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Dec 16, 2006 11:11 AM

Petite Sirah

There have been a couple of posts in the past week on what exactly "petite sirah" is. The following is by Sean Thackrey, who probably knows more about the subject than any other winemaker:

"... They brought back what was considered to be the great clone for planting on any of the favored sites on the hill at Hermitage, and that clone was called, as it still is, 'Petite Syrah.' That's the origin of 'Petite Sirah' as a name in California. It was originally real Syrah from Hermitage and from a particularly good clone of Syrah and was sold and planted as such. The hard part to pin down is how the name came gradually to be applied (as it now is) as a grab-bag for virtually any otherwise unidentified black grape in any old vineyard. It’s just incredible, the amount of stuff that's called Petite Sirah. I’ve harvested at least four different varieties myself that were called (and still are by the people who own the vineyards) 'Petite Sirah,' and in fact bear no relation to each other."

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  1. Foppiano Vineyards produces an informative annual newsletter on Petite Sirah, which can find on their website.

    1. Robert,

      I'm not sure why this is deserving of its own thread, but -- while there is no denying that Sean is entitled to his own opinion -- to say that it is now just a "grab-bag for virtually any otherwise unidentified black grape" is just BS. There clearly is scientific evidence that identifies most -- and I emphasize MOST -- Petite Sirah planted in the state as Durif.

      Is there some "mis-identified" vines? Of course. Just as there is some mis-identified Viognier (or was that Rousanne?), Napa Gamay -- oh, I'm sorry, that's Valdigue -- and other cultivars.

      Sean is a very good winemaker. Being a winemaker, however, does not make one an expert on plant genetics.

      The most important point he raises in the above quotation is the connection of "Petite Sirah" and "Petite Syrah." True Syrah (of/from the Rhone) has many synonyms. The best known is perhaps the Australian name for the grape, "Shiraz." But even within the Northern Rhone, the variety is known my several names. One is Serine; one is Petite Syrah (with a "y"). This latter synonym is precisely why many entities and individuals (myself included) objected to the ATF permitting "Petite Syrah" to be used as a synonym for Durif/Petite Sirah, when there was clear historical evidence that "Petite Syrah" was a recognized synonym for (true) Syrah/Shiraz.

      As we sit here and discuss the subject, many vineyards around the world generally AND in California specifically contain mis-identified vines. That Sean Thackery has "identified" (and while I do not doubt it, I would also love to know how) four different varieties as Petite Sirah is not, in and of itself, surprising. That vineyard owners persist in identifying these (unknown) vines as Petite Sirah probably has more to do with tradition & inertia, let alone economics, than anything else.

      2 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        Thackery hasn't identified any varieties. He just knows that grape growers are using the term "Petite Sirah" for different varietals because they look and taste very different. He said at one tasting that he wished he could label those wines, "100% whatever's out there in that field."

        From the 2006 Foppiano Petite Report DavidT linked above:

        • PS Clone 1 is Durif | Petite Sirah, not registered.
        • PS Clone 2 is actually Pinot Noir.
        • PS Clone 3 is Durif | Petite Sirah, registered.
        • PS Clone 4 is actually Peloursin.
        • PS Clone 5 is Durif | Petite Sirah, not registered.

        What's of most interest to me is not what most "Petite Sirah" is, but what the best ones are. None I've tasted have been nearly good as Thackrey's.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          "He said at one tasting that he wished he could label those wines, "100% whatever's out there in that field."

          He probably could -- especially if he trademarked/copyrighted it! -- it would be designated as a Proprietary name under ATF/TTTB regs.

          As for all the rest, as we have already discussed in another thread, when Carole Meredith fingerprinted Petite Sirah, an overwhelming percentage OF THE VINES TESTED were Durif. The next highest percentage, but overall a tiny minority, were Peloursin. A third cultivar's fingerprint did not match anything in the DNA database at Davis.

          Obviously, "PS Clone 2" and "PS Clone 4" are NOT Petite Sirah, and should no longer be labeled as such; I do not believe they are. As I stated above, it's quite common to mis-identify vines, and I have no doubt -- indeed, I KNOW from first-hand experience -- grapes other than Durif have been crushed, fermented and bottled under the "Petite Sirah" designation. In particular it's quite difficult to identify budwood and benchgrafts. (This was what led to most of the Rousanne in California actualy being Viognier.)

      2. In my research and studies of this varietal, the French trace the Petite Sirah back to a cross done by Dr. Durif (hence the grape is known as Durif in the Rhone region) of Peloursin and Syrah. He was seeking a grape that would be resistent to downey mildew - which was plaguing the region. Durif was the result. UC Davis has done DNA research to the clones found and called PS in California, and Durif is the grape that is most identified as PS.

        There used to be a considerable acreage planted in PS throughout California, but with the marketability of other varietals (Cab Sauv, Chard, Merlot,etc), PS plantings declined in the 70's and has just recently been making a growth comeback.

        You can find it in many wines as part of a blend, but there are some nice varietal specfic wines as well. I suggest taking a look at Stags' Leap Winery (vintages produced by former winemaker Robert Brittan). He had a passion for the Rhone varietals and the property has a very small planting of old vines that produces a concentrated, uniquely 'Leap' wine called 'Ne Cede Malis'. He also produced a Napa Valley PS. Note, this is not Cellars, down the road. This is the leaping stag winery with historical roots back to the 1800's.