Berger: Petite sirah stands test of time

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Most long-time judges at wine competitions shudder when they are told they will be judging petite sirah, a grape variety notorious for its excessive tannins.

Such was my thought earlier this month while at the East Meets West Wine Competition staged at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, I was on a panel asked to evaluate this ancient and rustic grape variety.

Fortunately there were only 12 such wines, and fortunately winemaking has become so skillful around Northern California that the grape now isn’t being made as brutishly as it once was.

I have long loved this dark-skinned grape for the pitch black wine it produces that, over the decades, has often proven to produce a wine that ages beautifully.

In 1998 at a party, I opened a 1973 petite sirah from Burgess Cellars in the Napa Valley, and it was declared by all to be better than six far more expensive red Burgundies!

PS I Love You is the Sonoma County mutual admiration society established years ago to support Petite Sirah, and over the years it has promoted many public events around this often-overlooked grape.

It is true that drinking most petite sirahs when they are young is generally thought to be masochistic behavior, but over the last decade, especially with fruit from Northern California’s best old vineyards, the variety can be made juicy and tasty, so much so that it’s a great candidate for cold winter nights when paired with rustic foods based on red meat.

At the East-West event, 10 of the 12 wines we evaluated blind were awarded silver medals or better, five of them getting gold.

Only one wine was bypassed for a medal.

The best wine in the flight wound up being declared the best red wine in the show. That wine was 2014 Miro PS from the Dry Creek Valley, a reserve bottling ($34) that displays astounding loganberry-like fruit with terrific acidity for aging.

Bulgarian-born Miro Tcholakov is the master behind all of the dark red wines at Miro, his own small Healdsburg-area winery, and his petite sirahs always are stellar.

Carol Shelton also has been making petite sirah for decades, years ago at Windsor Vineyards and now for her own highly successful eponymous brand.

Two of Carol’s stars each won gold medals at East-West, both from 2013 vintage ($40 each): a Rockpile Reserve and a Dry Creek Valley “Florence Vineyard”.

All of these wines are candidates to age well, at least seven or eight years, and the three listed above easily could go a decade or more.

The nice thing about petite sirah is that it seems to retain its fruit nicely even after a decade in the bottle. One of the leaders with this variety over the years has been Foppiano Winery, and we still have a few of their PS bottles that are 20-plus years old and still fine.

However, fair warning: even though today’s petite sirah is a little more drinkable on release than it once was, it can still be quite a challenge. The tannins can be aggressive!

Wine of the Week: 2013 Harlow Ridge Petite Sirah, California ($10): This reasonably priced dark red wine offers plush fruit and lovely chocolate aftertaste at a fair price. Not as widely distributed as a few other of this brand’s varietals; worth a search.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of Wine Wednesdays from 5-6 p.m. on radio station KSRO, 1350, in Santa Rosa.

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