Culinary Arts

Learn About Petite Sirah Wine: Description, Characteristics, and Pairings of the French Grape Grown in California

Written by MasterClass

Jul 2, 2019 • 3 min read

Wine is a collaboration between humans and nature. The petite sirah grape offers a good reminder of that: it was born from an unexpected encounter between two grapes in a botanist’s nursery, then was brought across the Atlantic to find the perfect climate. Left to its own devices, petite sirah is unpleasantly dense and tannic, but winemakers found a role for it as the blending backbone of classic California wines that combine its rustic power with the aromatic finesse of other California transplants, like zinfandel.

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What Is Petite Sirah?

Petite sirah (sometimes spelled petite syrah) is a red wine grape variety that makes dense, inky purple wines popular for blending. It is related to, but not the same as, the French grape syrah.

What Is the History of Petite Sirah?

Petite sirah first appeared in southeast France in the late 1800s. It was the result of a chance crossing in the nursery of the botanist François Durif. Durif had cuttings of both syrah and peloursin vines, which crossed to produce a new variety. This grape became known as petit sirah, because of the small size of its berries. An alternate name for the grape is durif, after the scientist who cultivated it.

European settlers brought the vine to the United States in the 1880s. These immigrants planted petite sirah in vineyards in which many other varieties of black grapes were grown together. Because of this, four different grape varieties, including durif and its parents, syrah and peloursin, as well as pinot noir, were all called petite sirah in California. Scientists using DNA profiling finally differentiated these vines in the 1990s.

Hundred-year-old petite sirah vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino produce complex, age-worthy wines from gnarled, old vines. Plantings of petite sirah have more than doubled in the last ten years, driven by younger growers who are interested in grapes that were part of California’s early heritage of grape growing.

Where Does Petite Sirah Grow?

Petit sirah, despite originating in France, is grown in extremely small amounts there. California and Australia produce most petite sirah wine, followed by Israel, Chile, and Mexico.

California:

  • Petite sirah is most notably grown in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, which is also known for its zinfandel production. Petite sirah is often blended with zinfandel to add color and body to the lighter zinfandel wine.
  • Petit sirah destined for lower-quality blending is grown around Lodi in the Central Valley.
  • Mendocino and Lake counties are home to old vines that produce high-quality, single varietal petite sirah.

Australia:

  • Durif, which is what petit sirah is called in Australia, is popular in Rutherglen, Victoria, where highly alcoholic, tannic wines that are almost black in color are produced using the grape.
  • Growers in New South Wales’s Riverina have recently embraced petite sirah as a blending partner to their shiraz.

How Does Wine Made from Petit Sirah Taste?

Petite sirah is known for having a full body and balanced, but high, tannins and acidity. Petite sirah has a somewhat short finish, but its robust structure means that reserve petite sirah can age for decades. Examples aged in oak barrels in the Bordeaux style can have flavors of vanilla and mocha. Tasting notes for petite sirah include:

  • Blueberry
  • Plum
  • Blackberry
  • Dark chocolate
  • Espresso
  • Black pepper

What Is the Difference Between Petite Sirah and Syrah Wine?

Petite sirah is not just a version of syrah, but rather an entirely different grape with syrah as one of its parents. Petite sirah wines are more tannic and deeper in color than syrah. Syrah is famous as a varietal wine in the northern Rhône in appellations like Hermitage, Cornas, and Saint-Joseph, while petite sirah is more notable for being a blending grape in California and is not grown in France.

How Do You Pair and Serve Petite Sirah?

In petite sirah, fruit flavors can take a backseat to chewy tannins, so it’s important to choose dishes that have enough fat and richness. For a harmonious petite sirah and food pairing, try:

Learn more about wine appreciation in James Suckling’s MasterClass.