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Something to Chew On

Posted: March 28, 2000

Something to Chew On

By James Laube, senior editor

The vital signs have been in steady decline for years, and frankly, there's not much hope for a full recovery. We're witnessing the end of an era.

You could write that summation for any number of grape varieties that once played prominent roles in California but do so no longer. But in this case, we're leafing through the final chapters of the book on Petite Sirah.

Luckily, "Petty Sarah," as old-timers affectionately refer to it, is a vine that has longevity built into its genes, and there's enough suspense left in the wines that remain to hold your attention. Sirah has always been a wine of contradictions. It's anything but petite -- rather, it's a sturdy, hearty, disease-resistant vine, much like Zinfandel, that somehow manages to push out a new bunch of grapes each year, however spartan the crop may be. And like Zinfandel, it can live to be 100 years old and still lead a most productive life. The tastiest Petite Sirahs are from those ancient vines.

But the facts are plain. The ranks of die-hard Petite Sirah drinkers, never huge, are dwindling, right along with the number of acres planted to this variety. Who could blame wine drinkers for ignoring Sirah? There are so many other wonderful options to explore that you almost have to force yourself to stop and think about what you might be missing if you haven't tried one lately.

Petite Sirah is a workhorse grape that has served its masters well. Its greatest attribute is its range. At its finest, it's an enormously big, powerful, potent,inky-black glass of wine, capable of gushing forth a fountain of exotic blackberry and wild berry flavor, cloaked by dense, detailed, mouthcoating tannins.

Petite Sirah did more than any other red variety to add color, body, structure and depth to Californias red table wines of yesteryear. But as varietal wines supplanted generic ones, Petite Sirah's use has diminished. From a peak of 11,000 acres statewide in 1980, Petite Sirah dropped to 2,600 acres by 1997, and there's little reason to expect significant new plantings. Syrah, the darling of Frances Rhône Valley, has captured the imagination of California winemakers -- and the place in the market once held by Sirah. (Sirah and Syrah are not related except by pronunciation. Petite Sirah is thought to be the same grape as Durif, a nearly extinct French variety.)

My all-time favorites are old-vine Napa Valley Sirahs from Turley, which offers bottlings from two different vineyards. If you've ever unleashed a bottle of Turley's Hayne Vineyard or Ada Vineyard Petite Sirah, you've tasted an immense, tannic monster that buries you with an avalanche of flavors. Markhams Napa Valley Sirah also hits you with a rockslide, displaying bright, juicy flavors and chewy tannins.

A few wineries have specialized in Sirah. For years, when Carl Doumani owned Stags Leap Winery in Napa, he prized his Petite Sirah above all others. Usually when you think of Petite Sirah, words such as "elegant," "graceful" and "polished" take a back seat to "massive," "enormous" or "blockbusting." But occasionally, Stags Leap Petite struck me as dignified.

Also from Napa, look for Rockland; Jacob Franklin, a new label from Elyse; JC Cellars; and Fife, with its Max Cuvee, a Petite Sirah blend. Ridge has wrestled with York Creek Petite Sirah on Spring Mountain on and off for decades. We have Robert Biale Vineyards and Oliver Caldwell Cellars, which owns the Ada Vineyard of Turley fame. Most of these are old-vine wines, and the 1995 and 1996 vintages are excellent.

In Dry Creek Valley, David Coffaro manages to make a Petite Sirah in which the fruit wins out, gaining the upper hand on the tannins. Also from Sonoma, there's Field Stone and Foppiano -- the latter, long a champion of this grape; the former, often tough as nails. From Paso Robles, David Bruce fashions bare-knuckles Petites from Ranchita Canyon and Shell Creek. To the north, in Mendocino, theres Hidden Cellars.

I've liked each of these wines on different occasions, but the point is to get you to try a few. Don't worry about scores and ratings. Drink Sirah for the experience, and enjoy the history lesson in your glass. It may be something you can share with your grandchildren -- the joy of drinking one of California's unsung heroes in its final years. There aren't many Petite Sirahs out there anymore, but survival of the fittest has left us with some attractive wines.

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This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Tuesday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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