Berger on wine: You’ve come a long way, petite sirah

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Those seeking alternative red wines might be intrigued by the latest efforts from the world of petite sirah – especially since it has improved so much in the last decade.

Longtime wine lovers may take this suggestion as a sort of joke since this red wine made from an obscure French grape (Durif) could be referred to by its outrageous tannins. I once described it as if the Russian army had camped out in my mouth.

I wasn’t alone. For decades wine lovers have parroted the “fact” that petite sirah is so astringent that it has a texture more like coarse sandpaper or lye.

Today it has changed. Many former brutes have a far gentler side. Today petite sirah can be charming and elegant. And yes, you read correctly: “petite sirah” and “elegant” in the same sentence!

Not that the wines still aren’t inky and dense. Most are. But in the last few years, many California winemakers discovered that consumers want more fruit than weight. Many of them learned this because they are now also making one of the hottest red wines around, pinot noir.

The greatest attribute of pinot is its fruit and lack of overt tannins. By using techniques that benefit pinot, some winemakers have adapted these practices to craft petite sirah and other wines in that image.

I began to see this transformation in petite sirah about 2009. By 2013, most wine lovers could see it in more graceful expressions of fruit, notably from Sonoma County winemakers like Foppiano, Miro, Trentadue, Carol Shelton, Coppola, Dry Creek, Quivira, Lytton Springs, Hawley and Wilson; and from Mendocino County producers Parducci, Graziano, Powicana, Barra, Edmeades, Jaxon Keyes and Meyer Family.

The growth of this grape has happened without fanfare. In 2002, when Jo Diaz founded the trade organization PS I Love You to support petite sirah, she could only find 62 California wineries making petite sirah.

A few months ago she checked again. “I found that 995 brands were making petite sirah as a varietal wine,” she said.

PS I Love You got started mainly as a result of Diaz’s enthusiasm and a huge commitment from Louis M. Foppiano, head of the fourth generation to own the family winery in Healdsburg. The Foppiano family has been a huge supporter of petite sirah for more than 100 years, and under winemaker Nova Perrill the latest wines are spectacular.

I tasted eight older vintages of Foppiano petite sirahs with Perrill two weeks ago, all of them made by a former winemaker, the late Bill Regan. Every wine had perfect balance and had aged beautifully. All showed the bright, dark cherry fruit of the grape.

But the best wines on the table were made by Perrill from the last few years, including one wine that shocked me for its remarkable fruit and depth. (See Wine of the Week below.)

Diaz doesn’t stage many PS I Love You events, but one of the most successful was held last March at Copia in Napa and called Masters of Petite, with guest speakers and a walk-around tasting reception. Another is planned for next spring.

As for Foppiano, Perrill has several more sensational petite sirahs made in 2014 and 2015 that are not yet released. Some are very limited in production, but are dramatic statements. A few will be available only at the winery in the fall.

A final message about petite sirah: Despite more gracefulness, many of the wines seem perfectly structured not only to consume now, but to age well — up 20 years for some. And prices for the best are around $30 to $35, a relative bargain compared with many other red wine varietals.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Foppiano Petite Sirah, Russian River Valley ($25): The aroma of this striking red wine is bright red cherry and subtle spices from oak aging. It improves with aeration and shows traces of pepper with rich fruit of berries in the finish. Winemaker Perrill says he keeps the grapes carefully protected from oxygen by crushing the fruit quickly after harvest. Wines of comparable quality sell for at least $10 a bottle more.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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