Petite Sirah is a big, bold, beast of a red wine produced most notably in California, but to a lesser degree in Australia, Israel, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere. Highly responsive to terroir, the grape is tannic and intensely fruit-forward. The best examples are full-bodied and deeply complex, with a dark, blueberry-jam nose and layers of blueberry pie, dark chocolate, and black pepper spice.
Frequently misidentified and mislabelled as Syrah, Petite Sirah was initially named “Durif” for its discoverer, 1860s French botanist François Durif. Petite Sirah is the accidentally cross-pollinated cultivar of Peloursin and Syrah, producing densely bunched berries with high skin-to-juice ratios. Although it had a low per-ton yield and high tannins, it was planted for its high resistance to”downy mildew.” Unfortunately, its densely packed fruit clusters experienced severe “bunch rot” in wet weather, and over time growers have replanted with more successful species.
California vintners planted Durif in the 1880s, once again to combat downy mildew. The drier California climate reduced bunch rot, allowing the grape to thrive. Referencing its descendence from Syrah and its tiny grape size, Durif was nicknamed “Petite Sirah.” Its name similarity to Syrah, also sometimes called “Petite Syrah” for its low yield, causes frequent confusion, and even to this day, wineries occasionally conflate the names.
Durif’s high tannin levels and intense jammy and spicy character proved ideal for punching up Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. As its acreage increased, Durif was often field-mix planted with other blending grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Mondeuse Noire, and Alicante Bouschet. Many vintners still refer to these field-blended grapes generically as Petite Sirah, further confounding its naming convention.
In the 1970s, California wineries began experimenting with Petite Sirah as a stand-alone varietal. The resultant wines were intense and highly tannic, providing a moderately complex and full-bodied alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon. Although Cab received much of the attention and glory, Petite Sirah showed increasing promise. Its high tannin levels make it an excellent “library” wine, often requiring extended bottle time. Petite Sirah’s popularity prompted expansion to other wine regions, including Australia, Chile, Argentina, and even Israel. The best examples can age upwards of 20 years. While its popularity as a varietal waxes and wanes with prevailing tastes, Petite Sirah, née Durif endures.
Three outstanding examples, spanning the range from $15 to $60, include 2016 Maxville Petite Sirah Napa Valley, 2016 Ridge Petite Sirah Lytton Estate, and 2017 Michael David Petite Petit. Whichever you try, Petite Sirah remains a unique wine with complexity and finesse to rival even the best Cabs and Pinot Noirs, plus a nod toward Zinfandel spice and Merlot fruit—a quaff no red wine lover should miss.