Berger on wine: The charms of petite sirah
Of all the red wine grapes in California, perhaps the most extensively produced and yet misunderstood is petite sirah.
This grape variety is planted throughout the state (from San Diego to Humboldt County), makes a dark red wine and has a reputation (which once was accurate) for being so tannic that even its strongest proponents acknowledged that it would take the rust off a corral gate.
Back in 1978, at a blind tasting I attended, two petite sirahs tied for best on the table – the 1971 Freemark Abbey and the 1971 Ridge Vineyards — and the next two wines were the 1975 Ridge Vineyards and 1975 Freemark Abbey.
All four wines were grown on the famed York Creek vineyard high atop Napa Valley. Both were made by brilliant winemakers (Freemark Abbey’s Jerry Luper and Ridge’s Paul Draper).
Articles that came out of that tasting gave a strong impetus to the variety, leading many wineries to try their hands at it.
Almost all versions at the time were fairly astringent, however. And that prompted many wine merchants to alert potential petite sirah buyers that to best enjoy the wine, it had to be aged, preferably for a long time.
One Los Angeles merchant had the temerity to suggest to me that one petite sirah I was thinking of buying was risky: “You may not live long enough before the tannins subside,” he said.
However, petite sirah lore continued to grow. In the mid-1980s, three petite sirahs earned gold medals at the Los Angeles County Fair wine competition. Each had come from the same vineyard, Shell Creek in Paso Robles. Southern California sales of all three were brisk.
But petite sirah remained fairly tannic; experts suggested only serving young versions with a char-grilled steak. Writer Bob Thompson once told me that petite sirah was best served “with wild game, preferably still alive.”
Yet the variety had many other uses for winemakers, such as adding texture and dark red color to many red wine blends. It was particularly beneficial in giving zinfandel added depth.
Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg was one of the first wineries to identify that it could be made with a lot less tannin. Its version to this day is a joyful accompaniment to many red meat dishes. Bogle began to produce large amounts of petite sirah and to sell it for a fair price, ultimately gaining international success with it. (Two years ago in Sydney, Australia, I saw a bottle of it listed on a restaurant wine list for $64 Australian dollars.)
About 15 years ago, an enterprising petite sirah lover from Windsor decided to see if the variety was popular enough to support it with a society. Using the name PS I Love You, Jo Diaz persuaded a few larger wineries to develop a society by that name. Today PSILY has more than 100 members, and more petite sirah is being produced as a varietal wine than ever before.
The main reason it is more popular than ever is that winemakers have learned how best to grow the grape and tame the tannins, using its unique anti-oxidative properties as a beneficial trait.
Still, some people have long memories and for them, petite sirah remains a daunting experience – or so they think.