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Petite Sirah / Durif

photo of Petite Sirah by Tim Ramey.Historically cultivated and labeled as Petite Sirah only in California, where the variety has many fans among consumers, the true origin and even the proper identification of this grape was uncertain until late in 2003.

The majority of vineyards identified as petite sirah were found to actually contain mixed varieties of a dozen or more distinct types, but often including grapes with confusingly similar characteristics, such as durif, peloursin, and syrah.

Just over 3,200 acres of grapes identified as petite sirah were planted in California as of year 2000. Although only a portion of these vineyards have been surveyed, DNA evidence from research led by Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis confirmed most plantings to be the same grape as durif. About 10% however, may be either peloursin or béclan, which, observed in the field, are practically indistinguishable from durif, even by expert ampelographers.

Durif is a cross of peloursin, a variety known for little but its progeny, with the true syrah. Bred and propagated by a French nurseryman, Dr. François Durif, trying to introduce natural resistance to powdery mildew in the 1870s, he named the grape after himself. The inability of durif to produce distinguished, high quality wines in France effectively nullified the value of its mildew-free attribute, especially since the grape's compact clusters left this variety particularly susceptible to bunch rot. It was long theorized that petite sirah was the same as this lackluster French cross, a theory proven by DNA testing in the late 1990's. .

Duriff clusterLinda Vista Winery owner Charles McIver introduced durif to California in 18841, planting cuttings of it and other French varieties at his Mission San Jose vineyard. He was most likely the first to call the variety "Petite Sirah".

Petite sirah was a popular grape during the period of National Prohibition, because its tough skins held up well for cross-country shipping to the "home" winemaking markets. After Repeal in 1933, petite sirah and alicante bouschet together made up more than 23 of all vineyard plantings in Napa Valley.

In the 1940s, Larkmead and Louis Martini sold wines labeled "Duriff" and plantings in McDowell Valley were documented in 1948. The fruit source for these wines was probably what later became known as petite sirah. Most plantings of petite sirah in California were made before the 1960s. Until 1960, this was even the most widely planted variety in Napa Valley. For more than two decades following Prohibition, vintners were mainly concerned with producing copious amounts of flavorful blends of generic "Burgundy". Wines that showed sensory characteristics of specific varietal identity were of little consequence.

Field-blending was the common practice during this time, with many varieties often interplanted. As a result, few vineyards identified as petite sirah are "pure" in the sense of a single variety planted. Vineyard blocks are often peppered with vines of alicante bouschet, carignan, grenache, mourvèdre, the aforementioned peloursin and béclan, or zinfandel. The reality therefore is that wines from these vineyards labeled "Petite Sirah" to at least some degree are blends, accidentally if not purposefully.

Although the nomenclature is similar and petite sirah is a true offspring of syrah, the vines and grapes of parent and child are quite different and distinct from one another and these varieties should never be used synonymously. In April, 2002, the TTB announced they will forthwith consider Petite Sirah and Durif to be synonymous for use on wine labels.

Only one clone of petite sirah was identified in the 1960s, labeled FPS Petite Sirah 03 (changed to FPS Duriff 03, in 2003). Other selections from various Sonoma and Napa Valley vineyards, as well as cuttings from an exchange program with Australia, underwent virus trials and heat treatments at UC testing facilities over the past three decades to qualify for certification. At least nine separate registered clones of durif are now available for planting in the USA.

California plantings have increased to over 6,000 acres now and as many as sixty wineries today produce varietal Petite Sirahs. The first to do so were Concannon and the original Souverain, both from the 1961 vintage. Some vintners choose to spell it as "Petit Sirah", "Petite Syrah", or "Petit Syrah" and , although this is no doubt intended to provide some advantage in the marketplace, it merely serves to confuse consumers and defer their attention. These variant spellings are also used in other countries where the grape has migrated: Argentina, Australia, Brazil and Mexico.

At four to eight tons per acre, petite sirah is a fairly good producer. The vines are sturdy and fairly long-lived and thrive in many types of soil. The berries are somewhat prone to sunburn. Their tight grape clusters are also subject to rot when damp or rained upon. The grapes typically ripen mid-season, however, so this is not usually a problem in California.

Petite sirah has long been an important blending grape, prized primarily for its deep color and fairly intense tannin. It is the variety most often chosen to blend into zinfandel for added complexity, structure, and to tone down the tendency of zins toward "jammy" fruit. As a base wine or stand-alone varietal, vintners often introduce a small portion of white wine into petite sirah to calm the intensity with little effect on color.

On its own, the appeal of Petite Sirah is more visceral than specifically-flavored. Usually high in pigment and tannin, young wines may show dark berry and plum fruit characteristics. On poor soils, when severely pruned and fully ripened, some black pepper spice may add to typical full body and meaty density. Mostly Petite Sirah can be described as "vinous" and, although agreeable, pleasant, and sometimes delicious, not highly distinctive. Nevertheless, wines made from petite sirah age slowly and can survive fairly long cellaring of ten years or more.

Among the Petite Sirahs that truly impressed me early on, particularly the 1969, '71 and '74 vintages, were those made by Freemark Abbey and Ridge, both sourcing grapes from Napa's York Creek Vineyard on Spring Mountain. Deeply fruited, with lavish richness and round, massive tannins, each begged the question of cellaring potential for this varietal.

Hoping to revive the memory, we followed a March, 2002, Petite Sirah tasting by opening a bottle of 1974 Freemark Abbey, recently acquired from a well-kept private cellar. Freemark Abbey 1974 Petite Sirah.Although not completely gone Freemark Abbey 1969 Napa Valley  Petite Sirahand still possessing consider-able tannin, the aroma was but a hushed whisper of black licorice; musty staleness dominated the bouquet ; flavors also were dull and dank.

We'll savor our memories (...wistful sigh!) and be reminded to review our personal cellar contents, with eyes open and corkscrews at the ready, prepared to spare any and all bottles of more than a decade in age from similar fates.

UPDATE ... a subsequent tasting in January, 2012, of a bottle from a different cellar, but made by the very same winery in an older vintage (1969) and from non-specific vineyard sources, revealed a terrifically lovely wine that was remarkably youthful, complex, and free of any signs of sensory senility.

(see Cellaring / Collecting)

by Jim LaMar

1. It is likely that McIver at the same time imported peloursin and béclan, the other varieties sometimes planted in California vineyards that have been historically also identified as petite sirah.

PS I Love You is an organization of producers and consumers whose mission is to advocate and promote appreciation of this variety. Their web site includes news and events, Petite Sirah-matched recipes, membership information, a historical time line of developments significant to Petite Sirah and also a transcript of Dr. Carole Meredith's speech to the First Petite Sirah Symposium, detailing

1. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours (pg 316-17) London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

2. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

3. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

4. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

5. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

6. Foundation Plant Services Grapes: Available Selections (Durif) retrieved 2018-04-11

7. Doris Muscatine, Maynard A. Amerine, Bob Thompson (ed), The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1984

8. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996

9. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

10. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

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Page originated January 31, 2002; last updated April 26, 2018
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