Sorting out Syrah, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah

If you’re looking for one of the darkest, most full-bodied red wines in the world, reach for a Syrah or Petite Sirah. Syrah is grown in France (Rhone), Argentina (Mendoza), Australia (Barossa, McLaren Vale), Chile (Colchagua and Maipo Valleys), Italy (Lazio, Apulia, Tuscany), South Africa (Stellenbosch, Paarl), Spain (Priorat, Montsant, Yecla), and the United States (Columbia Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, The Rocks, Walla Walla).

Syrah, Shiraz – same, same. Both have the same French parentage Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Whereas, their distant cousin, Petite Sirah, also known as Durif, parents are Syrah and the rarely found Peloursin grape.

Syrah is the grape of Rhone. In northern Rhone, the appellations of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, and Côte Rôtie may blend un to 20% Viognier with the Syrah. Most only co-ferment 5% with the Syrah.

In southern Rhone, Syrah is always blended with up to 13 grape varieties but typically it will be a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend.

Rhone’s terroir, where the dry mistral winds blow, has the rockiest vineyards you’ve ever seen. The vines are head-trained and cut low to protect the vines from those winds.

Some of the most elegant and perfumed styles of Syrah are from regions with cool nights and high diurnal temperature swings. The result are powerful wines with fine-grained tannins, redolent with raspberries, black currants, violets, with savory hints of licorice, olives and black pepper.

Before appellation control in France, some Bordeaux may have had Syrah blended  into their wines in weak vintages to make them richer. This practice is no longer allowed in Bordeaux but you can find it in the Languedoc, Australian and American Cabernet-Syrah or Shiraz blends in today’s markets.

In Australia, Syrah is known as Shiraz. Same grape, just a different continent and style. It’s Australia’s most widely planted grape. Traditionally, known for fruit forward wines with lots of vanilla from oak, styles have been evolving.

When phylloxera ravaged Europe in the 1860s, halfway around the world, Australia escaped infection. This island nation has some of the oldest Shiraz vines planted on original rootstock. Vineyards that were planted pre-phylloxera are ungrafted and produce tiny crops of intensely concentrated grapes.

In the 1950s, pioneering winemaker, Max Schubert, produced a dry wine (once called Grange Hermitage until the French put a stop to that) made predominantly from Shiraz. This was unusual because at the time, Australians were drinking sweet port-like Shiraz. It was not well received.

Penfolds’ Grange is one of the most iconic wines in the world and a collector’s dream. As recently as last December, two bottles of the first vintage of Penfolds Grange 1951 sold for more than $81,000 each.

Petite Sirah (aka Durif) is a different variety of grape but genetically related to Syrah. First discovered growing in Francois Durif’s nursery in the mid-1800s, the grape is a cross between Syrah and the rare Peloursin. It was imported to America where it became known as Petite Sirah. Today, it is mainly found in California with pockets in Australia and Washington.

While “petite” does translate to little, Petite Sirah is a small but mighty berry. It has that deep inky color that can stain your glass and your teeth in an instant with its full-bodied flavors of blueberry, plums and black pepper.

There are several wineries that have been growing Petite Sirah for generations. Most notably, Bogle Winery, Foppiano Vineyards, Parducci, Stag’s Leap Winery and Ridge.

Vineyards planted in the late 1800s were done in a field blend style. Field blends were typically a row of this and a row of that, harvested and fermented together. So for the longest time, Petite Sirah was a blending grape.

The Bogle family has been farming around Clarksburg for six generations. Their involvement in the wine goes back 50ish years. The first red grape founder Warren Bogle and his son Chris planted in 1968, was Petite Sirah. For 10 years, the family grew grapes for other wineries, until releasing their own label in 1978.

In 2002, Foppiano Vineyards helped found P.S. I Love You, a trade organization dedicated to the Petite Sirah grape. An Italian family that had been growing grapes for over 120 years, they have over 40 acres planted Petite Sirah.

In 1967, the first Foppiano Petite Sirah was released with a vintage-dated bottling. In 1994, new Petite Sirah vineyards are planted on the estate to accommodate demand. The following year, a twenty-year vertical tasting of Foppiano Petite Sirah was conducted in London. In 1999, Foppiano won the coveted Civart award at Vin Expo in Bordeaux for its 1996 Petite Sirah.

Ridge Vineyards was probably the first American winery to put vineyards and percentages on the labels. A veritable winemaker’s notes, if you will.

In 1968, Fritz Maytag purchased a ranch on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley with several Petite Sirah blocks that were planted in the early 1900s. In 1971, Ridge used the fruit to make its first York Creek Petite Sirah. Their oldest Petite Sirah vines on the Lytton Estate were planted in 1901 and the youngest in 2008. The first wine from the property was made in 1972.

Stag’s Leap Winery has one of the oldest blocks of Petite Sirah, planted in 1929. The block is predominantly Petite Sirah, though it includes at least 15 other varietals in small amounts. Year after year this gracefully aging block produces a small lot of wine. They also make a Petite Sirah from estate vineyards that were planted in the 1970s.