California Petite Sirah: A Report From The Blue Tooth Tour

Petite Sirah is a grape that is under the radar of most consumers, and confusing to many more. It is, of course, confused with Syrah to which it is related (being a cross between Syrah and a varietal called Peloursin), and most people have never had a wine made entirely of Petite Syrah (though many have tasted it unknowingly in small amounts in some California red wines).

Petite Sirah, it was recently discovered is in fact the same grape known as Durif in the rest of the world. Us crazy Californians decided to plant some of it in the late 19th century, and even more in recent decades, and for some reason it wasn’t good enough to call it what everyone else called it, and god forbid we actually SPELL it like everyone else — thus began Petite Sirah.

Just over 4,000 acres of California vineyards are planted with Petite Syrah, which amounts to a thimbleful of juice in an ocean of other varietals. Despite this relative scarcity, it is fiercely beloved by many wine drinkers and winemakers alike, many of whom belong to a society known as “P.S. I Love You.” In an effort to expand public knowledge of this varietal this society, in conjunction with Concannon Vineyards is sponsoring a traveling tasting event called The Blue Tooth Tour (named for the stained teeth that inevitably accompany any time spent tasting Petite Sirah). This tour kicked off last Friday in San Francisco.

I attended the event with Greg Piatigorski, a fellow winemaker, and in addition to tasting the wines, we discussed how to grow and make wine from this difficult grape. Below you will find our tasting notes (and our scores, which I have averaged) from the event, and following that, a brief conversation between myself and Greg about our impressions.

TASTING NOTES (in order of tasting):

2002 Biale Petite Sirah Old Crane – very nice, correct Petite Sirah nose, spicy and peppery, but alcohol on finish doesn’t taste integrated and gets really hot, guessed 15.5%, turns out 15.6%, and would have scored better if not for the heat (Greg). Leather, pepper, spice and very nice (Sasha); Avg. score: 8/8.5. Cost: $~40.

2002 Biale Petite Sirah Thomann – Not as intense as Old Crane, nice, (Greg). Lighter in body than the Old Crane, less mouthfeel; 12 year old vines from renowned Hayne Vineyard clone (Sasha); Avg. score: 8.0. Cost:$~40.

2002 Biale Petite Sirah Royal Punisher (includes %16 Syrah)- Syrah definitely plays a loud fiddle here, too much for my taste, although Petite Sirah is there, no doubt about it, softer and plusher than Old Crane, but I would have preferred less Syrah or rather more seamless integration (Greg). Syrah provides more blueberry in the nose (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5/8. Cost: $36.

2002 Rosenblum Petite Sirah Chateaux du Paw – my new contender for daily drinker and gives the old stand by Bogle a run for its money, very nicely balanced, great QPR (quality/price ratio) (Greg). Nice entry level wine for under $10, sourced from Lodi (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5/8. Cost:$~9.

2003 Rosenblum Petit Sirah Pickett Road – (includes 20% Carignane) one of the best Petite Sirahs at the tasting, if not the best, great character through and through, I wonder how much better I’d like it if not for a good dollop of oak used, very good price for what it is (Greg). Though bottled 2 weeks ago very complex, excellent mouthfeel, wow, handles 80% new oak very well, sourced from 2 vineyards in Napa Valley, one of the nicest wines of the tasting (Sasha); Avg. score: 8.5/9. Cost:$26

2003 Rosenblum Petit Sirah Heritage Clone – softer due to a blend of various clones and 3 different vineyards (Pato, Bartels and Cecchini Vineyards) misses that extra touch of pure Petite Sirah extract for me, although well priced and ready to drink while Pickett Road bottling gathers some age (Greg). Sourced from hotter climate with sander soils – Contra Costa, though 50% new oak it shows more oak than the Pickett Road, viscous, balanced mouthfeel, shares the white pepper characteristic that Santa Lucia Highlands’ syrah. Well worth the price (Sasha); Avg. score: 8. Cost:$18.

2001 Wilson Petite Sirah – another great QPR, really well defined Pets character, although on soft, almost plush side of Pets scale, liked it more than Rosenblum’s Chateaux du Paw (Greg). Licorice, clearly from a warmer climate, value oriented. nice for the price (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5/8. Cost: $10.

2003 Michael David “Earthquake” Petite Sirah – really nice, plenty of blue fruit, very nice wine, although not sure if it is worth the price (Greg). Lodi fruit from Voske vineyard, syrupy, lingering finish, no acid backbone (Sasha); Avg. score: 8. Cost: $30.

2001 Vina Robles Jardine Petite Sirah – a bit lean on nose and palate, very short finish (Greg). Sourced from Estate vineyards on the east side of Paso, high tone, thin, not much complexity (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5. Cost:$23.

2002 Vina Robles Jardine Petite Sirah – more intense than the ’01, nice finish, pretty decent Pets (Greg). Much better than the ’01. more complexity, better mouthfeel, showcases the potential of the vineyard (Sasha); Avg. score: 8. Cost:$23.

2002 Vina Robles Signature – didn’t like it that much, overdone as a blend that just doesn’t seem to work (Greg). Unusual blend of Petit Verdot 48%, Syrah 33%, Petit Sirah %19, not complex, out of place (Sasha); Avg. score: 7/7.5. Cost: $28.

2001 Parducci Petite Sirah – not a bad wine, although nothing striking about it, either, even at the $10 level is easily overmatched by others before it in the same price range (Greg). Thin, adequate varietal character (Sasha); Avg. score: 7. Cost:$9.99.

2002 Parducci Petite Sirah – closed nose, thin, no fruit showing, hot on the finish, no structure (Greg). More complex than ’01 because sourced from different vineyards, good value (Sasha); Avg. score: 6. Cost:$9.99.

2001 Lolonis Orpheus – the blend with Napa Gamay (5%) doesn’t seem to work here, strange tasting wine (Greg). Unusual nose. Like Syrah when a white grape is blended in, it really changes the nose (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5. Cost:$35.

2002 Lolonis Orpheus – much better than the older sibling, more fruit and structure (Greg). Tad bit more complexity than ’01 (Sasha); Avg. Score: 8/8.5. Cost:$35.

2000 Pedroncelli Petite Sirah – just OK, nothing remarkable about it, thins out on the finish, lacks structure (Greg). Average Petite Sirah, lacks complexity and core fruit (Sasha); Avg. score: 6.5. Cost:$15.

2001 Pedroncelli Petite Sirah – picked up some Brettanomyces aromas?, musty nose, on entry better than ’01, but then again thins out quickly on palate (Greg). Slightly better than 2000 though lacks the magic of Petite (Sasha); Avg. score: 6.5. Cost:$15.

2002 Silkwood Petite Syrah – funky, velvet label, very nice, typical Pets nose, somewhat short on finish and structure, not sure it is worth the price of $36 as many Napa made bottlings are cheaper and better (Greg). Sourced from warmer climate in Modesto- though bottled 2 weeks ago, very syrupy and oaky, good fruit and balance, obvious why it is poured at several high end restaurants (Sasha); Avg. score: 8/8.5. Cost:$36.

2001 Judd’s Hill Petite Sirah – one of the best bottles here, very nice acidity and structure to add to very nice fruit, Lodi fruit, but done right, from one of the oldest Napa names famous for Cabs, this is very good effort (Greg). Very well made wine, good balance of fruit, oak, and complexity, showcases the potential of Lodi Petite Sirah (Sasha); Avg. score: 8.5. Cost:$~26.

2002 Judd’s Hill Petite Sirah – a bit more structure than ’01, fuller, richer palate, serious Petite Sirah, nicely done (Greg). Impressive effort. Fine wine (Sasha); Avg. score: 8.5/9. Cost:$~26.

2001 Guenoc North Coast Petite Sirah – nothing special here, very thin and vegetal on palate, not recommended at all (Greg). Unappealing, not concentrated, slippery leather, slight tannic finish. (Sasha); Avg. score: 6.5. Cost:$13.

2000 Guenoc Serpentine Meadow Reserve – more intense on the nose than ’01, fuller, richer, more spice on palate, longish finish (Greg). Much better than the ’01 North Coast (Sasha); 7.5. Cost:$30.

2002 Foppiano Russian River Valley Petite Sirah – estate fruit, most tannic wine so far, not sure if fruit will outlive tannins (Greg). Used to be the benchmark value Petit Sirah, but price has climbed in past few years. Moderately lives up to reputation (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5/8. Cost:$18.

2003 David Bruce Central Coast Petite Sirah – nice fruit, but too much oak overwhelms it (Greg). Blueberry core with aromas of raspberry. Sourced from 5 vineyards in southern Monterey and Paso Robles. In oak for only 9 months (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5. Cost:$16.

2003 David Bruce Shell Creek Petite Sirah – much darker and richer wine, very nice wine and a typical Petite on nose and palate (Greg) Markedly better than regional blend. Winery has made Petit from this vineyard for over 2 decades and it shows. One of the tasting’s best wines from the Central Coast (Sasha); Avg. score: 8/8.5. Cost:$25.

2000 EOS Reserve Petite Sirah – Plush, almost Pinot Noir like softness, long finish (Greg). Angular, has or had promise. Not as concentrated as David Bruce wines. (Sasha); Avg. score: 7.5/8. Cost:$30.

2001 EOS Cupa Grandis Petite Sirah – 40 year old vines, intense nose, dark color, nice fruit that is overwhelmed by too much oak, the box proudly claims to use all new, heavy toast barrels for 18 months and it shows, sadly, not worth the price of $40 making the Reserve a much better buy (at $30) (Greg). Oak cloaks most of the pure blueberry cassis extract nose (Sasha);. Avg. score: 8. Cost:$40.

2003 Concannon Petite Sirah – overripe fruit, stewed quality to it, over-oaked with vegetal palate (Greg). Balance of Sonoma’s Petit but doesn’t deliver the fruit or purity (Sasha); Avg. score: 6.5. Cost:$10.

2001 Concannon Petite Sirah – much better, but still short on finish with too much oak, some heat on the finish (Greg). 28 months in oak (50% American/ 50% French) More complex than ’03 (Sasha) Avg. score: 7/7.5. Cost:$??.

2001 Concannon Heritage Petite Sirah – great nose! really nine Pets with good acidity and structure, dark, lots of brambly fruit (Greg) Their most expensive and best wine on the table. Sophisticated and balanced. Only 300 cases. In 1964, the Concannon released the California’s first varietal Petite Sirah from the 1961 vintage. Avg. score: 8.5. Cost:$??.


About these scores, please keep in mind that my reference standards are the likes of Pride, Switchback Ridge, Turley, Thackrey Sirius, Outpost, Madrigal, Carver-Sutro, Eaglepoint and a few others. Only Switchback Ridge, Outpost and Turley would be able to reach the 9.5/10 plateau so I am judging everyone else against them. I can be a tough reviewer, and most of the time I am.

I am really surprised that none of the aformentioned big guns was pouring – making this event a non-starter in a way. I truly think that Sasha’s [wine made from] Teldeschi would give most of the better wines at the tasting a good run for their money and I mean it.

As a winemaker, this was a good learning experience. The tasting also reaffirmed my belief that while it was under-represented, Calistoga/Napa is a perfect Petite Sirah site. Impressive Petite Sirahs also came from Dry Creek. Warmer climates like Lodi and Paso Robles were varied at best.

As Sasha has noted, Napa and actually the Calistoga area, in particular, seem to be the area of best Petite fruit. Howell Mountain and St. Helena vineyards produce fruit to rival Calistoga (in some cases).

Outside of that, Contra Costa old vine vineyards are great; the newly minted Rockpile appellation produces really great fruit with the likes of Rosenblum and JC Cellars making Petite Sirah from it. Dry Creek, as Sasha mentions, produces great fruit from some of the oldest vineyards in California. Then Mendocino, or more specifically Redwood Valley’s Eaglepoint Ranch where Thackrey gets his fruit and where Casey Hartlip, the owner of the vineyard, also makes a very nice rendition of Petite Sirah.

I think Lodi and Clarksburg areas can produce some nice wines, but I rarely, if ever see them. They are catching up quickly, though, and I expect them do much better with a few more vintages under their belts. I have yet to be impressed with anything from Livermore, I’m sorry to say.

What was also notable to me was how proud many of the winemakers were of their use of new oak, especially American oak. I have barrel tasted the best Petite Sirah on the market from the likes of some of the producers I mentioned above and cannot recall any new nor American oak barrels in their cellars. As a matter of fact, they only use neutral oak, even with their highest quality fruit. It escapes me why wineries that start with average or even below average fruit obliterate it with new oak.

When I asked winemakers who were pouring at the tasting “What has Petit Sirah taught you?” many quickly responded, “tannin management.” Petite Sirah is notoriously dark (glass stainingly so) but equally infamous for being a tannic monster. Winemaking techniques to keep the Petite’s tannins in check are:

  • Gentle pump-overs with aerations ” a process in which wine is circulated over the skins prior to and during fermentation
  • Hand punch downs ” mixing the pulp and the juice by hand, with a similar effect as pump-overs
  • Assess the levels of tannin through out fermentation
  • Crush the grapes early, as quickly as possible
  • Pick only ripe fruit

    The elusive white pepper characteristic that makes some people love Petite Sirah is hard to capture. Some winemakers believe that particular clones showcase that flavor profile and certain sites.

    There is a big difference between good and great Petite Sirah. Winemakers must walk the tightrope of balancing intense raspberry and blueberry flavors with tannins and, to your point, Greg, not obliterate it with oak. This is a big wine but many people treat it boldly like Cabernet, instead of gently like Pinot Noir.