly expanding fan base.

P.S. I Love You is a group of producers who’ve banded together to promote the variety. The organization’s relaxed, teeth-staining tastings attract rabid crowds. Devotees attend in search of Petite Sirah’s bold, dense black-plum fruit, its peppery and tannic nature and its affordable price.

But high-end Napa Cabernet Sauvignon producers like Frank Family, Freemark Abbey and Stags’ Leap Winery, as well as small wineries (Quixote, Carlisle Winery & Vineyards, C•Beck, Rock Wall Wine Company, Envy Wines, Sheldon, McCay Cellars and Aratás, to name a few) are tinkering with the variety. The goal is to make more elegant, food-friendly versions.

“I had come to think of it as Zin-like, where so many producers have gone in this direction of huge and sugary, like a liqueur,” says Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson. “But Petites from some of these producers have not gone in that direction.”

Napa’s Freemark Abbey first produced Petite Sirah from Fritz Maytag’s York Creek Vineyard on Spring Mountain in 1969. It still has a limited supply of its 1971 Petite Sirah (hailed as one of the finest ever made by Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine), as well as its 1976 and 1977 offerings, also from York Creek.

“Back then, the grapes would come in pretty ripe—really tannic,” says Ted Edwards, director of winemaking at Freemark Abbey. “The wines were just made in a blockbuster style with not a lot of finesse.”

Some 40 years later, though, Petite Sirah has evolved. Vibrant, dark and deep purple in color, the wines are full of fruit, structure and acidity, and are very much alive.

“These wines are still opening,” says Barry Dodds, estate manager at Freemark. “That’s their magic.”

Edwards had shunned Petite Sirah for more than a decade, focusing his efforts on Cabernet. In 1996, however, Edwards began making Petites again, sourcing fruit from the Wood Ranch in Rutherford, planted by the late Napa vineyard consultant Frank “Laurie” Wood. The current release is 2009.

It’s the ageability that appeals to winemaker Todd Graff, general manager of winery operations at Frank Family, who cut his teeth on Petite Sirah in the 1980s as assistant winemaker under  Carl Doumani, the former owner of Stags’ Leap Winery. Doumani continues to devote himself to the grape at Quixote winery, which he founded next door.

“I think I understand them,” Graff says, referring to Petite Sirahs. “They take some time to age, and if you give them that, they’re great to drink.”

The impetus to make a Petite arose in 2003 when Graff had a three-and-a-half-acre vineyard to plant in Napa’s eastern Capell Valley.

“It’s at a higher altitude in an extreme region,” Graff says. “So when it’s hot, it’s really hot, and when it’s cold, it’s really cold, and the Petite seems to have done really well up there. You don’t have to plant it in the heart of Rutherford to make a really good one.”

In the vineyard, he treats Petite Sirah the same as his expensive Cabernet. His trellising system ensures that the fruit is neither overexposed to the sun nor overcropped.

In the winery, it’s given the same treatment as Frank Family’s Cabernet and Pinot Noir—a cold soak and minimal pump-overs before being pressed off a little early. The fermentation finishes in French oak barrels, about  one-third of them new.

“We treat it from dirt to bottle the same as any of our wines,” Graff says, explaining its price.

Still, he thinks Petite Sirah shouldn’t be judged as a young wine, but rather for how it will taste decades down the road. Having enjoyed aged bottlings while at Stags’ Leap, he knows Petite Sirah’s potential beauty.

“Petite Sirah is like your restored hotrod muscle car,” he says. “Maybe at one time it didn’t seem classic, but as you hold on to that muscle car in your garage for 25 years, it becomes classic, something everybody sees and thinks, ‘Cool.’ ”

At one point in California, Petite Sirah was indeed cool. It was first planted in 1878 and grown widely until Prohibition, especially in the Livermore Valley, where Concannon Vineyard’s Petite Sirah plantings date back to 1911. Concannon remains, with Bogle Vineyards, among the biggest producers of Petite Sirah.

Current plantings of the variety are on the rise. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, Petite Sirah was among the varieties with the largest jump in acreage in California, growing by over 13% during the last five years, totaling approximately 8,335 acres.

Still, that’s modest in comparison to the more than 95,000 acres devoted to Chardonnay, almost 80,000 planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and roughly 48,000 to Zinfandel, California’s big three.

Also known as Durif, Petite Sirah’s heritage is traced to the Rhône Valley as a hybrid of Syrah and Peloursin, and from there, to pockets of Sonoma and Napa, where old vines still stand, though in very small numbers.

Christophe Paubert, winemaker and general manager at Stags’ Leap Winery, likes to blend Petite Sirah from different parts of the Napa Valley.

“In the north, the Petite Sirah fruit is more floral and less tannic, and in the south, the grapes are more spicy and concentrated,” Paubert says. “It is a grape of plenty—plenty of color, tannins and flavor.”

In Lodi, winemaker Michael McCay, who grows his own fruit within the Mokelumne River region for McCay Cellars, says Petite Sirah initially made him mad. He first thought that the grape was too hard to tame, but it has since become a passion.

In the vineyard, he does a lot of crop thinning, limits irrigation and instructs his team to carry out three pickings, which all occur relatively early.

“With the first pick, I get brighter blueberry, a softer, elegant style, brighter phenolics,” he says. “By the third, maybe three to three-and-a-half Brix later, the grapes have a deeper, richer structure. I want the wine to be layered throughout and complex.”

Sonoma-based winemaker Dylan Sheldon, who sources Petite Sirah from Lodi’s Ripken Vineyard for his Sheldon label, likens the grape’s nature to that of a brutish linebacker, dominated by coarse tannin and brooding dark flavors.

“We stopped pushing the vineyard and started coaxing it,” says Sheldon, “harvesting at a Brix level more consistent with Pinot Noir and doing a long, cool whole-cluster ferment in macro bins with punch-downs by hand to blow off the heat.”

Sheldon’s Petite is then basket-pressed and tucked away in neutral oak for three years. It’s called Deviant Velocity, a physics term for a change in speed or direction. The linebacker has learned to waltz.

“It can taste like an amazing breakfast,” says winemaker Shauna Rosenblum of Rock Wall Wine Company. She grew up around Petite Sirah at Rosenblum Cellars, founded by her father, Kent.

“My favorites taste like hickory bacon, freshly brewed coffee, ripe strawberry, blueberry and butter-drenched, maple-syrupy pancakes,” she says.

While Petites are packed with flavor, sommelier Randy Caparoso, a contributing editor at Sommelier Journal, thinks its versatility with food is highly underrated.

“Many California Petites are quite oaky, which automatically makes them taste great with smoky, grilled foods, from portobellos to pork,” Caparoso says. “But it’s not just that. Any Petite Sirah that is fruit forward, with tannins tucked under the spiced blueberry fruit, is bound to taste great with various spice, earth and fruit components.” Graff maintains that age is everything.

“It’s not a Pinot Noir, delicious today and silky,” he says. “It’s a punch. Your taste buds are going to be coated. It’s black coffee versus light tea.”

Top-Scoring Petite Sirahs… and the Foods That Love Them

92 C. Beck 2008 Petite Sirah (Napa Valley). Made using fruit from old vines in Calistoga, this is a ripe, rich, full-bodied Petite. It’s dry and tannic, yet opulent, with sweet-tasting oak, raspberry, blackberry, plum and chocolate flavors, and a long, spicy finish.
abv: 13.9%     Price: $38

Corey Beck, owner of C.Beck Winery in St. Helena, California, is also the director of winemaking and general manager for Francis Ford Coppola Winery. He suggests pairing either this wine or the Coppola Diamond Collection Petite Sirah with the Rack of Lamb Madame Bali—a favorite recipe from Rustic, Coppola’s restaurant in Geyserville, CA (recipe below). It involves marinating the meat in onions and pomegranate juice for days to enrich the flavors and optimize the pairing.

91 Envy 2009 Estate Petite Sirah (Calistoga). Darkly colored and coarsely tannic, this is a full-bodied, bone-dry and rustic wine. It offers a deep core of blackberry fruit. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.8%     Price: $45

Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson suggests pairing it with Lindt Excellence Supreme Dark 90% Cocoa or Godiva 85% Cacao Extra Dark Santo Domingo.

91 Sheldon 2007 Deviant Velocity Petite Sirah (Lodi). This complex Petite, sourced from the Ripken Vineyard, is marked by bright dark-cherry flavor and tamed tannins.
abv: 13.6%     Price: $28

Tobe and Dylan Sheldon pair this with “the more subtle side of game—squab and lamb.” Provençal dishes like olive tapenade and ratatouille work with the wine’s garrigue notes, they say.

90 Concannon 2004 Heritage Petite Sirah (Livermore Valley). Concannon’s flagship wine features an intense blueberry note, but also hints of licorice, flower and grilled meat. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5%    Price: $50

Joyce Goldstein, former chef of the Café at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, pairs this wine with her Garofolato di Manzo, a clove-scented beef dish braised in Petite Sirah that’s delicious with mashed potatoes.

90 Trueheart 2009 Petite Sirah (Sonoma Valley). A hearty Petite Sirah, this shows class, elegance and power. It’s dry and softly tannic, with ripe flavors of blackberry, currant, bacon and cedar, sprinkled with black pepper.
abv: 14.9%    Price: $35

Vintner Ligeia Polidora, proprietor of Trueheart Vineyard in Sonoma, suggests pairing it with hearty flavors, like grilled and roasted meats, bitter vegetables, strong cheeses and anything with lots of garlic.

89 Frank Family 2009 SJ Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah (Napa Valley). This big, rich, softly jammy Petite Sirah is packed with dark berry, chocolate, anise and pepper notes. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.5%    Price: $65

Frank Family winemaker Todd Graff says to give it another 10–15 years, and this beauty will be crying out for a big lamb roast with aromatic herbs.

88 Cedar Creek 2008 Estate Petite Sirah (Fair Play). Big and brawny, this Sierra Foothills wine offers intense notes of milk chocolate, licorice, smoky violet and raspberry.
abv: 15.5%    Price: $34

Tracey Berkner, owner of Taste restaurant in Plymouth, CA, pairs this Petite with rib steak, aged goat cheese potato gratin and crispy leeks. “The tanginess of the goat cheese with the rich cut of meat brings the wine into a great place,” she says.

Rack of Lamb Madame Bali

Recipe courtesy Francis Ford Coppola, owner of Rustic, Geyserville, CA

“This is an Armenian recipe, which I learned from my friend Armen Baliantz,” says Coppola. “The lamb racks are marinated in pomegranate juice and white onions for three days, and then grilled on our parrilla [an Argentinean grill]. Very tender and delicious, with rice pilaf.”

4 (8-rib) racks of lamb
4 cups pomegranate juice
1 white onion, sliced
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper

Place the racks of lamb in a nonreactive pan. Add the onions, and cover the meat with the pomegranate juice. Allow to marinate for 3 days.

Remove the lamb from the marinade and pat dry. Season both sides of the lamb with salt and pepper. Cook the lamb on a charcoal grill over medium-hot coals approximately of 375°F until the meat is medium-rare, approximately 10 minutes per side. Serve with rice pilaf and grilled vegetables. Serves 4.

Published on February 4, 2013
Topics: Petite Sirah