To be Syrah, or Petite Sirah – that WAS the question.
To understand the problem, we must look back to the last half of the nineteenth century. This was the time that, spurred by the 1850s Gold Rush, California suddenly became a destination place. Thousands made the trek out West looking to strike it rich. And where the miners went, the need for housing, clothing, food and libation followed. The lands near the gold fields were found to be perfect for growing many things, wine grapes included. Within a few years, dozens of Old World farmers had settled in the area, bringing cuttings from their vineyards to plant in the fertile soils from Amador County to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys closer to the port town of San Francisco.
Naturally, the immigrants brought those grapes they were most familiar with from back home. Italians brought (among others) Barbera, Sangiovese, and Primitivo – a grape that came to be known as Zinfandel here. The French had a wider selection to choose from, and brought Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay, among many more.
Certain people spearheaded this New World wine renaissance. Count Agoston Haraszthy of Hungary is widely recognized as the father of California viticulture. He imported dozens of grape varieties from Europe, and developed vineyards throughout California, finally settling in Sonoma. There, in 1856, he bought a small vineyard outside of town and renamed it Buena Vista. This winery is still in production today.
In those days, there was no DNA analysis that could be used to determine which grapevines were in the vineyard. Most grapegrowers did a field blend of several different grape varietals, all harvested and fermented together. Identification of a grape variety was often done by how the grape looked in the vineyard and by taste.
But, back to the subject at hand – Petite Sirah. In France, the grape is called Durif, named after Francois Durif, who crossed Syrah with a minor grape known as Peloursin in 1880 to create the variety. Some local French growers took to calling the variety Petite Sirah, and this name stuck with it when it was brought to California in 1884. The coarseness of wines made from the grape led to it being phased out of production in France, but cuttings had already found their way to the New World, specifically Australia and California. Because of its strong color and tannic backbone, it became a welcome part of the field blends made in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Confusion about the grape came from its genetic father, Syrah. Often planted side-by-side, the grapes have some similarities in taste. Both can show aromas and flavors of blackberries, blueberries, black pepper, and herbal or gamey notes. Compounding the problem was the use of the term Petite Syrah for Syrah vines that produced smaller berries in their clusters. True Petite Sirah also has smaller berries. The mists of time, helped along by the Prohibition period of 1919 through 1933, caused some vineyards to be mislabeled as to the grapes planted there.
Interestingly, because it was such a hardy grape, it was one of the preferred grapes during Prohibition for shipment back East, where people could make their own legal wine to get them through the dry years. Traveling by train over a several day period, only the most hardy of grapes could survive the trip and still be sound enough for the production of wine.
After the end of Prohibition, acreage of planted Petite Sirah dwindled down, reaching a low of 4,500 acres in the 1960s. In the 1970s, French wine experts Paul Truel and Pierre Galet examined Petite Sirah vines grown at UC Davis and determined that they were identical to the French grape Durif. By 1976, Petite Sirah acreage in California peaked at 14,000 acres.
As other grapes gained in popularity (and fetched a correspondingly higher price), the amount of acres planted to Petite Sirah plummeted again, to 2,400 in 1995.
Finally, with the new technology of DNA “fingerprinting,” in 1996 Dr. Carole Meredith and her colleagues at UC Davis determined that over 90% of the plantings in California thought to be Petite Sirah are indeed Durif, while a small percentage are actually Peloursin, Petite Sirah’s ancestral mother.
In 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ruled that Durif and Petite Sirah were synonymous for the purposes of labeling wine.
Petite Sirah is very much a Noble Grape, and it is flourishing today in the New World, specifically California, Australia, Argentina, and Brazil. Winemakers have learned to tame the tannic harshness of the grape, and are now making full-bodied, plush renditions that have flavor profiles of blackberry, blueberry, black plum, black pepper, herbs and game. It is a collectible, ageworthy wine – examples from the 1970s are still drinking well today.
I recently tasted through a number of current release Petite Sirahs. You can check out the reviews here: