If only most Petite Sirahs were as delicious and refined, rich and graceful as the 2009 Relic Napa Valley Old Vines Petite Sirah ($52, 198 cases made). Maybe then people would have a different take on this old-time underdog grape, and Napa Valley for that matter.
Petite Sirah is one of wine's unsung heroes, almost always an afterthought grape. That's not the case at Frediani Vineyard, where Relic's old-vine Petite Sirah grapes come from. Petite Sirah is a vine that owes its heritage to the mix of grapes that hail from France's Southern Rhône Valley. Most of the praise goes to the better-known and more popular Syrahs, Grenaches and blends thereof.
That won't change, but one sip of this wine will give you a new appreciation for Petite Sirah presented in a supple, fleshy, deeply fruited style. This wine hardly fits Petite's reputation of being chewy, hearty or rustic. Its texture is more akin to a smooth Merlot or Pinot Noir. The 2009 was one of the gems uncovered by MaryAnn Worobiec in one of her blind tastings of Petite Sirah for Wine Spectator's March California Rhône report; you can check out the forthcoming Dec. 21 edition of the Insider for the official score and tasting note.
Relic, a Napa winery owned by the husband-and-wife team of Michael Hirby and Schatzi Throckmorton, is one of California's promising new Rhône grape specialists. Relic's wines have been nothing short of fantastic of late, with the Relic Ritual 2009 (94 points, $48) another Rhône-style blend that shouldn't be missed.
Alfred Frediani's vineyard has been the source for many excellent wines over the years, yet Hirby and Throckmorton have taken it to a higher level of quality. The soils are composed of very deep layers of alluvial rocks and gravel that are volcanic in origin.
"There is great natural balance in the soils here, so other than spading under the cover crop, not much is needed," said Hirby. "We feel extremely lucky to be working with Al, who is in his early 90s, and has seen so much. His love for these old Petite Sirah and 110-year-old Carignane vines is easy to see, as there is every incentive for him to pull them out and plant Cabernet Sauvignon. He claims that the thing he misses the most about the old days is using horses to work the vineyards, which he stopped doing in the 1950s."
Hirby uses native yeast fermentation whenever possible, and to utilize the lees for freshness and textural benefits. "Healthy old vines provide a creaminess and textural richness that is incomparable, though, and working with the best sites is key," he said. The Relic Napa Valley Old Vines Petite Sirah 2009 was raised for 18 months in 50 percent new French oak Burgundy barrels, and was bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Though not much has changed with Relic's winemaking since its vintage 2002 debut, Hirby allows that he and Throckmorton now have access to better grape sources since the recession forced some wineries to scale back and sever vineyard ties. "Schatzi and I have been growing Relic at a time when many local wineries are downsizing, and that has provided us with incredible opportunities for great fruit sources, both with Rhône and Bordeaux varieties in Napa Valley, and with Burgundian varieties on the Sonoma Coast."
That other winemakers no longer wanted the Frediani grapes let Hirby and Throckmorton seize the opportunity, and the vineyard became a major grape source for Relic beginning in 2009. The results should be enough to make vintners rethink the possibilities of life beyond Cabernet.
If only Petite Sirah were handled so well by more California vintners.