In Praise of Petite Sirah


Petite Sirah has the stuffing to hold up to extended oak aging. It can also be made in a lighter, fruit-forward, early drinking style. As a result, a survey of current release Petite Sirah from several producers might easily span four or more vintages. The wines selected for you below, all current releases from Northern California, run from 2009 to 2012. Petite Sirah is a good mirror of both region and vintage. In this regard, the selected wines also will help to hone and sharpen your palate.
In a warm year, alcohol levels can be stratospheric and the wines full-bodied, jammy and fruit-forward. Cool growing seasons naturally result in leaner wines but also showcases the variety’s spicy and earthy personalities. Regional differences in climate have similar effects. And the terroir of specific vineyards, and particularly old vines, shines through in both fruit character and intriguing side notes, be they floral, mineral or spice. 
2009 was a low-stress year for vines and vintners alike. Lower than average frost-risk and few heat spikes meant initial crop loads were generous. The fruit developed gradually. Timely, late summer rain made up for early deficits and limited the need for irrigation. In the end, winemakers were able to make wine to their preference rather than having style dictated by vintage. Despite this vintage’s ability to benefit from extended barrel and bottle aging though, most vintners current releases are now more recent.
The first of two consecutive cool vintages, 2010 also got off to a late start due to spring grains that delayed bud break, flowering and fruit set by about two weeks. While crop loads weren’t affected by frost, cloudy skies slowed the ripening process. A sudden week of soaring temperatures late in the season allowed for maturation within a comfortable harvest window. However, some fruit which had been purposefully exposed by leaf-pulling to encourage ripeness frizzed out under the harsh sun. The result was lower yields and, in some cases, raisin-like flavors despite moderate levels of alcohol. 
The 2010 wines below demonstrate the complexity and moderate alcohol of this cool year but, fortunately, little to no heat-induced cooking of fruit. They are wines with old world personalities and most will cellar very well.
If 2010 made winegrowers nervous, 2011 had them wondering if they were still in California. A wet winter and wet spring were followed by a wet entry into summer. The uncharacteristic weather hampered fruit set, limiting yields in many vineyards from the start. The growing season remained quite cool for the most part. This further delayed ripening and then October rains hampered harvest. Some unlucky growers wound up with significant rot issues due to fruit that couldn’t get dry fast enough.
Nonetheless, a number of producers were fortunate to have vineyard sites that got enough warmth for good ripeness and suffered few ill-effects from the late rains. A great example is the 2011 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah from Thomann Station Vineyard in St. Helena. St. Helena has Napa Valley’s warmest average temperatures during the growing season and was thus ideal for the year. Alcohol in that wine is still only 13.8%, a full two points below what it might be in a typical year. However, the wine teems with complexity and even manages a full-bodied palate.
One area that thrived almost across the board in 2011 was Lodi. Situated south of Sacramento in the Central Valley, Lodi is significantly cooled by the Sacramento-San Joachin Rivers delta but still achieves ripeness earlier than Napa Valley in most years. 2011’s cool nature extended the growing season in Lodi, allowing for phenolic ripeness and complex flavors at relatively low sugar levels.
Growers and winemakers alike drew sighs of relief in 2012. Everything was back to normal. Milestones such a bud break and fruit set occurred right on time. Days were sunny and warm, evenings characteristically cool for northern California’s wine-growing regions. Without challenges of attaining ripeness or dodging rain, winemakers were once again able to make the wines they wanted to. 
Unsurprisingly, 2012 accounts for a significant proportion of the top-scorers among the Petite Sirah I’ve just tasted. Look for a lot of ripe black fruit, often accompanied by floral notes and Petite Sirah’s characteristic spice. Alcohol levels can vary substantially depending on vineyard location and producer style, but quality is high regardless. 
Click through to page two for wine reviews. 

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