Against All Odds

Despite challenges, California Petite Sirah is gaining acreage and winning fans

From the Dec. 15, 2015, issue

Petite Sirah from California offers inky black colors, bold flavors and tannins to match. It has the ability to be expressive when bottled on its own, can add structure and color to red blends, and has a reputation for aging well. But despite Petite’s growing presence in the Golden State, it can be a conundrum for both winemakers and wine lovers.

“The thing I really love about Petite Sirah is that it’s full of contradictions,” says Tegan Passalacqua, of Turley Wine Cellars, who made two classic-scoring Petites reviewed this year, the Howell Mountain Rattlesnake Ridge 2013 (95 points, $44) and Paso Robles Pesenti Vineyard 2012 (95, $35). Passalacqua says that even with its big, burly profile, Petite can be a sensitive grape to grow, prone to rot and sunburn. It can offer a mouthful of fruit and tannins upon release but grow increasingly complex and aromatic with just a few years in the bottle. “Petite Sirah reminds me of a World War II veteran that’s a gruff person in his youth, but sensitive in his age,” he adds.

Being tricky to grow is only one of Petite’s challenges. It can also be a prolific grape, requiring management in the vineyard to control its vigor. The variety’s signature massive tannins can turn plush and velvety in the right hands, but chewy and drying if mishandled. The best versions of Petite manage to have a plush, velvety gracefulness in addition to concentrated, intense flavors of dark berries, with spice, pepper, mineral and floral details.

Petite also has plenty of detractors who don’t like the rustic tannins in some versions. Although some winemakers exalt its use in blends, others claim it’s just an ingredient, not a serious stand-alone grape. Originally hailing from France—where it is called Durif—it has no especially well-known counterparts to elevate its status among skeptics; even though its name implies it may be a lighter version of Syrah, this is not the case. There are even multiple spellings (Petite Syrah vs. Petite Sirah) to further frustrate consumers.

Despite these challenges, Petite has a loyal following, including a fan club called PS I Love You, as well as talented California winemakers dedicated to showing the grape’s potential. A recent Syrah and Petite Sirah blend, Shafer’s Relentless Napa Valley 2008, was named Wine Spectator’s 2012 Wine of the Year. In 2015, one of the top-scoring Petites was Eighty Four Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2010 (94, $65), a new brand from Shafer’s Elias Fernandez and Doug Shafer, made from some of the same vineyards used in the Relentless bottling. “Petite can go toe-to-toe with the best Cabs, but they don’t get the same respect,” Passalacqua says.

The trick for Petite Sirah winemakers is to manage tannins. For Passalacqua, that means a gentle fermentation. “We do pump-overs with gentle cap irrigation and cold soak,” Passalacqua explains. “No punch-downs—that’s where Petite Sirah gets its bad name, from too much extraction or the wrong type of extraction.”

Orin Swift’s Dave Phinney has a different strategy: To manage the tannins, he lets the grapes get as ripe as possible. But that approach comes with its own set of risks. “[Petite] can raisin,” Phinney says. “I mean, you look at it wrong and it will raisin.”

But when Phinney gets Petite Sirah grapes as ripe as he wants them, the big and clunky tannins translate into a wine with solid backbone and structure, exhibiting quieter fresh fruit flavors. Instead of bottling Petite solo, he’ll then blend the juice with fruitier grapes such as Grenache and Syrah. The Orin Swift Machete California 2013 (93, $48) is a plush example, with plenty of dark fruit flavors to mingle with the spice notes.

Another successful blend is the Keplinger Sumo Amador County 2013 (95, $70), which mixes Petite with Syrah and Viognier—an example of how the variety is often thought of as an extension of the Rhône red category in California, and with good results. The Robert Biale Basic Black Sonoma County 2012 (91, $45) takes this concept one step further, blending Petite with Syrah, Grenache, Carignane and Zinfandel.

Though most of the best Petite examples are made in small quantities and sold direct from the wineries to consumers, there are some terrific examples at the value end of the spectrum, including the Lucky Star Petite Sirah California 2013 (85, $12) and an impressive Petite from Baja California, Mexico, the L.A. Cetto Petite Sirah Valle de Guadalupe 2013 (87, $10).

Despite the myriad difficulties it faces, Petite Sirah is on the rise in California, both in terms of plantings and number of producers. Acreage for the grape has had its ups and downs over the years, reaching its heyday during the 1970s before plummeting to its lowest point of about 1,750 acres statewide in 1995. These days, almost 10,000 acres are planted to the variety, which is great news for fans of big, rich, hearty wines.

But the loyal Petite Sirah lovers have never wavered. “Petite Sirah fanatics would annihilate the Zin fanatics in a cage match,” Passalacqua jokes.

Senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Petite Sirah.