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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tasting Petite Sirah, California's Little Big Wine

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 1:18 PM

click to enlarge Tasting panelists Noah P. and Eleni K. strike a pose with the Petite empties. - ALASTAIR BLAND
  • Alastair Bland
  • Tasting panelists Noah P. and Eleni K. strike a pose with the Petite empties.

It was born in 1880, and four years later came to California. But for another 80, almost nobody knew it.

Petite Sirah is one of California's historical vines and among the earliest varieties introduced to the state, but for decades it languished as an anonymous blending wine. Blame the color, a Dracula-dark, rug-ruining reddish burgundy-blue, which also made it an excellent addition to other reds in need of a stiff body-boost. Still, no winemaker dared stamp "Petite Sirah" on a bottle label.

Then in 1961, Jim Concannon, winemaker at his family's namesake vineyard in Livermore, set aside a small portion of that year's Petite Sirah, previously used only for blending into Concannon's other reds. The wine matured and showed promise as a varietal release. In 1964, the Concannons deemed it ready and able. They stamped the label with the grape's name, a reference to its small berry size, plus a misspelled rendering of one of the variety's parent grapes. The first-ever vintage bottling of a Petite Sirah had arrived.

click to enlarge Petite Sirah vines at Ridge Vineyards' Dynamite Hill in the Napa Valley. - THE J TRAIN/FLICKR
  • The J Train/Flickr
  • Petite Sirah vines at Ridge Vineyards' Dynamite Hill in the Napa Valley.

With the Concannon release, Petite Sirah (still called Durif in France after the Montpellier breeder who created it) underwent a revolution, from blending grape to tasting-room draw. The variety would become Concannon's signature wine, while beyond the Livermore Valley Petite Sirah was suddenly fashionable. Winemakers took a second look at their Petite vines and, one by one began bottling the wine unblended. Petite Sirah's growth has accelerated in recent years. In 2001, 65 California wineries released one; in 2010, the number surged to 723. More will surely join the movement this year, as the trendiness of this reddest of red wines shows no sign of cooling.

To taste dozens of Petites at a go, visit the Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda on Feb. 18 for the annual Dark and Delicious Petite Sirah food-and-wine tasting event.

Unwilling to wait? We were. SFoodie recently gathered up a panel of eight tasters to evaluate five Petite Sirahs.

It was surprisingly difficult to locate the wines ― we failed to find any Petites at Trader Joe's or Andronico's, though BevMo and small neighborhood wine shops had what we needed. Except for one, each bottle retailed for about $10; all were thick, intensely fruity, and chalky with tannins. We tasted blind to rank our favorites, writing notes as we went and unveiling the bagged wines after all were evaluated. We opted against scoring numerically, which is, like, so Robert Parker.

Following are our findings, listed in the order in which we tasted.

2004 Concannon Reserve ($29.99). Whether by the effects of age or the pampering of good wine-making, this bore all the marks of a winner, a textbook example of the variety. To the eye, it was satiny black plum juice. To the nose, it was all bright fruit aromas, with undertones ― or gosh, were they overtones? ― of cherries and smoke. In the mouth, it was excellently balanced, smooth, yet tart enough to bite. The tannins grabbed the tongue gently before the wine's gentler qualities took over, and by the time it hit the throat it was blue velvet. Nah, we weren't spitting.

2009 McManis Family Vineyards ($8.99). Okay ― we did spit this one out. "Grody to the max," blurted Noah P., the panel's wine industry rep and Riesling devotee. We all agreed: This Petite was the lineup's loser, cloying, pungent, reeking of fruit and socks, ultimately rank. It elicited no compliments, three comparisons to sangria and one to wine coolers. We didn't think it was corked but something seemed wrong, so I sampled a second bottle next day. Much better: aromas of leather and strawberry jam, with a smoky, woody taste. Perfectly inoffensive ― good, even ― which made us wonder: Was it the memory of the 2004 Concannon that made it suffer?

2007 Ravenswood Vintners Blend ($10.99). A first whiff revealed an alarming smell of mold, but further nosing of the glass revealed more fetching qualities - smells of berries and wood finish, smoke and redwood. It developed in the mouth, round and bristling with tannins, fruity but complex ― though some tasters wrote that it withered thinly on the finish. Alicia Y., a vegan chef, noted that the Ravenswood started loudly, then "fell flat," like "an excited boring person."

2008 Powder Keg ($11.99). Bright and fragrant aromas of raspberry and jarred cherries gave this California appellation a good first impression. The taste left the panel divided. Some of us enjoyed the wine's sweet and zesty qualities, the firm hints of raspberry, cranberry, and Port; others recoiled at the sweetness. This writer enjoyed it, as did Steve P., Cabernet enthusiast, who noted that it "would go well with a turkey leg at a Renaissance fair." Eleni K. observed, "I'd get a headache if I drank the whole bottle." Well, duh.

2008 Bogle Vineyards ($11.99). Deep purple, almost blue, and in the nose, bacon, smoke, and cranberry, with less food-friendly things, too, like tar, leather, and rust, all compliments. In the mouth, the Bogle was aggressive, with sharp acids that continued even as our palates fatigued. But intriguing flavors of meat and pumpkin-pie spices ultimately made this one of the panel's favorites.

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Alastair Bland

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