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Petite Sirah: Survivor Grape

There is nothing dainty about Petite Sirah. Inky and peppery, this wine packs a wallop of tannins, that astringent quality that is not so much a flavor as it is a sensation.  Like a scrappy wrestler who is more sinew than flesh, Petite Sirah will muscle down a steak, a stew or an earthy sandwich of Portobello mushrooms.

If you think wrestling is an odd metaphor for wine, you should see the Youtube video in which Petite Sirah is likened to a muscle car. Wrestling, muscle cars, wine, you get the picture.

Petite Sirah is not Syrah, it’s a hybrid of Syrah and a variety unto itself. It is distinctly Californian. Called Durif in its native France, it isn’t grown there much, it likes our drier climate.  Petite Sirah was one of the first grapes imported to California to replace the so-so tasting Mission variety, a grape planted by the padres for sacramental and (I hope) recreational purposes.

In the early days people were less snooty about wine and more casual about the pedigree of their grapes. Growers confused this grape as a small-berried version of Syrah, thus its name. The small grape size is important for another reason. The skin of a grape gives wine its color and tannins, therefore the high ratio of skin to juice in Petite Sirah give it a punch of black-tinged color and lip-smacking tannins.

During prohibition this mighty little grape was prized for its portability.  Many California wine growers, such as the Lanza family in Suisun Valley, survived prohibition by shipping grapes to home winemakers in the east. There was a loophole in the law that allowed home winemakers to make up to 200 gallons a year.  Do the math: 200 gallons, 365 days a year, would a daily half-gallon ration of wine be enough to keep you happy?

Later Petite Sirah was used in blends to give oomph to the color and structure of other wines. Many single varietal wines are in fact blends, a wine needs to be only 75% of the variety on the label to carry that name. For example, your favorite Cabernet may in fact have small amounts of Merlot, Malbac or Petite Sirah and still be correctly called a Cabernet.

The advocacy group for Petite Sirah (yes, even grapes have advocacy groups) is called P.S. I Love You. Yes, Suisun Valley Petite Sirah, I do love you, let me count the ways. You bring the warmth of the valley to my table. You make my hamburger sing. You fill my glass with rich color, my mouth with big flavor. Most of all you remind me of a little girl who grew up near Suisun Valley, my daughter Sarah. Need I go on?

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