This grape carries with it confusion, mystery, and somewhat of a cult following. The number one question most people have, what exactly is Petite Sirah? Vines called Petite Sirah have grown in California since the 1880s. Early on these vines were probably a type of Syrah that had small – aka petite – grapes. Winemakers tend to prefer smaller grapes because they have a higher skin to juice ratio, resulting in more concentrated and flavorful wines. Over time these vines were mixed with others, creating what is known as a field blend, which only served to obscure the origins of Petite Sirah even more. DNA testing in the early 1990s revealed that wines labeled Petite Sirah are one of three things: a field blend of many different varietals, Peloursin, which is an ancient Rhone grape, or, and this is the most likely, Durif. Durif is a cross between Peloursin and Syrah that was created in France in the 1880s by François Durif.
Maybe that is where all the mystery comes from; the uncertainty of what Petite Sirah actually is started from the very beginning of its plantings. And it continues today. While this DNA testing confirms that the majority of the plantings of what we call Petite Sirah are Durif, some are just straight Peloursin. Which means that you can’t even be totally sure of the wines that you are buying today. And all this confusion is assuming that you actually knew any of its origin stories to begin with.
So what do we know? Petite Sirah is not some weird, smaller version of Syrah. Even though Durif is a cross between Peloursin and Syrah, it is still a varietal unto it’s self. Many grapes started as crosses between two other parent grapes, which does not necessarily mean that are always connected. Perhaps the most famous of these crosses is Cabernet Sauvignon whose parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Also, while Petite Sirah is undoubtedly a very American grape, its origins, however you ascribe them, are in France. But even though France is unquestionably its home, one of the only sure facts in its origin story, there is almost no Durif left in France and very little Peloursin. Other than America, Australia is the only country to have really embraced Petite Sirah.
Regardless of its name, its parentage, and even its varietal what is consistent in wines labeled Petite Sirah is the flavors it delivers. This wine is absolutely anything but petite; it’s flavors are massive, combining dark fruits with gripping tannins and a liberal use of new oak. Big, fruit forward wines like this demand meat, and that massive structure and rustic, brooding flavors make one of the most perfect partners to grilled steak. Aside from meat, many strongly flavored Asian grilled dishes, Mexican and Latin moles and asados, and North African grilled fare are also great partners with Petite Sirah. It also pairs well with a wide range of cheeses and interestingly is right at home with dark chocolate desserts, as long as they are not too sweet. Basically when pairing with Petite Sirah, go big; big, full, rich flavors to match this massive, brooding wine.
Aside from its rather murky origin story, or perhaps because of it, this big wine has a big following. It’s not a wine that you find at every winery, or find on every wine list, but there are those out there who are hopelessly devoted to it. People seek it out, festivals are thrown in its honor, there is even an entire website devoted to it www.psiloveyou.org. So whatever it is, whatever varietal or cross or blend you want to attribute it to, done well this is a massive, rustic and brilliantly brooding wine that mesmerizes people and draws them into the mystery.