Our dalliance with petite sirah goes far back but rarely has it earned a spot in our cellars. It’s not that the wine can’t endure time as gracefully as Bordeaux; it’s just that the grape variety isn’t up the priority ladder with cabernet sauvignon. However, we took an opportunity to taste through a bunch of California petite sirahs and decided that these wines deserve more respect.
The grape variety originated in France where durif, a cross between syrah and peloursin, was created to make a new, disease-resistent petite sirah. It was imported to the United States in the mid-19th century where it became one of the most widely planted grapes.
It fell from favor in California with the growth of the cabernet sauvignon market and because many producers thought petite sirah produced a wine that was too tannic and lacked dimension. The exception was the Lodi region, which has been growing petit sirah for more than 100 years. Lodi’s warm climate and rich, sandy loam soil allow the grape to produce prolifically.
Petit sirah is often used as a blending grape to provide more color – it will literally turn your teeth temporarily blue. In a way, it is a lot like zinfandel – another American grape variety – that can range in style from an alcoholic, tannic monster to a ripe and juicy quaffer. Not surprisingly, petit sirah and zinfandel often find themselves together in a bottle.
Besides color, petit sirah is known for its blackberry and blueberry flavors with common hints of black pepper and licorice. Made in warmer regions, the flavors tend to be more jammy -- a frequent description is just-baked blueberry pie.
What we like about these wines is that they aren’t superfluous, like many syrahs or zinfandels. These wines have body and depth – qualities that allow them to be matched with serious dishes of beef, wild game, lamb and stews.
If you are serious about petit sirah for your cellar, then we recommend Ridge, Robert Biale and Robert Foley. Otherwise, here are a number of petit sirahs that won’t break the pocketbook.
Michael David Winery Lodi Petite Petit 2016 ($18). It’s hard to resist the circus-like label of this exotic blend of petite sirah and petit verdot. The two elephants represent the boldness and immensity of the two grape varieties. It’s also hard to resist having a second glass. Raspberry and spice aromas with rich black cherry, blueberry, and a bit of vanilla flavor.
French Bar California Petite Sirah 2015 ($19). Sporting a label that pays homage to the pioneers who pursued adventure into the untamed West, this wine from sustainably grown vineyards in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains is forward and ripe in dark fruit. Hints of cassis and coffee add to the intrigue.
Ironstone Lodi Petite Sirah 2016 ($12). We loved this rich petite sirah from Lodi for its youthful fruit flavors and full body. Raspberry and blueberry flavors abound with hints of oak-inspired chocolate and vanilla. It’s a great value and a delicious drink.
Mettler Family Vineyards Lodi Estate Petite Sirah 2015 ($20). This petite sirah leans toward the elegant side, which is in sharp contrast to the bold and ripe flavors of most Lodi petite sirahs. Blackberry and raspberry pie flavors with good balance and length. The blend includes a little cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc .
Granite Hill Cellars Lodi Petit Sirah 2016 ($20). Relatively new to the market, this wine shows off generous cherry aromas and plum and jammy berry flavors with a hint of vanilla oak.
McManis Family Vineyards California Petite Sirah 2016 ($11). Most of the grapes for this wine come from Lodi. The 14 percent tannat blended in this wine adds significant body. There also is some teroldego, alicante, and petit verdot to give some dimension. Rich plum and blackberry fruit with hints of mocha and spice.
Peachy Canyon Petite Sirah 2016 ($30). From the Paso Robles region, this round petite sirah has cherry, plum and blackberry notes, a floral note, and a hint of licorice and chocolate.
We respect a vintner who concentrates solely on one grape variety. By putting every waking minute into one grape variety leads to a higher quality than when that time and effort is spread over a dozen grape varieties, each of which require different approaches.
Emeritus, founded by Brice Cutrer Jones of Sonoma-Cutrer fame, makes only pinot noir and, boy, is it good. Only estate-grown grapes that are dry farmed are used – dry farming is common to pinot noir vineyards in Burgundy. At Emeritus’ Hallberg Ranch in the Russian River Valley, the vines penetrate 20 feet of different soils to reach water – most pinot noir vines are buried only a few feet. These grapes reach physiological ripeness at low sugar levels and are more concentrated.
We were impressed with the purity of two recent releases – the 2015 Emeritus Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir ($44) and the 2015 Emeritus Pinot Hill Pinot Noir ($67). Hallberg Ranch is in Green Valley and Pinot Hill is in Sebastopol Hills.
Winemaker David Lattin has nice concentration in the Hallberg Ranch pinot noir, a wine with cranberry and citrus notes with a hint of licorice – a good price for a wine with this concentration. The haymaker is the Pinot Hill pinot noir because of its greater complexity and layered fruit. There is a brambly personality to this dark-fruit wine.
Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2015 ($30). We were impressed with this New Zealand syrah right out of the glass. Effusive blueberry and licorice aromas with complex and layered fruit flavors of dark berries. Long in the finish and firm tannins. Well worth the price.
Dutcher Crossing Chenoweth Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($46). Black cherry notes with a bit of forest floor and spice. Silky tannins and long in the finish.
Torbeck Woodcutter’s Shiraz 2017 ($25). We loved the bright and fresh raspberry and black cherry fruit in this impossible-to-put-down shiraz from Down Under. Soft mouthfeel and medium body make it a versatile match to burgers, ribs, pizza, pasta, chili and other winter fare.