California Petite Sirah and the Age of the Ampelographer

davies wakefield | wine uncorked | feb. 2016

Petite Sirah was originally used in California wine production as a blending grape that was added to inferior wines to enhance color and flavor. Most notably it was a key flavor ingredient in Gallo's Hearty Burgundy, which I guzzled during my college years in the '70s. But it wasn't until botanists trained in identifying plant varieties through genetic testing that, what had been called Petite Sirah, was identified as Durif. Durif was the result of the cross pollination of the Syrah and Peloursin grapes by Francois Durif in 1860. In the early days of botanical science, the differences between grape varieties were mostly macro characteristics such as pollen shape and color, flowers, fruit size and leaf shape, as well as the taste of the fruit. The Durif grape is very small hence the “petite” label, but it produces a grape that has a higher skin to juice ratio, which means that the wine is more tannic. Tannins will make a wine more age worthy and when aged in oak it can develop an aroma of melted chocolate along with the herbal and black pepper tones that make this wine a great partner for grilled beef or venison. The wine has flavors of black fruits, particularly blueberries. But it wasn't until new genetic testing regimes were developed as a result of the Human Genome Project in the 1990s that the rigorous sorting out of California old vine patches identified these grapes and their potential to produce great wines on their own. The Human Genome Project was the catalyst that produced the modern grape botanist referred to as an Ampelographer.

Jancis Robinson, recognized as the premiere Ampelographer of our present time, has written a definitive book on grape varieties called “Wine Grapes” (2012) in which she has identified over 1,400 different varieties. Traditional wine grape production was based on agricultural criteria like ripening in a particular climate, health and resistance to disease, productivity and lastly by their flavor profile. Modern winemakers have turned that precedence on its head. Taste now comes first, then the other economic factors. The wine drinking public is embracing with the new paradigm enthusiastically. When I first got interested in wine, I remember trying a 1978 Concannon Rkatsiteli and a 1969 Heitz Cellars Grignolino. Grignolino is still around, but the Rkatsiteli, as well as the Concannon vineyards, are long gone in favor of the economically successful varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. With few exceptions, these varieties dominated the California wine scene until the late 1980s when Randall Graham organized the Rhone Rangers (an allusion to the Lone Ranger) and started raising grapes native to the Rhone River Valley of France. These varieties were Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Roussanne, Picpoul, Vermentino and Viognier. Later on in the 1990s, Robert Haas founded the Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles using vine cuttings from the famous French winery Chateau de Beaucastel. The result was a movement to raising these unusual and in many cases rare varieties, which are still growing globally.

I did an anecdotal search of local wine shops in the area and found single varietal wines made with the following red grapes: Bonarda, Dornfelder, Nero d'Avola and Touriga Nacional. I also found some interesting white wine varieties including: Albarino, Torrontes, Gros Manseng, Picpoul and Vermentino. These are varieties with new and completely different flavors and aromas. In 2016, you should make a point of trying these varieties. Vermentino and Picpoul are sprightly and will surprise you with how well they match up with a Friday night fish fry or grilled shrimp. Bonarda and Touriga are some of the best barbecue wines, especially with hamburgers or pork ribs on the grill; you might even chill them a bit in the summer. Most of these varieties have been growing in much localized areas of the world for 2,000 years or more and they are just now emerging in a global context. This new world is opening up before our eyes and has real potential to change the current dynamic of Cabernet and Chardonnay.

One example of this sudden emergence is Petite Sirah. I have been a fan of this grape for more than 30 years, but until two years ago finding it was a problem. The one producer that kept the faith in Petite Sirah was the Parducci Winery. The Parducci family started raising Petite Sirah in 1932 and is one of my favorite wineries. Within the last five years, the variety has swelled the shelves at the local wine and liquor stores. The other producer that I like is a relative new comer. Vinum Cellars produces Petite Sirah grown in the Clarksburg area of California. Clarksburg is technically part of the Central Valley but it has two special characteristics that make it stand out from the other mass Central Valley producers like Gallo. The Clarksburg Viticultural area is in the Sacramento River delta. The Sacramento River carried the alluvial wash from the 1849 gold diggers and provides an iron and quartz rich soil that gives the grapes certain mineral characteristics. The other influence is the climate. During the day the area is subjected to the blistering hot Central Valley temperatures, but in the late afternoon and evening the cool air and fog from San Francisco Bay flows back into the Clarksburg area and cools the grapes. This leads to extended hang time (ripening process) and preserves the natural acidity. These wines are worth searching for and they will keep in the cellar. I recently opened a bottle of Bogle Petite Sirah that had sat in the cellar for four years and it was in perfect drinking condition.

The Parducci 2013 True Grit Reserve Petite Sirah is about $15, 14 percent alcohol and 99 percent Petite Sirah, .5 percent Grenache, and .5 percent Syrah. In addition to the blackberry and blueberry flavors, there is also a distinctive dark chocolate, black pepper and caramel hint. This will go very well with a Mexican mole that has dark Mexican chocolate.

The Vinum Cellar 2013 Petite Sirah is about $17 and 13.5 percent alcohol and is 100 percent Petite Sirah. It is sourced from the Wilson Farm in Clarksburg that has been farming wine grapes since 1922. The wine has tastes of blueberry and huckleberry with silky tannins and a hint of vanilla from oak barrel aging. In addition to pairing this with steaks and chops try it with lamb curries or carnitas.

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