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Posted April 25, 2013 A huge wine, not for the faint of heart. Offers vivid aromatics of coffee and campfire that give way to dark, rich flavors of toffee-scented blackberry syrup, huckleberry and plum compote. The bold flavors are paired with bold tannins, delivering a long, spicy finish.

And the answer is...


Brace yourself folks, this big and bold wine packs a panoply of aromas and flavors. Knowing that this wine is “not for the faint of heart,” with bold flavors and tannins, should make narrowing down our choices easier.

The certain odd man out is the bistro-friendly Gamay. This light-bodied red exhibits fruit-driven flavors with tangy acidity, ideal for quaffing on lazy afternoons. Then there's Dolcetto—the extremely versatile Italian red, with its medium body, high acidity and soft tannins, is great with pizza and pastas, but is no match for our hefty description.

Remaining are three potential bruisers: Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah. Cabernet Sauvignon can be made in several different styles, and most are full-bodied with firm tannins, but Cabernet Sauvignon is rarely characterized by syrup and compote; it’s more often admired for its classic flavors of currant, anise, cedar and spice. Both Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah are dark in color and flavor, with tannins that can range from medium to robust. Stumped? The noticeable difference between the two varieties is Mourvèdre's distinct gamy, meaty aromas and flavors, which are especially prominent in its early stages. Everything about this description falls in line with Petite Sirah—a huge wine with rich flavors, bold tannins and a spicy finish.

This wine is Petite Sirah.


Figuring out the country should be pretty easy: Petite Sirah is not a widely planted grape. The bulk of the vines are found in California and Australia, and even though there may be random smatterings elsewhere, we can eliminate Argentina, Washington and Italy. It was long debated that Petite Sirah was genetically the same as the French variety known as Durif, a cross of Peloursin and Syrah. Sure enough, DNA fingerprinting showed that the majority of Petite Sirah plantings in California are actually Durif. However, Petite Sirah was originally cultivated and labeled as Petite Sirah only in California; still carrying the Durif name in most other countries. So California it is, where the inky Petite Sirah for many years was primarily used as a blending grape, especially in Zinfandel, to add complexity and body, but is becoming an increasingly popular wine in its own right.

This Petite Sirah is from California.


We know we have a big, bold, tannic Petite Sirah. The grape’s high skin-to-juice ratio creates a wine with big tannins and acidity, and this particular wine is marked by coffee and campfire aromatics, which means there's a hefty dose of oak. The tannins and flavors imparted by the oak will mellow over the years. This wine's vivid aromatics and bold flavors point us to a still youthful wine, so we can determine that we're not dealing with the elderly age categories. That being said, most Petite is so big in its youth, it's nearly impossible to drink until it has been in the bottle for a year or two, leaving us in the three- to five-year range. The 2010 vintage was a difficult and challenging harvest. A long, cool growing season was punctuated by extreme heat in August, and was followed by rain in mid-October. Late-ripening Petite Sirah's increased time on the vine allowed for an increase in color and flavor development in the fruit, creating the rich and concentrated style that we see here.

This wine is three years old, from the 2010 vintage.


Since we know this wine is from California, we can safely eliminate Beaujolais, Columbia Valley, Mendoza and Piedmont. That leaves Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley, which actually overlap each other in several places.

Petite Sirah vines are sturdy and adaptable to various types of soil. However, the small berries are somewhat prone to sunburn, and the tight grape clusters are susceptible to rot, which means we need an appellation that receives sufficient warmth throughout the growing season. Most of the Sonoma Coast appellation is within just a few miles of the Pacific Ocean, which means cool temperatures (low 60s to mid-70s), and those cool (and often damp) conditions are not ideal for Petite Sirah, which needs a lot of sun exposure to ripen.

Even though the Russian River Valley is also known for being a cool climate, its borders sprawl from the cooler southwestern reaches to the warmer northern regions, allowing for a variety of grapes to be grown. In the northwestern section of the valley, vineyards such as Landy Sweetwater Springs reach 1,000 feet in elevation, with lots of sun exposure on the east-facing slopes above the fog line, allowing Petite Sirah to properly ripen. Even though Petite Sirah is often the last grape picked, the extended hangtime allows for the developing of deep, concentrated flavors that we see with this wine.

This Petite Sirah is from Russian River Valley.


It’s the JC Cellars Petite Sirah Russian River Valley Landy Sweetwater Springs Vineyard 2010, which scored 93 points in the March 31 issue. It retails for $35, and only 112 cases were made.

Aaron Romano, assistant tasting coordinator

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