Savoring Seven Sinners Petite Sirah

By Celia Strong

This week’s wine seems an appropriate choice to celebrate the fall season — a deep, dark red that can bring out the bold (and perhaps sinister) side.

The AVA today, for the source of our wine’s grapes, is the Lodi District in California. Although, the company that makes our wine is in Napa Valley. We’re all wine savvy enough to know that grapes from one place can be fermented in another, especially in many New World wine-producing areas.

The Lodi area is located 100 miles east of San Francisco, south of Sacramento and near the delta of the San Joaquin River. This area is best known for producing full-bodied Zinfandel wines, but it also produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Grapes have grown in the Lodi area since the 1850’s, and, today, there are about 100,000 acres of vines and more than 750 growers. These vineyards and growers are responsible for about 20 percent of all the wine grapes grown in California, more than Napa and Sonoma together.  The Lodi AVA is about 500,000 acres, and it is divided into seven smaller AVAs.

All of which gets to our grape variety for this week: Petite Sirah. To start with, Petite Sirah and Syrah are not the same. (Syrah and Shiraz are the same.) Both Petite Sirah and Syrah are varieties that come from the Rhône Valley in France, both can make rich, big red wines. Syrah, under its Shiraz name, travelled from France to Australia and became popular and prolific. Petite Sirah managed to travel to California in the late 1870’s, mostly to the central valley where it was used to give color and tannins to jug wines. Many home winemakers found Petite Sirah good for their wines as well.

By 1900, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre were the most planted grapes in California. Field blends became very popular with Italian immigrants at the turn of the century. Assorted grape varieties were grown in one vineyard, field, all together and then fermented into wine, still all together. Of course, this was before wines from specific varieties became popular.

But, in 1961, Concannon Vineyards in Livermore Valley made the first Petite Sirah labeled varietal wine; the first time this grape was shown to be good enough on its own. With the success of this one wine, California plantings of Petite Sirah reached 14,000 acres by the late 1970’s. But, nothing lasts forever. Today there are only about 2,500 acres.

So, where did Petite Sirah come from?  Yes, France, but who were its Mom and Dad?  Well, that question has had various answers over the years. François Durif, a French botanist in the 1860’s, kept a nursery at his home where he grew several grape varieties. Somehow, at some point, two of his vines, Peloursin and Syrah, cross-pollinated and he had a new variety. In 1868, this new grape was named for him: Durif. DNA testing at the University of California Davis in 1997 confirmed this variety and its parents. It was this new variety that travelled from France to the vineyards of California, this variety that was part of so many field blends. And this variety that now accounts for about 90 percent of grapes in California vineyards that are called Petite Sirah. (The other 10 percent are bits of leftover varieties that were also in field blends.)

And where does the name Petite Sirah come from? It’s just a name, probably used before DNA accuracy when the leaves of Durif vines looked similar to Syrah’s leaves, but the Durif grapes looked smaller than Syrah grapes. Legally, in California now, both Durif and Petite Sirah are recognized by the ATF. Wines can be labels with either name, but they are not considered synonyms. Poor Petite Sirah, we can’t even keeps its name straight. Oh, well. We can still drink it, no matter what we call it.

Petite Sirah, or Durif if you prefer, wines are deep, dark, inky wines. And dense colors mean dense flavors and textures. These wines can be relatively acidic, but they have firm textures and mouth feels. Their aromas are herbal, with black pepper, black fruits like blackberries, spices, licorice, plums, smoke, leather and blueberries. Compared to Syrah wines, these are fuller and rounder, darker colored, especially with purple hues, and brighter in your mouth.

Despite being named for its small grapes, this variety makes big, bold wines. It seems the high skin to juice ratio plays a part in it all. Massive, chewy and masculine are all good descriptions for good Petite Sirah. Because of their weight, these wines age well. In fact, they improve with aging, long aging, like 10 years.

Pairing food with Petite Sirah is easy. Big bold wine goes with big, bold, full-flavored food. Red meat is a given, especially grilled and barbecued beef, venison, bison, wild pig. Lamb goes well, too. The acidity and astringency in the wine keeps the lamb fat in line. Spicy and rich sausages are also perfect. For cheeses, think sharp and aged such as Cheddar and Gouda. But, there’s a lot more Petite Sirah goes well with including roasted and grilled vegetables, red sauces, pizza, burgers, hearty shrimp and grits, bacon (meaning many dishes flavored with bacon) and spicy foods.

Our wine of the week, Seven Sinners Petite Sirah, is 100 percent Petite Sirah — no field blend left behinds. It has velvety textures with deep, rich flavors such as blackberry jam, blueberries and black pepper spice. And, my favorite part of this wine, is a long, lingering finish. The flavors and textures just hold on your tongue and linger around your mouth for minutes after your first sip.

This month, gather six of your most fun-loving friends so you can call yourselves “the Seven Sinners” as you drink this big, bold wine. It can be found at Bill’s Liquors on Lady’s Island for only $14.99. Enjoy.

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