Yes, sirah

Spill the wine … uh, actually, don’t!

Spill the wine … uh, actually, don’t!

It’s hardly little, and it’s not syrah.

Indeed, petite sirah is not only among the least understood of California’s red-wine grapes, it also makes among the very hugest of wines—one so red it’s better described as blue, a wine more built in the chest than even the burliest cabernet, a wine sometimes so tannic it seems to verily grab one’s teeth and tongue.

In fact, petite sirah’s legendary brawn—a function of its small “berry” size and high skin-to-juice ratio—has worked against it in California. Here, after taking root in 1884, petite sirah remained a nameless blending wine, very handy for adding body, backbone and color to other red wines but apparently not worth its own name (which, in France, remains Durif after the breeder who created the variety in 1880).

But exactly 50 years ago, Concannon Vineyard in Livermore experimentally bottled a small portion of estate petite sirah. It grew into a charismatic and structured wine and, in 1964, became the first varietal release of petite sirah. Other wineries followed suit, and petite sirah’s transition from anonymous blender to star wine grape was underway, and it still is: In 2001, 65 wineries produced a petite sirah; in 2010, 723 did so. Many—including Bogle, Foppiano and Concannon—make single-vineyard petite sirahs, indicating just how compelling the variety can be.

Today, though, the little-grape-that-ain’t remains a tough sell, according to Concannon winemaker Jim McDonald, who says, “Most people just drink cabernet and chardonnay.”

And why wouldn’t they? California winemakers harvested 76,000 acres of cab and 95,000 of chardonnay in 2009. Buried among these populist vines were just 7,600 acres of petite sirah.

So, what’s to love about this huge, loud wine? Try its dense and fumy aromas of dark berries, chocolate, coffee and licorice, and its chewy flavors of the same. Better still, tannins and polyphenols are said to promote longevity, so make petite sirah a habit, and perhaps you’ll hit 100. But spill this squid ink on your carpet, and that rug’s toast.