In my “Syrah, Shiraz and All That Jazz” article, I talked about Syrah vs. Shiraz, a single grape with two names. Today the focus is on Syrah vs. Petite Sirah, two grapes with very interesting histories. Let’s start by saying Que Syrah Sirah!
Syrah is the noble red grape of the Rhône Valley. It has been used for centuries in Northern Rhône for the full-bodied wines Hermitage and Cornas, and in Southern Rhône for Cotes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends.
Syrah was brought to California in the late 1800s, but the plantings were wiped out by phylloxera. Syrah re-emerged in California in 1959, when Christian Brothers planted four acres as an experiment. In 1974, Joseph Phelps produced the first 100% bottling of Syrah. But the wine didn’t gain popularity until the early 1990s, when wine drinkers began looking for alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Syrah is a good alternative to Cabernet because of its complexity and bold nature. Syrahs are typically big and rich with medium to big tannins. Typical flavor characteristics include plum, blackberry, smoke, leather, chocolate, violet, pepper and spice. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, describes Syrah as “rustic and manly yet elegant.” Woo hoo!
Petite Sirah is the Heinz 57 of grapes. Here is its colorful history. A French botanist named François Durif set out to invent a Syrah that wasn’t prone to mildew. In 1880, he crossed Syrah with Peloursin and named the new grape after himself – the Durif grape. The new grape happily was mildew resistant but sadly produced mediocre wine. The grape all but disappeared in France over the course of several decades.
In the 1940s, a grape with the name Petite Sirah started to be grown in CA. This grape’s origins were a mystery until 2003, when UC Davis did some fingerprinting to determine that this was in fact the Durif grape. The good news is that in the 1940s and 1950s, field blending was the norm, with many varieties planted together. So it’s a safe bet that wines from vineyards labeled Petite Sirah are blends of some kind or happily evolved versions of the Durif grape.
Petite Sirah has long been an important blending grape, prized for its deep color and fairly intense tannin. It is the variety that is most often blended into Zinfandel for added complexity and body, and for toning down the wine’s jammy qualities.
Notable flavors include pepper, nutmeg, clove and blackberry. Good standalone Petite Sirahs are a real treat.
Que Syrah Sirah
Syrah and Petite Sirah have a lot in common. They both make big, rich red wines. Both are considered Rhône varietals. They have similar names. Both benefit from aging.
But they are also quite different, with Syrah being more elegant, and Petite Sirah being more hearty.
The best way to discover the similarities and differences of the two wines is to do side-by-side tastings. If you are in the Bay Area and are interested in doing a side-by-side tasting, please let me know. I would love to do that with you. I would also love to hear your thoughts about these two great wines.