Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Petite sirah rediscovered

Bogle Vineyards has long been an enthusiast of petite sirah.
Bogle Vineyards has long been an enthusiast of petite sirah. Special to The Bee

Petite sirah, one of California’s more enduring and versatile wine grapes, is experiencing a surge in plantings, but whether the additional acreage signals a significant shift from its customary role as supporting actor to star remains to be seen.

While petite sirah as a varietal wine long has had a devoted following, the grape is celebrated more in vineyard and cellar for the way it bolsters the color, structure and complexity of blends. Even in varietal wines like zinfandel and syrah, it can constitute up to 25 percent of the wine with no open acknowledgment whatsoever that it is making a crucial contribution to the wine’s overall impact.

And that’s the role that growers and winemakers point to in explaining why more vineyard land is being devoted to petite sirah.

“It’s a very important component of many of our wines,” says Kevin Phillips, vice president of operations for Michael David Winery in Lodi, where he farms 200 acres of the variety. He figures petite sirah customarily accounts for 10-15 percent of such varietal wines as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah at Michael David.

At Michael David, petite sirah also shines largely on its own in two popular wines, Petite Petit, where it accounts for 85 percent of the 2013 version, and Earthquake Petite Sirah, the 2013 of which is solely petite sirah. Sales of those wines leaped 40 percent and 30 percent respectively last year, an indication that as a varietal wine petite sirah could be on the cusp of a new round of popularity.

Four decades ago, about 14,000 acres of California vineyard land was planted to petite sirah, but then it began to fall out of favor, dwindling to 2,400 acres over the next 20 years. A decade ago the total was 7,265 acres. Today it’s at around 10,000 acres.

Earlier this year, in his annual report at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers Association in Fresno, a marketing cooperative with 600 member farmers from throughout the state, reported that 6 percent of the grapevines sold by nurseries in 2015 were petite sirah.

His further analysis showed that in each of four wine price categories plantings of petite sirah were rising sharply.

For example, in the segment of wines generally priced $7 to $10, commonly made with grapes grown at Lodi and in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, bearing acreage of petite sirah is expected to increase 49 percent between 2015 and 2018, the most of any major grape variety. That’s a substantial jump, though petite sirah starts from a much smaller base than, say, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, both of which also are expected to expand, but less dramatically, percentage-wise.

DiBuduo, among other growers as well as winemakers, sees development of new petite-sirah vineyards being driven in large part by the growing category of blended red wines.

“It adds a layer of spice and tannin that isn’t always prevalent in other Lodi red grapes, not to mention its inky black color,” says Kevin Phillips.

Another Lodi grower, Brad Goehring, who farms 100 acres of petite sirah, says the feedback he gets from winemakers indicates that most of it goes into blends, a category so hot that he expects to expand his plots of petite sirah by 50 percent.

“It’s in demand, and we feel strongly it will continue to be used as something to improve a lot of wine. It’s put in just about every red wine, mostly for color and body,” Goehring says.

On its own, at its best, petite sirah is an inky, floral and sturdy wine whose plush fruit runs to sweet berries dusted with black pepper. Several California wineries, including Concannon, Foppiano, Pedroncelli, Field Stone and Bogle, long have had enthusiastic followings for their petite sirahs.

Here are some others worth checking out based on recent tastings:

▪ Perry Creek Winery Altitude 2401 2012 Sierra Foothills Fair Play Farms Petite Sirah ($40): Winner of a double-gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition earlier this year, this is one sumptuous petite sirah, swaggering with ripe sweet fruit and spirited with peppery spice.

▪ Oakstone Winery 2013 Fair Play Geoff & Katy Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah ($30): Also from Fair Play, and winner of a gold medal at the Chronicle, this take is riper and more rigid, calling for a few years in the cellar, or a thick rib-eye steak.

▪ Eagle Ridge 2011 Livermore Valley Petite Sirah ($31): For its rollicking dark fruit and ample build, this entry won a rare spontaneous double-gold at the Chronicle, meaning judges didn’t have to argue at all about its merits.

▪ Satori Cellars 2013 Santa Clara Valley Harmonic Convergence Petite Sirah ($32): A dense and hefty wine need not land on the tongue with a thud, as this lush interpretation shows by its bright fruit, prickly spice and sharp acidity, resulting in another double-gold medal at the Chronicle.

▪ Hearst Ranch Winery 2013 Paso Robles “The Pergola” Petite Sirah ($30): Pretty much the definitive petite sirah for its dense color, floral notes, dashes of pepper, thread of chocolate, and most of all its inviting dark fruit; a gold-medal wine at the Chronicle.

▪ Miro Cellars 2013 Dry Creek Valley Coyote Ridge Vineyard Reserve Petite Sirah ($34): Of the 33 petite sirahs our panel judged at the Chronicle, this was our best of class for its balanced muscularity, sweet ripe fruit and generous exploitation of oak.

▪ J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines 2013 Paso Robles Tower Road Petite Sirah ($35): A gold-medal winner at the TexSom International Wine Awards in February, this is a petite sirah built to last – ripe fruit, ample oak and firm tannins add up to a model best held for the heartiest of stews.

▪ Brady Vineyard 2013 Paso Robles Petite Sirah ($18): Another gold-medal winner at TexSom, and also husky, but with rare concentration, complexity and composure for the varietal.

▪ Vinum Cellars 2014 Clarksburg “V” Petite Sirah ($15): Thanks to supple tannins, sweet fruit, generous oak and an everyday price, this is an unusually approachable petite sirah, but still so representative of the varietal that it won a gold medal at TexSom.

▪ Mettler Family Vineyards 2013 Lodi Estate Petite Sirah ($25): Frisky with fresh fruit, sweet with French oak and shot through with whiffs of smoke, the Mettler, while big, is so gentle it will be easy to sip on a hot summer’s night; also a gold-medal wine at TexSom.

▪ Halcon Vineyards 2013 Yorkville Highlands Theopolis Vineyard Tierra Petite Sirah ($32): While leaner and more youthful than petite sirah customarily, the Halcon nonetheless packs fistfuls of the varietal’s seductively floral, fruity and spicy attributes, adding up to a representative of uncommon complexity, authority and elegance.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.