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Tasting Note

Posted April 24, 2014 Powerful and delicious, starting with fragrant dried violet notes and giving way to juicy, thick blackberry and huckleberry flavors, with details of black licorice, tobacco, spice box and candied violet. The tannins are thick and velvety, but never get in the way of the intense flavors.

And the answer is...


This mystery red wine has a lot going on in the glass. It’s powerful and fragrant with ample body and thick but velvety tannins. It’s not shy on flavor either, with blue and blackberry fruit and exotic spice and floral accents. With this in mind, it should be a snap to determine our grape’s identity by process of elimination.

We can start by removing the lighter-bodied and less tannic grapes from our list. Gamay certainly falls on the lighter end of the grape spectrum. It’s typically far too light in body and structure to be our grape. Grenache-based wines, on the other hand, are generally medium-bodied but produce suppler tannins than we see here.

Carmenère was once an important grape in Bordeaux but it has all but disappeared from the region due to its finicky nature. It’s found a new home in Chile, where it was initially thought to be Merlot. At its best, Carmenère can produce rich, dark fruit-flavored wines, with soft tannins. This isn’t a good fit for our wine.

Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, is a hard grape to pin down. It often leans toward brambleberry flavors and can be earthy and tannic due to the grape’s thick skin. This is a close match, but Pinotage is typically less powerful and intense than our wine, so we should move on.

Our final grape is Petite Sirah, known for producing rich, concentrated wines with bold flavors, inky color and chewy tannins. While often muscular and dense, Petite Sirah is made into a variety of styles, and the grape can be quite fragrant, with floral and pepper accents. We have our grape.

This wine is a Petite Sirah.


Petite Sirah has been identified as the French variety Durif, the result of a cross between Syrah and Peloursin. But the grape never gained traction in France, instead finding success in the New World. With this in mind, we can eliminate France. We can also eliminate South Africa, since it’s the only New World region on our list where the grape hasn’t gained a foothold.

A small amount of Petite Sirah is grown in Chile, with a few vintners seeing potential in the grape. But local versions are often hearty and dense in style. Elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, Australia has some acreage planted to Petite Sirah (sometimes labeled as Durif). Most of its production is earmarked for local markets, though.

Petite Sirah has found a home in California, where it has a long history as a workhorse grape. It’s often blended into lighter reds, including Zinfandel, to add body, color and structure. California producers craft varietal Petite Sirahs into a range of styles, from big and brawny to stylish versions that coax out the grape’s fragrant aromatics.

This Petite Sirah is from California.


This wine has all the hallmarks of a younger wine, with its intense flavors and bold aromas, so we can eliminate the two oldest age ranges. On the other hand, Petite Sirah’s tendency to produce bold wines early on means producers generally age it for a few years before release. A few winemakers have released their 2012 Petites, but most are still on previous vintages such as 2011.

The 2011 vintage was cool and sometimes damp across most of California, with rain late in the season. Many of the wines are less ripe than previous years. The 2010 growing season was cool as well with a series of heat waves in August and September. The late harvest allowed vintners to produce full-bodied and concentrated wines, especially from late-ripening grapes like Petite Sirah. We have found our vintage.

This wine is from the 2010 vintage, making it four years old.


Since we know our wine is from California, we can eliminate Maipo (Chile), McLaren Vale (Australia) and St.-Joseph (France). This leaves us with Napa Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands, both in California.

The cooler region of the two, Santa Lucia Highlands is an AVA located in the Santa Lucia mountain range in Monterey County. Here vineyards are planted on terraces overlooking the Salinas Valley, which naturally funnels cool breezes and fog from nearby Monterey Bay farther inland. The climate is well-suited for the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A little Syrah is grown there, but only a few acres are planted to Petite Sirah.

In Cabernet-dominated Napa Valley, Petite Sirah plays a minor role, with less than a thousand acres planted. But the region is home to some of California’s top Petite Sirahs, some produced from old-vine vineyards that go back more than a century. Napa versions can run the gamut from dense and rich to polished and fragrant, and many of Petite Sirah’s champions buy or grow grapes in the valley.

This Petite Sirah is from Napa Valley.


This is the Frank Family Petite Sirah Napa Valley S&J Vineyard Reserve 2010, which earned 93 points in the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator. It costs $65 and 783 cases were made. We recommend drinking it through 2022. To learn more about Petite Sirah and other Rhône-style wines from California, see James Laube’s tasting report, "Rough Ride for California Rhônes."

—Augustus Weed, tasting coordinator

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