FAIRBANKS — Navigating wine labels is not an easy task for the uninitiated.
Pour a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, and you’ll get a glass of chardonnay. Pour a glass of Pouilly-Fume however, and you’ll wind up with sauvignon blanc. That bottle of Italian Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in your cellar is probably worth a pretty penny, but the bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo? Not only is it made from a different grape and from a different region, it’s also a fraction of the price. Confused yet?
Let’s focus on a seeming contradiction a little close to home — petite sirah. The contradiction? Despite the sound of its name, it isn’t syrah. It’s also certainly not “petite” — the wines produced from this grape can be some of the thickest, inkiest most opaque wines you will ever taste.
To find out how petite sirah got its name we have to go back 150 years to France, where botanist Dr. Francois Durif worked experimenting with grape vines. While tending his vine nursery, he discovered a new vine, a crossing between syrah and a grape called Perlousin. Francois promptly named the new vine “Durif.” Durif never took off in France, but because of its hardiness and good yields, it became popular in California in the late 1800s, where it was used as part of “field blends” — wines that were made from crushing a mixture of grapes from the vineyards, instead of vinifying each grape separately and then blending them together.
When Prohibition gutted California’s wine industry in the early 20th century, the industry lost institutional knowledge as well as award-winning wineries. As vineyards were abandoned, the knowledge of what vines were planted where disappeared along with the wineries that planted them. Once the industry started up again, vintners had the task of re-identifying the vines that were planted around the state. When they came upon Durif, they found a leaf-structure that was almost identical to syrah, but with smaller grapes, similar to the size that older vines of syrah produces. “Petite syrah” seemed like as good of a name as any.
We now know better, and petite sirah — which is spelled with an “I” instead of a “Y” to differentiate it from syrah — is now one of the lesser known gems of California’s wine industry. Wines made from the petite sirah are not subtle, and provide a generous mouthful of juicy black fruit and grippy tannins. Some of the producers that are currently creating great petite sirah include David Bruce, Girard and Michael David with their Earthquake series.
Pick up a bottle and find out why, despite the label, this wine is anything but “petite.”
Bruce Abbott is a certified wine specialist and the manager of the Brown Jug Fairbanks, the largest Brown Jug retail store in Alaska.