In the right hands this native French varietal makes lush, evocative wines.
Petite Sirah pearls of wisdom flowed like the deep-purple wine itself during the summer 2019 P.S. I Love You “Masters of Petite” panel and tasting at The CIA at Copia. Moderator Jo Diaz began the Downtown Napa event by informing attendees that when formed in 2002, the Petite Sirah I Love You advocacy group could only identify 62 Petite Sirah growers – now there are more than 1,100. Significant progress, though this remains a “winemakers’ grape” more than a consumer fave. Too bad for those missing out because, as the panel and tasting illustrated, in the right hands this native French varietal makes lush, evocative wines.
Panel members (continuing clockwise in lead photo from top left) added these observations:
- Randle Johnson of Artezin Wines and The Hess Collection hailed Petite Sirah as “God’s gift to winemaking,” noting that in 1974 it was Napa Valley’s number-two red varietal. He also related how the grape evolved out of Rhône producers’ quest for a Syrah alternative following France’s late-19th-century phylloxera outbreak.
- Miro Tcholakov of Miro Cellars detailed the “extreme viticulture” and cellar techniques required to produce Petite Sirah from grapes grown in the steep, soil-deficient terrain of Sonoma County’s Rockpile AVA.
- Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores reminded us that Petite Sirah is “neither Petite nor Syrah” but that with its rich flavors it “is made for umami.” She proceeded to make mouths water as she suggested dishes a glass of Petite might elevate, among them duck with mole sauce and challa cheesesteak with pastrami and brisket.
- Tres Goetting of Robert Biale Vineyards extolled the diversity of microclimates and soil types Petite Sirah thrives in, also pointing out that controlling the varietal’s potentially wild tannins begins in the vineyard.
- Nicole Salengo of Berryessa Gap Vineyards described how interplanting Primitivo and Peloursin (a Petite Sirah forebear) enhances the flavors in the Yolo County winery’s Petite.
Worth Seeking Out
Petite Sirahs were often on my mind in 2019, during which I tasted well more than a hundred. The party began with an early-in-the-year assignment for Fodor’s California that, in addition to my usual Napa and Sonoma haunts, saw me sipping superlative wines in the Gold Country, Mendocino, and Lodi. By the time Masters of Petite rolled around, I’d already come to the same conclusion as Tres Goetting about the varietal’s geographical adaptability.
As the year drew to a close, I drafted the eclectic list below of favorite Petites that graced my palate in 2019. It’s not meant to be comprehensive – I didn’t make it to Paso Robles the whole year, for instance, and didn’t happen to taste some Napa and Sonoma stalwarts either – but these are delicious wines from 15 in some ways very different appellations. The prices range from below $29 retail for the two French Bar wines and the Harney Lane Home Ranch to $100-plus for the Quixote and Stags’ Leap offerings. Most of these wines, though, cost between $35 and $60. The links are to winery tech sheets or tasting notes if available.
2016 Ballentine Vineyards Pocai Vineyard
2017 Robert Biale Vineyards Palisades Vineyard
2016 Tres Sabores Guarino Vineyard
2015 Vincent Arroyo Winery Greenwood Ranch and 2016 Rattlesnake Acres (both sold out; links are to 2017 vintage)
2013 McCay Cellars Lodi Appellation (no longer available)
Russian River Valley
2015 Foppiano Estate and 2015 Gianna’s Block (sold out; links are to 2016 vintage)
2016 Jeff Cohn Cellars Sweetwater Springs Vineyard