Sunday, April 13, 2008

What I Don't Know About Petite Sirah...

...was significantly lessened following the April 2 meeting of the Wine Media Guild, which featured the minor, Cali-centric varietal in question. How often have you tasted a couple dozen Petite Sirahs at one sitting? Yeah, me too, until this occasion.

Petite Sirah, to my thinking, is known for two things. It's a heavyweight, knockout red that would give Zinfandel a workout in the ring. And it's got the most ironic name of any grape on the planet. Petite, my ear! It should be called Grande Sirah. Actually, Grande Syrah. (The name actually refers to the tiny size of the berries.)

The grape, called Durif in France, was invented there by Francois Durif. It was resistant to disease, but didn't make good wine, so it was dropped like a hot rock in Gaul. But California and Australia, who like them a good strong wine, picked it up and ran. There are now 282 producers in The Golden State, and they have their own marketing group without the semi-unfortunate name of "P.S. I Love You." (Get it?)

The speaker at the event was Kevin Morrisey, winemaker at Stags' Leap. He was polished and very informative. From him I learned that Petite Sirah is a grape that was made to be blended. It doesn't benefit from the vaunted "single vineyard" approach. It shows best when different plots of land are sourced for the same bottle.

I'm not a Petite Sirah fan, as a rule. It possesses too many of the loud and large traits I associate with the overdone California style. Still, I learned from the tasting how different Petite Sirahs can be from one another. There were two bottles from Staps' Leap, the standard 2005 and the Ne Cede Malis Estate 2004 ($75, thank you). I actually liked the former better. It was rough and thick and dark, with a smoky finish. I found fancier bottle muddy and overly inky—An excessive approach to an excessive grape.

One of my favored wines was the Cecchetti Wine Company's Line 39 Lake County 2006. It had an interesting rustic, rooty edge, the fruit confined to the core of each swallow. The 2005 Vina Robles Jardine was also good, in a different way; it was juicy and fresh, not too heavy, with the rustic tones coming later on in the finish.

Belinda Chang, the wine director at The Modern—always a fun presence at a tasting—alerted me to the presence of the Australian Charles Cimicky 2005 Petite Sirah. The is the inaugural PS offering from this winery and it was impressive. It had a smooth start leading to a rough, ashy, brambly finish. You pay for the quality, however. The bottle comes in at $49.

The meal—one of the best Felidia has provided, highlighting by a beautiful lamb, carved at table (see below)—was topped by a bottle of Prager Port Works 2004 Royal Escort Port. Seems they'll make port out of anything these days in California, so why not Petite Sirah? The bottle, which was rather flabby and hangover-provoking-intense, wasn't given much love on my end of the table.

There were some unopened bottles left at the end of the event and members were invited to help themselves. I took one home, and was sort of glad to do so.

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