Who's Your Daddy? - The Ups and Downs of a Notable Grape

by Stan Biden

Back in 1880, a nurseryman in the south of France by the name of Dr. Francois Durif created a new grape variety via cross- pollination and named it after himself.

He combined the Peloursin, an Old French variety from the Isere region, with Syrah, the noble grape of the Northern Rhone. The result was fruit with saturated color and very dense fruit clusters that was highly resistant to downy mildew.

In 1884, Durif was introduced to California, and some growers referred to it as Petite Sirah. For some reason the new name stuck, and Durif was pretty much forgotten. Sorry Doc.

In the early 1900s Petite Sirah gained popularity thanks to historic wineries, such as Concannon and Foppiano. By 1930s there were 7,500 acres of Petite Sirah, but its popularity was waning.

Concannon is credited with bottling the first vintage dated Petite Sirah when they released their Concannon 1961 Petite Sirah. At this point there were only 4,500 acres of vines, but the wine business was heating up. By the mid-70s the variety peaked at 14,000, acres but it was all down-hill from there. By the mid- 90s there were only 2,400 acres left.

I’m not really sure why the variety lost its popularity, but Petite Sirah became the black sheep of varietals. Maybe it was because many questioned the heritage of the grape, including noted Master of Wine, and author, Jancis Robinson.

In 1997, Dr. Carole Meredith and colleagues at the UC Davis, using DNA analysis, compared Durif from the French national variety collection and California Petite Sirah. She used the same paternity analysis methods used for human beings. The result proved that Durif and Petite Sirah were identical. Petite Sirah shares half its DNA with Syrah and half with Peloursin.  Therefore Syrah, you are the father!

With their regained respect, the Petite Sirah producers forged ahead to legitimize the variety’s place among Vinifera. They learned to control the rough tannins and created a new fruit-forward style that mimicked the increasingly popular Shiraz from Australia.

Today there is a resurgence of plantings throughout California and in Argentina. The wine is dark and sometimes inky, with a bouquet of black cherry, dark berries and black pepper. Jammy roasted fruit flavors of prune and plums, and more of the black pepper spice dominate the palate, with soft tannins on the finish.

Here are some of our favorite Petite Sirahs according to price:

Bogle 2005; McManis 2006; Cellar 39 2005; Concannon 2005 All --- $12.99

Mettler 2004 --- $19.99

Rosenblum Heritage Clones 2005 --- $22.99

Earthquake (Michael & David) 2004 --- $29.99

Stag’s Leap Winery 2004 --- $37.99


Stan Bliden, the second-generation owner of Midway Liquors on Pulaski Highway in Joppa, grew up in the wine business. His passion from early on has been wine and he is "continually amazed" by how much there is to learn about the subject. You can reach him at: winostan@aol.com


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