The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
If grapes could choose their own names the way scores of Hollywood actors have done, I suspect petite sirah might have rolled with something catchier, or at least more descriptively appropriate. Like Blueberry Syrup Bomb or Tyrannosaurus Red. Or Official Wine of Millennial American Males.
There is nothing tiny about petite sirah, a French grape now almost exclusively associated with California, where it thrives under the sun like a bodybuilder on Muscle Beach. Nor is it to be confused with syrah, a far more familiar and tightly built variety, of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie fame, which is spelled with a "y" rather than "i." Canadian liquor-board websites constantly misspell it. For the record, there is a genetic kinship. Syrah is one of petite sirah's parents. (Why did I feel like Jerry Springer typing that last line?)
Petite sirah has been criticized for being, of all things, too easy to love, doling out intense dark-berry fruit, peppery lift and a syrupy texture fit for pancakes and a lumberjack. It can seem like the anachronistic Hummer, often pushing 15-per-cent alcohol, in a world increasingly turning on to the finer qualities of lighter grapes. That may explain its popularity with millennials in the United States. As with heavily hopped craft brews and peaty-smoky single-malt whiskies, petite sirah makes a conspicuous statement.
But like bold beers and spirits, it can be delicious in the right producers' hands. Stags' Leap, from Napa, makes a consistently superb example that pops up across Canada. It's priced at the upper end, roughly $35-plus, in line with the higher-end of California's other signature grape, zinfandel. Bogle, near Sacramento, and Michael David, in Lodi, are more popular and affordable producers, though the grape for a century was often used to add colour and guts to red blends, a role it continues to play in some of the esteemed zinfandel-led reds of Ridge and Ravenswood.
French in origin, petite sirah has enjoyed an existence almost as long – and certainly more prominent – in the U.S., where the vine was imported only a couple of decades after its emergence in the home country in the mid-1800s. A cross between syrah and the more obscure peloursin, it was originally dubbed durif, which to me has always sounded more like a Middle Eastern cigarette brand than the name of the plant breeder who gave it life. How it got its Frenchified California moniker is a mystery. I suspect it's because the variety looks like a small-berry version of syrah.
More than a decade ago its more ardent California winemakers, such as Foppiano and Rosenblum, led a marketing charge to raise the variety's profile. The group now includes such other fine producers as Concannon, Pedroncelli, Don Sebastiani & Sons and Trentadue. The organization's name: P.S. I love You.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol (HarperCollins) won top prize for best general English cookbook at the 2014 Taste Canada Food Writing Awards.