What is Petite Sirah?
Petite Sirah, is also known as Durif or Petite by wine enthusiasts. This noble varietal designated an “American Heritage Varietal” **was introduced to American soil in 1878. History tells us that a nurseryman in the south of France by the name of Francois Durif cultivated the varietal. He was so pleased with its verdant nature that he named it after himself, “Durif”. The vine once thought to be a new dwarf, small berry, hearty syrah was planted in abundance throughout California in the last 1800’s and mistakenly labeled a “petite” syrah clone.
In the late 1890’s phylloxera, a deadly root louse, destroyed virtually every native European grape vine planted in California yet the voluptuous ‘PS’ managed to thrive and during the early 1900’s was one of the most popular varietals grown in California. Planting peaked in the 1930’s during prohibition as the grapes were found suitable for shipment across the country- for clerical and strictly personal use of course. PS fell by the wayside as Cabernet and other noble varietals migrating from Europe drove a new trend as the American palette discovered fine wine in the 1970’s. By 1995 the amount of Petite Sirah planted to vine hovered below 2500 but today, this voluptuous, intrinsically age-worthy varietal is once again planted to vine in increasing acreage. Once the backbone of some of the finest blends and at a another time in its history referred to as one of the “other reds” it is now again commanding the wine world’s attention as an American noble grape.
** In 2013 California’s legislative council passed the bill HR 9 which recognizes the contribution of California’s living historic vineyards to the agricultural and social heritage of the state. This monumental bill aims to preserve some of the first noble Petite Sirah vines planted and which still flourish on American soil.
Through DNA analysis similar to those techniques used to study human genetics, it was verified in 1998 (a mere century since its arrival on US soil) that Durif and Petite Sirah are one and the same. The Heritage is a direct descendant of Syrah from the Rhone Valley and Peloursin, an old French grape from the Isere and Provence regions of France. According to the findings of Dr. Carole Meredith, Prof. of Viticulture and Enology, University of California; Mr. Durif’s new varietal is the offspring of the same noble grape that from which the great Cote Rotie and Hermitage are made. Therefore, California’s PS is anything but “petite” and in fact arrived with quite the distinguished French pedigree. Today, the US Bureau of Tax, Tobacco & Alcohol Bureau, recognizes “Durif” and “Petite Sirah” (proper spelling with an “I”) as interchangeable synonyms referring to the same grape.
[The ‘petite’ in the name of this grape refers to the size of its berries and not the vine, which is particularly vigorous. The leaves are large with a bright green upper surface and soft spring green underneath. The vine forms tightly packed clusters that can be susceptible to rotting in rainy environments. The small berries create a high skin to juice ratio which can produce very tannic wines if the juice goes through an extended maceration period or vigorous press. In the presence of new oak barrels the wine can develop an aroma of melted chocolate. Typically planted in the warmest regions, the modern PS shows fine restraint and a gallant structure when planted to vine in more moderate AVAs.
Petite Sirah produces dark, inky wines that are relatively acidic with firm texture and mouth feel. The bouquet has herbal and black pepper overtones, with plum and blackberry flavors on the palate. Compared to Syrah, the wine is noticeably darker and purple in color. The skins are abundant with tannins granting aging ability that can eclipse 20 years in the bottle. Petite Sirah is flush with antioxidants especially resveratrol, a natural phenol and is considered one of the most heart healthy of all wine varietals.]