Petite Sirah is the name of a black grape grown mostly in California where it is one of those old varieties, like Zinfandel, whose origins were not thoroughly understood until recently. Its name is frequently misspelled in combinations of Petite /Petit and Sirah/Syrah and it doesn’t help that a smaller berried clone of Syrah in France is known there as Petite Syrah.
Despite the prefix ‘Petite’, which implies small or delicate, the variety makes galumphing big powerful dark wines.
I first became aware of Petite Sirah when I noticed that the Zinfandel’s that I preferred all had a small amount of Petite Sirah blended in. In old vineyards it is frequently planted alongside Zinfandel and all the grapes are harvested together and vinified in a ‘field blend’ – a blend decided by the mix of vines in the field. An excellent example are the Ridge Zin’s which have around 75-80% Zin and the rest is Petite Sirah and Carignan. Then I searched out varietal Petite Sirah from producers such as Parducci.
I leaned that Petite Sirah was also known as Durif, and I found varietal Durif wines from Australia and thought yes; they could be the same as California Petite Sirah.
As the fashion in California moved towards classic European varieties Petite Sirah fell out of favour. Sixty percent of Napa Valley vines were Petite Sirah until the 1960’s when they were replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon. Petite Sirah became considered a rustic variety grown by old time wineries with Italian names.
But enough people loved this distinctive flavoursome wine to found an advocacy group to promote the vine as a noble variety. PS – I Love You (at www.psiloveyou.org) came just in time as plantings of Petite Sirah were fast declining from around 14,000 acres in 1976 to just 1,738 acres in 1995.
Then Dr Carole Miller of University of California at Davis took a look at old old Petite Sirah vineyards. Dr Miller had previously astounded the wine world by proving Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc and she had also identified the origin of Zinfandel.
Dr Miller found that more than 90% of the vines in Petite Sirah vineyards are Durif and the rest are mostly an obscure southern French variety called Peloursin.
So Petite Sirah is Durif and we know about Durif. It is a variety introduced by Dr Francois Durif in southern France in 1880. He grew it from a seed taken from a grape growing on a Peloursin vine. Dr Durif didn’t know what had fertilised the Peloursin flower but DNA testing told Carole Miller that the father was Syrah.
Maybe those old time farmers recognised a family resemblance when they simplifying the spelling of Syrah and named the grape Petite Sirah. Petite Sirah (aka Durif) replaced Syrah which had vanished from California in the late 1800’s, wiped out by phylloxera but some Durif survived and it flourished. It wasn’t till the late 1940’s that Syrah was replanted and the 1990’s when Syrah became a fashionable variety.
Petite Sirah is also grown in Mexico (I have enjoyed good ones from L A Cetto), Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and in Australia (as Durif) and there are some tiny plantings elsewhere. Two years ago I tasted the first Petite Sirah made in South Africa from Fairview Winery. From California – where there are now more than 6,600 acres of the variety – I’ve enjoyed wines from Ridge, Eos, Bogle and Parducci but there are so many more I have yet to taste.
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