Petite Sirah – it is not Petite, it is not Syrah or Shiraz, rather it is another name for Durif

Petite Sirah grape (image from Israeli Wine website)

This past weekend I was really excited to go through all the kosher Petite Sirah (PS) wines that I have. Before you ask, Petite Sirah is NOT a Syrah or Shiraz grape in any way. I hope that was informative – LOL!! You see, PS is NOT a Syrah grape with a stupid name. Rather , it is a hybrid of Syrah and an obscure grape called: Peloursin. It has some similarities to Syrah and to many it is considered more Syrah than Rhone, but it is not a Syrah grape. Dr. Carole Meredith and her colleagues at UC Davis, in 1998, ran DNA tests on thousands of grape vines throughout California and came out that PS and Durif are one the same.

But first off, I have already given away the punch line, here is the story. In the last 10 or so years petite syrah has veered from its path of being a great blending grape, to one that is a very popular and successful single varietal.

Petite Sirah has more in common with syrah and shiraz grapes then just phonics. They share viticulture roots that we will unearth as we unfold the legend of the syrah and petit sirah grapes. Our journey starts in Shiraz – a large city in the southwest of Iran. Known as the Garden City of Iran, as it flows with fruits and grapes, Shiraz was thought to be the birthplace of the shiraz/syrah grape. Winters are mild here, and its summers are moderate – which makes for an ideal climate for grapes. Legend has it that a Frenchman named Gaspard de Sterimberg took grapes he found here while crusading through Iran in the 13th century. Upon his return to southeastern France, he
planted his sapling on a rolling hill near the Rhône River. He established a sanctuary on the hill and settled down in hermit-like seclusion – from where we get the Hermitage AOC (Appellation d’origine controlee) today. This is how syrah was supposed to have become dominant in this region.

There are many different syrah wines in the Rhone Valley, but each is named for its specific place and not the grape. The wines of the Hermitage region (mineral and tannic in nature) have different styles and characteristics then syrah wines from the Cote-Rotie region (fruity and perfumed in nature). Since the 1800’s Hermitage has been one of the most famous Syrah wines in the world, though recently, syrah from Australia, California and Washington state have gained worldwide fame.

Unfortunately, the Shiraz legend is just that – all myth and no fact. In 1998, research at the French National Agronomy Archives in Montpellier and the University of California at Davis (UCD) cut through the romantic marketing and discovered the real source for the shiraz/syrah grape.

Carole Meredith from UCD and Jean-Micel Boursiquot of France tested syrah grapes. They found that syrah grapes were, in fact, indigenous to France and not a transplant from Iran. Our story of syrah ends here, but the story of petit sirah is just beginning. In the 1880’s, Dr. François Durif promoted a cross of syrah and peloursin to combat syrah’s biggest issue – powdery mildew. Dr. Durif named this grape Durif eponymously. Then In the 1890’s phylloxera decimated the syrah crops within California. When replanting started in the
late 1890’s, much of the new acreage was of this Durif. The first importer started calling the Durif grapes ‘petite sirah’, for no particular (or known) reason. It was planted because of its dark color, fragrance, and abundant yields. It became the main blending grape for the top red wines in the state. It was not until the very same Professor Carole Meredith’s study, published in 1998, that it was conclusively established that about 90 percent of the old vines known as Petite Sirah in California are actually Durif and not Syrah, Shiraz, or Sirah.

Throughout the 1900s petite sirah vines were often interplanted with other varieties. As a result few wineries who sell varietal petite sirah wines are actually pure petite sirah. Notwithstanding, cult followings sprang up in the early 1960’s as small wineries (like Concannon and the original Souverain) began bottling single variety petite sirah wines. It took some time for the cult following to grow, but now those petite sirah’s from the 60’s and 70’s have aged well and are still sought out at auctions and are part of any serious collector’s stash.

The Petit Sirah grape made its ‘aliyah’ in the 1970s, around the time that Napa and Australian wineries were cultivating those very same sinewy grapes into a fruit forward and powerful cult following. Napa and Australia wineries succeeded because they mastered the art of controlling the vigorous grape – concentrating its fruity qualities to balance against its huge tannins and powerful structure. Israeli wineries took a bit longer to see beyond its obvious blending qualities. Now however, we are seeing Petite Sirah wines receiving awards
from many wineries inside Israel.

To me, PS, is one of my most favorite grapes – behind Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and yes Syrah. To quote many, PS is not petite, it is not Syrah/Shiraz/Sirah, it is actually a quite big, muscular, layered, and bulky wine. It reminds me more of a bull rippled with muscular black notes, sometimes tar, and sometimes draped with ribbons of blueberry and boysenberry. Unfortunately, like all the folks around the table can attest to – that was NOT the case this week. I was shocked. Last year I tasted the 2009 and 2010 Dalton Petite Sirah wines and LOVED them both. This time – I liked them, but did not love them. Worse was the loss of the lovely and talented Prince Petite Sirah from Herzog, that was HAND DELIVERED from the winery to my (within the day by car) – no bottle shock and not fun at all! Shocking because I loved it when I tasted it in August of 2012. Now please be careful, none of these wines were BAD – not at all. The wines were all B+ wines and they used to be B+ to A- or A- wines, so something is wrong here. They are not only Israeli wines, they were US wines as well. MEga bummer.

I wonder if the wines were different for you. We made the usual fare for dinner, Kalamata olive and white bean soup, Kielbasa sausage stew, fresh green salad, and kugel. The link to the recipe was the best I could find on the web. The one I use is from Mollie Katzen’s cookbook, which I have no right to place on my blog, please buy her book she is a genius!

The wine notes follow below, I would love to hear what you think about these wines.

2010 Dalton Petite Sirah – Score: B++
This was the best of the bunch for the night, a wine rich and balanced and with stuffing still left in it. The nose is rich with plum, blackberry, date, bramble, smoky aromas, and roasted meat. The mouth on this full bodied wine is rich and layered with blueberry notes, raspberry, good cedar, bell pepper, and nice mouth coating tannin all wrapped within an almost inky texture. The finish is long and spicy with good balance, along with vanilla, tar, chocolate, cloves, and spice bring up the rear to make for a very nice wine indeed.

2009 Dalton Petite Sirah – Score: B+
The wine is rich and layered but missing complexity and concentration, a theme of many of the wines we tasted this weekend. The nose is lovely with raspberry, black plum, and blackberry, with licorice, black pepper, and cloves. The mouth is medium to full bodied with raspberry and ribbons of blueberry, along with lovely green notes, good cedar, and mouth coating tannin. The finish is long and spicy, with crazy herb, bell pepper, nice vanilla, chocolate, and tar.

2009 Recanati Petite Sirah/Zinfandel Reserve – Score: B+
This wine is a blend of 80% Petite Sirah and 20% Zinfandel, and look for less Zinfandel in the future. The nose started off with more date and raisin than I was expecting. The nose is rich with date, blackberry, animal, smoky notes, and licorice. The mouth is medium to full bodied with layers of black plum, raspberry, mounds of sweet cedar, and soft mouth coating tannin. The finish is long and spicy with eucalyptus, tar, dirt, and spice notes that round out the finish. While this wine showed quite full and rich – it lacked life and deep concentrated fruit.

2010 Herzog Petite Sirah, Prince Vineyard – Score: B to B+
This was quite a let down – after the great showing it made in August. This wine was personally brought to me from the winery by a friend of mine and it was not showing well at all. The wine was essentially flat and floral and that was about it.
The nose started off nicely with good floral and violet notes, along with blueberry ribbons, smoky aromas, mint, and black pepper. The mouth is medium in body with strawberry notes, along with blackberry and plum, all wrapped up in a cedar box with essentially no tannin to be found. The finish is medium long with smoke, vanilla, and spice – I hope my remaining bottle will show better in the coming weeks.

Posted on January 14, 2013, in Food and drink, Israel, Israeli Wine, Kosher Red Wine, Kosher Wine, Wine and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. David Buckwalter

    I am writing to you from Australia. One of the best things about Durif or Petite Sirah as the North Americans call it, is that most don’t know anything about it and most dislike it. This great for the rest. One can see why the americans call it Petite Sirah, they just tried to pigy back of the tried and proven name of Shiraz, but there is not much similarity.
    When one reads the tasting notes above of the three and four year old Durifs my appraisal above is confirmed. one should not look at a Durif until its 8 years old and that would be only to experience the wine character. They start showing their sox about 12 years and the varietal character really shows off at 20 years. Mind you the Morris 75 vintage tasted a couple of weeks ago was mind blowing.
    Unfortunately most want to drink it soon as they buy it and it is a hora young. If you are old enough to have kept one for 15 years or more, forget all that rubbish about strawberries, vanilla, spice and blueberry etc, its all rubbish. Next time you read tasting notes describing a wine thats strawberry or vanilla tones, buy a bottle and buy some strawberries to go with it and see if the tasting notes are on target.
    Durif is unique, some have not a clue how to make it. They pick the fruit late and push the alcohol up so high it may as well be port and in a few years it may as well be red alcohol with no fruit.
    The great Durifs have been steered away from new oak have lovely soft tannins up front almost leathery in mouth feel and fruit burst open at the back of the pallet. The acid and tannin hold up the fruit for ever and give a seamless integration.

    Don’t tell anybody its the best kept secret around.

    David B

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