California’s darling grape is game for grilling
Like Zinfandel, Petite Sirah is primarily a California wine: the Golden State’s long, sunny growing seasons are necessary to ripen Petite Sirah’s substantial tannins and reveal its rich blackberry flavors. The wine’s structure, fruit and inky color make it an excellent blending partner for Zinfandel, red Rhône varieties and even Cabernet Sauvignon. As a varietal wine, it can be surprisingly complex and long-aging. It’s also, not surprisingly, an excellent food wine.
Petite Sirah offers layers of flavor beyond black fruit, particularly Chinese five-spice, leather and meat. It melds with the spice-laden stewed beef dishes of Ethiopian cuisine, the lamb tagines of Morocco, and Mexican molé sauce. But Petite Sirah loves grilled meat. Choose rib-eye steak, pork ribs, lamb chops, wild game or sausage. Do a garlic and herb marinade, a dry spice rub or just salt and pepper. Slather on barbecue sauce or don’t. It’s all good with Petite Sirah.
Concannon Vineyard: The History of a Variety
Petite Sirah arrived in the vineyards of San Jose, California, in 1884, somewhat by accident. Just a few years later, Livermore Valley’s Concannon Vineyard began planting Petite Sirah in volume and no winery has been a bigger champion for it. In 1961, Concannon bottled the United States’ first varietally-labeled Petite Sirah. And today Concannon remains one of its foremost producers, offering a wide range of Petite Sirah wines, from smooth and friendly to robust and age-worthy.
Opaque ruby in the glass, with appetizing aromas of dark spice, cherry, black fruit and citrus notes (a hallmark of Livermore Valley reds). The palate is medium-plus in body with very soft, chalky tannins. Ripe blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, sweet spice, earth and an attractive hint of Meyer lemon oil. Tasty and immediately accessible. It will be happy with any red or white meat you grill or those chocolate cupcakes you’ve been saving for dessert. Aged 24 months in American oak. 260 cases. 14.6% alcohol. 88 points
Concannon offers library wines as well as current releases. Heritage Reserve is their top-of-the-line, made from stringently selected estate fruit. Thirteen years from vintage, this wine has developed some tertiary characteristics, but also plenty of rich fruit. Dark ruby in the glass, with generous aromas of blackcurrant, Chambord, drying leaves and tobacco. Full-bodied with medium-plus chalky tannins. The palate holds juicy black fruit and Chambord, the tobacco and drying leaves, but also medium-dark chocolate and dark spices. Try it with smoked, char-grilled ribs brushed with tomato-molasses barbecueA sauce. Drink now through 2020+. 100% Petite Sirah. 14.1% alcohol. 90+ points
Speaking of the aging ability of Petite Sirah, early this year I had the opportunity to open a 1965 Concannon Petite Sirah sourced from a private cellar. I poured it with some top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the same period and a number of other wines. This Petite stole the show. It was still dark in color and intense. I decanted it for an hour. The body was moderate (just 12% alcohol) but the wine was mind-bendingly complex. There was a broad assortment of tertiary flavors, but also a lot of black fruit. The finish was long and, for those of us with willpower to sip slowly, the wine’s intensity lasted all night in our glasses. Wines tend to be built differently today and few, if any, can last this long but the variety does have that potential.
Robert Biale Vineyards: Petite Sirah that Rivals Cabernet Sauvignon
Asking which California AVA produces the best Petite Sirah can spark passionate discussion. However, it’s hard to argue against the complex, balanced and beautifully textured wines that result from the old vine plantings, meticulous viticulture and top-flight winemaking in Napa Valley. The best examples tend to come from the Stags Leap District, St. Helena, Howell Mountain and Calistoga. Wineries such as Stags’ Leap, Quixote, Relic and Envy make Petite Sirah that can almost make you forget about Cabernet Sauvignon. So too the single-vineyard wines of Robert Biale Vineyards.
Founded in 1991 to focus on Zinfandel, they’ve become one of Napa’s most celebrated producers of that variety. Biale applies the same passion to Petite Sirah and, with the inherent structure of the variety, they are making multi-layered wines you can savor today or save for 25+ years.
Don’t let the name Royal Punishers scare you off. It’s an anagram of the names of Petite Sirah’s parent grapes, Syrah and Peloursin. The nose of this opaque ruby wine is a weave of dark fruit and spice, especially black cherry with black and white pepper. It’s nearly full-bodied, with approachable medium-plus tannins that are soft and lightly chalky. Flavors include black fruit, earthy spice, white pepper, espresso and a hint of peach. Aged 14 months in Burgundian oak, 20% new. 90+ points
Opaque ruby and very aromatic, with a strong core of blackcurrant, briary black fruit and mocha complemented by clove and other dark spices plus a chiffonade of mint. The palate is full-bodied and focused. Concentrated black currant and blackberry are framed by layers of light-grained and powdery tannins and supporting flavors of mocha, stone fruit and spice. Delicious and very long. Decant or serve with well-marbled meat. Drink now through 2022. Aged 18 months in Burgundian oak, 20% new. 378 cases. 15.2% alcohol. 93 points
Opaque ruby with a generous nose of blackcurrant, carob, dark flowers and spice. The palate is full-bodied with substantial, light-grained and chalky tannins. Rich and long-lasting with flavors of blackberry, blueberry skin, sweet spice and mineral. Decant or serve with well-marbled meat. Drink now through 2023. Aged 14 months in Burgundian oak, 25% new. 150 cases. 15.5% alcohol. 92 points
Fields Family Wines: Raising the Bar in Lodi
Ryan Sherman is among a handful of very serious and talented, self-taught winemakers who are pushing the quality and character of Lodi wines to new heights. These producers collaborate and have long been doing careful studies of the wines and techniques of France, Spain and Napa Valley. They insist on fastidious viticulture and restrained winemaking, aiming for complexity, varietal specificity and expression of terroir.
Lodi is well-known for its deep sandy soils, in which Zinfandel thrives. But for his Petite Sirah, Sherman looks to the eastern edge of the AVA, where proximity to the Sierra Mountains resulted in soils of red earth and rocks. He aged the wine for 22 months in a mix of 50% new Burgundian and Bordelais barrels.
The nose celebrates Petite Sirah with blackberry, black cherry, dark spice, wild game and earth. The palate is full-bodied, with matching tannins of chalk and talc. A core of lovely black fruit is supported by cocoa and dark spice. This is a delicious wine that will last long in your cellar, but not in their store. Pair well-marbled meat now or drink 2014 to 2022. 100% Petite Sirah. Less than 100 cases. 14.1% alcohol. 91+ points
Other Petite Sirah Recommendations:
Mendocino’s cool-climate Pinot Noir and Syrah get well-deserved attention these days, but there’s also a warm side to Mendocino where Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah thrive. 2010 was a long, cool vintage, though, and it allowed grapes to ripen without high levels of sugar. This appellation blend is easily approachable and features aromas and flavors of blackberry, cherry, spice and cocoa. Medium-plus body and tannins of fine grain and chalk. Try it with grilled cheeseburgers (hold the onions). Drink through 2016. 97% Petite Sirah, 3% Zinfandel. Aged in once-used French oak. 14.3% alcohol. 87 points
This single-vineyard Artezin wine from eastern Ukiah Valley blends grapes from nearly 80-year old vines with those from more recent plantings. Rich blackberry, cassis, brown spice and dark flowers on the nose. Nearly full-bodied in the mouth, with concentrated black fruit and chocolate. Food-friendly juiciness and moderate tannins of light chalk mean this wine is a ready and versatile partner for your cookouts. Drink through 2017. 100% Petite Sirah. Aged in once-used French oak. 14.2% alcohol. 88 points