California’s Petite Sirah has gone through some growing pains. Planted in the state in the late 1800s, it started off as a well-behaved child, appreciated for its good yields, dark colour, and fragrance.
Even after vineyards were destroyed by phylloxera, the grape was replanted and remained a key part of the finest California blends.
Its teenage-awkward stage came as varietal wines gained prominence around the country. There was less need for Petite Sirah’s exceptional blending qualities — unless, that is, a rainy harvest came around and Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon needed a boost.
It didn’t help that a good number of the varietal Petite Sirahs were take-no-prisoner, grab you by the shirt, tannic, dark wines whose drinkers appeared to be proving manhood or some other endurance test. A bout with schizophrenia in the 1990s was equally unhelpful as DNA profiling revealed that the Petite Sirah name was given to at least four different varietals planted in California’s vineyards: Durif, Syrah, Peloursin (a parent of Durif), and a crossing between Peloursin and Durif.
Fine examples of varietal Petite Sirahs did exist and from some venerable wineries: Stags’ Leap Winery, Inglenook, and Ridge (with the York Creek Petite Sirah). In 2004, in defence and promotion of the grape, a number of California producers formed the association PS I Love You to promote Petite Sirah.
While the grape remains a niche variety (why plant Petite Sirah when you can get so much more money for your Cabernet Sauvignon?) the current wines being made in Napa Valley should not go unnoticed. The tannins and dark fruit you would expect are balanced by a freshness you may not expect.
Of the 8,637 acres (CA Grape Acreage, 2012 Crop report) planted in California, 845 of them are in Napa county. However small, diversity keeps things interesting-especially when the wines are this well made.
Each of these wines is an opportunity to explore the flavors of Napa Valley Petite Sirah.
Chappellet Vineyard 2010 Petite Sirah ($45): Full of plum, spice and fresh oak aromas and flavours. No wallflower, this wine is robust and dark. Roasted meats and game will nicely tame the beast. Visit the winery up on Pritchard Hill and you witness the transformation of rocky, rugged terrain to a gardener’s paradise. Molly Chappellet is the west coast Martha Stewart, deftly wielding a shovel as well as a sautée pan for her celebrity packed James Beard dinners.
Odette Estate Winery 2011 ‘Adaptation’ Petite Sirah ($34): A newly minted winery on the Silverado Trail, Odette is owned by the Plumpjack and CADE family. Nowhere on the bottle, however, is the name Odette- look instead for the proprietary name: Adaptation. This wine is all red plum, tar and earth. Its juicy fruits are matched by high but balanced tannins, body and acidity. Put this on the table with any red meat dish and you will build a new army of Petite Sirah fans.
Flying Horse Winery 2009 Petite Sirah ($48): While zoology majors at UC Davis, owners Lettie and Hendrik met in a wine making class. Their Smeding family are fourth-generation Napa Valley farmers.
Frank Family Vineyards 2010 Petite Sirah ($65): This is from the S&J Vineyards in Rutherford. While Napa Valley continues to take on Disneyland qualities, this winery continues to keep things real despite the fact that the owner was a corner-office executive with the Disney company.
Ballentine Vineyards 2010 Fig Tree Vineyard Petite Sirah ($28): Has a wonderful blend of floral/violets with its red cranberry and raspberry fruit. Its high tannins are match with juicy acidity and there is a nice, lingering finish.