The origin of Petite Sirah has been a topic of considerable debate for decades

March 8, 2011

Decanting the Mysteries of Syrah and Petite Sirah

As a member of a dynamic tasting room crew, I hold the responsibility of answering the many questions asked by our visitors. On a slow day I am probably asked a hundred questions, which run the gamut from vineyard-related queries to the production of wine to food-pairing inquiries. Here I answer one of the most commonly asked questions, and one of the most difficult to answer. I was prompted to visit the Sonoma County Wine Library, located in the Healdsburg branch of the Sonoma County Public Library, to answer the mysterious question, “What is the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah?”
“Syrah” and “Petite Sirah” are two completely different grapes. Both grapes make big, rich red wines, and both are considered Rhône varietals, but that’s where their similarity ends. These two names, because of the common name “Syrah,” have unsurprisingly been the source of confusion for wine lovers over many years. Add to the fact that many producers label their Petite Sirah “Petite Syrah,” and that the Australians’ Syrah is called “Shiraz,” and it’s a wonder anyone can find the wine they really want. By looking at the differences between these two wines, wine lovers may be in a better position to seek out the wine that suits their particular tastes.

Petite Sirah has a long and important history in California. It was brought to the state in the late 1870’s and planted mostly in the central valley, where it was used to give color and tannin to jug wines. It was a favorite grape among home winemakers and by 1900, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre were the three most widely planted grapes in California. The Italian immigrants of Sonoma County and other parts of the state used Petite Sirah extensively in what is known as a “field blend”: a vineyard planted with many grape varieties side by side, from which the fruit was harvested, crushed and fermented simultaneously. Other grapes used in the field blend included Carignan, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre and Alicante. Like these other grapes, Petite Sirah eventually became prized for its own expression as a 100-percent varietal.
In 1961, Concannon Vineyards of Livermore Valley produced California’s first varietal Petite Sirah. In other words, this is the first example of a California wine with the name “Petite Sirah” appearing on the label, designating the wine as varietal-specific. Up until this time, this grape had only been used in blends and was thought too harsh and tannic to stand on its own. However, following Concannon’s lead, other wineries began bottling Petite Sirah. As a result, during the 1960’s and early 1970’s Petite Sirah enjoyed some moderate success as a varietal wine, attaining almost cult status. But through the late 1970’s and 1980’s Petite Sirah fell out of favor, and many vintners uprooted the old vines in favor of new, trendier grapes. In the late 1970’s there were 14,000 acres planted in California, whereas today there exist only about 2500 acres of Petite Sirah.
The origin of Petite Sirah has been a topic of considerable debate for decades, and many attempts have been made to determine the exact origin of the grape’s genealogy. In the mid-1990’s, the DNA fingerprinting technique was employed in a study of grape genealogy by a University of California at Davis genetics professor. The study concluded that Petite Sirah originated from at least three different parent grapes, which in effect only confused the issue further. Because Petite Sirah is not necessarily economically important in the wide world of wine, no further studies of its origin have been undertaken. It is likely that we will never know its true origins, but what we do know is that Petite Sirah is almost exclusively produced in California. The French never cared for the grape, and as a result there are virtually no plantings of Petite Sirah in its mother country.
Petite Sirah grapes make big, assertive red wine. Powerful tannins and dark, almost black color are characteristics that the diehard Petite Sirah fan seeks out. The flavors of pepper, nutmeg and clove spice dominate the fruit flavors of rich berry and boysenberry jam. Its large tannins, coupled with a rustic spiciness, make the wine unpalatable to many drinkers, and in the early 1970’s winemakers like Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards set out to create a more “user friendly” version of the wine. Today one can find Petite Sirah in both the older rustic version and in the newer, softer version. The best way to discover which style you like best is to tour the wineries and do some tasting!
A few Sonoma County wineries currently producing Petite Sirah are Ridge, Foppiano, Ravenswood, DeLoach, Christopher Creek, Lambert Bridge, Preston of Dry Creek, and Fieldstone. Petite Sirah pairs well with any food with which you would normally pair a big red wine: mesquite grilled steak, roast duck, lamb, pot roast, rabbit in mustard sauce, and sweetbreads with mushrooms.
Petite Sirah demands bottling age, and if you have the willpower to cellar a bottle for at least ten years, your patience will be rewarded. Of course, when purchasing a bottle from the winery, always ask the tasting room staff for the winemaker’s recommendation on bottle aging.
Petite Sirah is considered a Rhône varietal, as is Syrah. In fact, the UC-Davis DNA study further suggests that somewhere in the deep past, Petite Syrah may have emerged from a hybrid of Syrah; however, every one of the thousands of grape varieties could be said to have emerged from a single, common grape. This way of thinking only confuses the issue, and common wisdom today among winemakers and viticulturists dictates that Petite Sirah and Syrah are indeed distinctly different.
In contrast to Petite Sirah’s rustic status, Syrah is the noble red grape of the Rhône Valley. It has been used for centuries in the northern Rhône for the full-bodied wines Hermitage and Cornas, and in the southern Rhône for Cotes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends. The grape was brought to California in 1878, but the few plantings were completely gone by 1890 due to phylloxera, a devastating root louse which has destroyed countless vineyards in California and other parts of the world.
Syrah re-emerged in California in 1959, when Christian Brothers of Napa planted four acres as an experiment. Joseph Phelps of Napa was the first to recognize the similarities in climate between California and the Rhône Valley, and in 1974 he produced the first 100-percent bottling of Syrah in California. From Phelps’ first bottling through the 1980’s, Syrah’s allure remained unexplored by drinkers in the U.S. until the early 1990’s, when drinkers began looking for alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon. As a result, today the grape is found along the entire length of California, from Temecula and Santa Barbara in the south to Lake and Mendocino counties in the north. Syrah is possibly California’s fastest proliferating varietal. In 1982, there were only about 87 acres planted. By 1995 there were 1300 acres planted. Today there are over 7000 acres. Still, California’s total acreage of Syrah is tiny compared to the 32,500 acres in France and 17,500 in Australia.
The Australians have been producing “Shiraz” longer than Californians. The word shiraz comes from the Persian town of the same name, from which it was once believed that the grape originated over 1200 years ago. However, the grape’s true origins are a mystery. Whether you choose to call it “Syrah” or “Shiraz,” you are referring to the same grape.
Wines produced from the Syrah grape are big and rich with medium to big tannins. Compared with paler reds, such as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, Syrah’s color is dark purple; an “inky Syrah” is a common description evoking its bold nature. Syrah fits the bill as an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon due to its sophistication without excessive tannins; however, like cabernet, 100-percent Syrah demands aging. The wine takes on a silky mouth-feel and loses tannins as it matures in the bottle. Winemakers typically recommend between four and ten years of bottling age for 100-percent Syrah. To create a younger-drinking wine, some wineries produce a blended Syrah. Preston of Dry Creek produces a Syrah blended with small amounts of Mourvèdre and Cinsault, creating a wine that is much more fruit-forward, less tannic and accessible at a younger age.
Plum and blackberry fruit, smoke and leather, and pepper and spice characterize the flavors and aromas of a Syrah. This wine pairs well with any of the foods with which you would pair a big red wine (see Petite Sirah, above). In Sonoma County, look for Syrah from Philip Staley, Cline, Preston of Dry Creek, Michel-Schlumberger, Christopher Creek, and Geyser Peak, among others.
There is no easy answer to the question, “What is the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah?” Beyond the standard response of “They are two different grapes” lie mysterious origins, separate histories, and very different economical and stylistic trends. At some point, after all the studies and debates, we as wine drinkers must return to the glass of wine at hand. The color and taste, complexity, and enjoyment we derive from these wines are at the heart of what we seek. The two wines’ dark, inky color reveals a world of intriguing flavors and at the same time obscures their enigmatic heritage.

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