The part of me that loves wine for all its twisted history wants to tell you that petite sirah is not little, but is a cross-pollination of the Rhône varietals peloursin and syrah, initiated in the 1860s by a French botanist named François Durif who wanted to develop a grape that could resist powdery mildew (which syrah cannot); and that for a while in France the grape was called durif, but now in France there’s almost no durif left because though it did indeed fend off the powdery mildew, it cannot defend against gray rot, which is a common risk in the humid Rhône. But in California and Australia, which are dry enough that gray rot isn’t a problem, there’s a lot of petite sirah.
And: In the late 19th century, when the dreaded Phylloxera louse laid waste to so many vines in California (and Europe), including all of the syrah, petite sirah was one of the first vitis vinifera grapes to be planted in an effort to send Mission grapes packing, to get California wine back on its feet and capable of producing something terrific. It got mixed in with zinfandel, mondeuse, valdiguié, and all sorts of weird stuff, in field blend plantings.
The part of me that loves wine for the unique ways each new bottle invites one into worlds heretofore unnoticed wants to tell you that petite sirah can be a little rough and/or overwhelming, untutored, not quite smart or ambitious enough to achieve greatness very often, instead kind of muscling its way through the world, a friendly if somewhat coarse fellow, but in its own manner usually exciting, bold and deep. It yields inky-dark juice, which is why it often goes into blends, but I like it as a single-varietal wine because it’s just all-in; it says, I’m here, I’m not going to change, deal with me. Not in a jerky kind of way, just in an affable, take-me-as-I-am kind of way.
And: It’s dense and mouth-coating, meaty and teeth-staining. Brawny, tremendous, un-shy alcohol levels, pungent, with big spice, pepper, dark chocolate, lots of plums, sometimes blueberries, sometimes into the compote end of things. Without putting too fine a point on it and going all crazy-analytical, I’ll claim in a general sort of way that petite sirah contains many of the characteristics one finds in cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, for less money.
The part of me that loves wine for the thrill of discovery and newfound confidence a consumer can gain by finding something serious but not prestigious, capable and helpful and unique but not overly coveted or precious or hoarded or expensive, wants to tell you that you can get a boatload of interesting flavors and impressions from a glass of petite sirah, at reasonable prices.
And: The small size of its berries leads to a relatively high skin-to-juice ratio, resulting in wines with high tannins and high acidity, which means the wines will mature over time in bottle, so that you can affordably find petite sirah wines to stick in a basement and come back to over the years.
So, there are all these different parts of me that want to tell you all sorts of things about petite sirah. But what I most want to tell you, the message I would shove into a bottle were I stranded somewhere with nothing but a small scrap of paper and a pencil nub with which to communicate, the last-seconds gasp of direction I would offer, is just this: gobble, slurp, mmmm, aaaahh, uh-huh, slurp, mmmm, gobble, boogly-woogly, yumyum, shah-zaaammm, rrrrppp, mmmmm.
Petite sirah is that sort of direct pleasure; what we used to call a “guilty” pleasure though we are all past thinking of any pleasures with guilt, are we not? In the right hands, the wines remind me of the food revolution that David Chang wrought, elevating an almost junk-food aesthetic to the realm of the holy by sheer force of attention, passion, and technique. For how long did pork buns languish in the squalor of greasy dives before Momofuku revealed their glamour? For how long will petite sirah sit off to the side, the affably stupid cousin we tolerate but don’t respect, before we can just drop our pretenses and get down?
Here are some petite sirah pals. Check out psiloveyou.org (good one, eh?) for more info, more wines, and food suggestions (in sum: cow).
Foppiano Petite Sirah 2010 ($19, Pine State). The classic. This is, dare I say it, a somewhat delicate petite sirah. It still has a lot of that crazy energy and big black cherry flavors, but there’s a softness at its heart, like it’s listening to a quiet song with headphones on.
Bogle Petite Sirah 2011 ($12, Nappi). No disguises here, nothing hidden, nothing complicated. Concentrated, boatloads of berries, relentless. I’ll drink this once or twice a year at most, but I’ll have so much fun when I do.
J. Lohr Tower Road Petite Sirah 2011 ($18, National). Also intense, but with something approaching elegance. It’s all baked goods: warm pie, chocolate, cinnamon, and even some cloud-soft whipped cream on top. Enough spine that I’d love to drink it five years from now, too.
Venteux Vineyards Petite Sirah 2010 ($32, Nappi). Not everyday-priced for most of us, but man, it does point to the kingdom. The robustness is offset by a sharp, mineral quality, and lots of textural layering. Vinified with native yeasts and neither fined nor filtered, it’s proof that petite sirah has the capacity to veer outside the fruit world into something more soil-covered, earthen, hide-y.
Vines on the Marycrest Petite Sirah 2011 ($22, SoPo). You could bring this one home to meet your parents. It’s flat-out scrumptious, but more refined than most, and like the Venteux is not satisfied just throwing some ripe berries at a white wall. The stewed fruit thing opens into sweet tobacco, cayenne, tomato soup, leather, with a thrilling sparkle of acidity at the end.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: