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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. Read the rest of this entry

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