When I was first introduced to wine in the 1980s, I was certainly overwhelmed about how complex the subject of wine could be. I had some friends that had enrolled in a wine tasting course at the local adult education center and were eager to share what they learned and I was eager to soak it up. After all, it did become my eventual career. What I remember most about this early exposure to wine was that they had a pretty extensive collection of wine, and on special occasions, he would peruse the basement and come up with an “abc” bottle, referencing the “Anything But Chardonnay/Cabernet” (aka the C’s) mantra. Often what he surfaced with was a bottle of Petite Sirah, which was popular before the C’s but had a tough time competing with the C’s. It is now increasing in popularity because it is different in name and because the wines are dark, richly pigmented and have a tannin structure that can contribute to long aging.
What is true about almost all grape varieties is that there are a certain list of myths and facts about each. Trying to discern the myths from facts in researching the variety in preparation for this column kept me going to reputable academic websites; but I will be honest, I am sometimes drawn to the Internet chatter about a particular grape. In the case of Petite Sirah, many sites often compare and contrast Petite Sirah to Syrah, and then there’s reference to the translated term “little Syrah,” which can lead to the confusion that the two are one and the same variety. They are not.
The fact is that the confusion goes right back to its origins in the nursery of Francois Durif, a grape breeder at the University of Montpellier in France who discovered the variety around 1880. Durif had found what appeared to be an accidental cross-pollination between the red grape Peloursin and an unknown variety that contributed the pollen. Recognizing it as a different variety with unknown parentage, he named it for himself.
Across the world, in a new state called California, vineyards were being planted as the state was filling due to the gold rush. The immigrants, in their search of fortune would bring their home plant material with them. In the case here, Syrah was introduced in 1878 and comprised what we now know about the early vineyards, in that they were actually field blends of Zinfandel, Syrah, Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Peloursin, and others. Syrah was recognized as different and the local lore at the time referred to the low yield and the smaller berried Syrah as Petite Syrah, or “little Syrah.” Notice the spelling, S-Y-R-A-H.
In France, the Durif’s namesake variety was touted as a grape that was inferior to other existing varieties and never really fell into favor. I found some reference that it was reported to have been referred to as Petite Sirah in France. But in the new state of California, new varieties were appearing from the old country. One of them was Durif, imported by Charles McIver in 1884 for his Linda Vista Vineyard in San Jose. Then in the 1890s, phylloxera devastated California viticulture. The subsequent replanting included more vineyards of field blends. In addition to those mentioned earlier, Durif was among them.
It’s all in a name, and somewhere along the way the variety Durif was replaced with the name Petite Sirah. The reasons for the name change are unclear; perhaps the marketing department had something to do with it. To add confusion, the marketing folks also looked at labeling the grape as Petit Sirah, Petite Syrah and Petit Syrah. But in some circles, it was still referred to as Durif. Fast forward a hundred years or so and the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) still considered Durif and Petite Sirah separate varieties for labeling considerations, even though it was generally accepted that they were one and the same. Genetic testing of Durif soon provided evidence that the pollen source that accidentally crossed with Peloursin was in fact Syrah.
Efforts to classify Durif and Petite Sirah as synonyms were complicated because of the simultaneous effort to classify Zinfandel and Primitivo as the same. To this day, the latter is still a very contentious subject. With respect to Petite Sirah, with the backing of its largest advocacy group, “Petite Sirah I Love You” (PSILY), the Wine Institute, and the UC-Davis Foundation Plant Services (FPS), they are now officially recognized as the same and either name can appear on a wine bottle label. They also determined the official, legal spelling of it is Petite Sirah. Durif remains the same.
But of course, now the effort for keeping the record books straight. How would the nurseries and germplasms consider it? The UC-Davis FPS includes no Petite Sirah in its list of grape varieties, but lists a dozen clones of Durif. I recall this stirred a little ire of the PSILY group, at least if I can believe the “grapevine.” The Vitis International Variety Catalogue (www.vivc.de) lists both names, duplicating the parentage in either listing. But don’t dig any further if you don’t want more confusion — this site also lists white grape mutations of Durif Blanc and Durif Gris. The latter two are not common but it is a genetically viable possibility.
In the field, Petite Sirah clusters are dense. In wetter environments, this can lead to the potential for rot. Some resistance to Downey mildew has been reported. The berries are small yet highly pigmented. The small nature of the clusters can also lead to sun burning if the canopy is not sufficient to shade the clusters. In California this year, I saw several problems with water stress, lack of vigor, and clusters turning to raisins. Traditional dry-farmed vine-yards tended to fair well in the current drought in that they are conditioned to seek water deep in the soil as opposed to irrigated fields.
In any case, acreage of Petite Sirah/Durif was increasing as the population of California grew. During Prohibition, which saw a huge increase in vineyard acreage, the variety was favored because tough skins made shipping by rail easier to markets east of California. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Annual Grape Acreage Report, areas planted to Petite Sirah (interestingly referred to as Petite Sirah, not Durif) peaked at about 14,000 acres in 1976. By 1982, just 2,779 acres were listed and in the nine years that followed only an average of 11 acres per year were planted. During this same period from 1982 through 1991, the state’s Chardonnay acreage increased from 22,000 to more than 56,000 and the acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon just about doubled to nearly 34,000. Petite Sirah was losing to the “Every-thing as long its only Chardonnay/ Cabernet” groups.
Change is tough for wine drinkers, but in this case, change definitely broadens your horizons. The adventurous, through advocacy groups like PSILY, Concannon Vineyards in California’s Livermore Valley, and Foppiano Vineyards in Sonoma gave some opportunity to showcase Petite Sirah. Just since 2005, Petite Sirah acreage has increased almost 30 percent as compared to about 9 percent each for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
A historical grape in California, its uses were primarily limited to blending given its propensity for high tannins and good color. From a winemaking perspective, it is a fun variety to work with. The clusters are small and dense. When you crush and de-stem, the color almost immediately begins to release from the skins. Therefore, from a tannin management standpoint, pressing off before dryness can be considered if you don’t want to deal with them later. However, that needs to be weighed carefully by tasting regularly during the fermentation.
As is typical with many varieties in California, an initial acid adjustment is generally necessary to balance pH and mouthfeel. Immediately following malolactic fermentation a bump in the acidity is also usually required.
Aging for up to 24 months is possible. The tannin structure of this grape allows for longer barrel aging. After about 10 to 12 months in the barrel, if you find that the tannins are too chewy, egg white fining might be an option to consider. With sound winemaking it’s easy to get a darkly colored wine that is rich in tannin and is able to age well.
Petite Sirah, à la vintage 2008; darkly colored, crisp acidity, and dark red fruit characters with a slight sensation of astringency around the right and left sides of my tongue. This wine just tingled the mouth as a stand-alone cocktail wine. It never presented itself as too over-the-top, tannin-wise. We used this wine as our house wine for dishes of red meats, pork, and salmon and there are just a few bottles left to pull out in a few years to test the resilience of the historical grape.
Petite Sirah Recipe (5 gallons/19 L)
• 125 pounds (57 kg) fresh Petite Sirah fruit
• Distilled water
• 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution. Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
• 5 grams Lalvin EC-1118 yeast
• 5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
• 5 grams Go-Ferm
• 5 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
• Tartaric acid
• Malolactic fermentation starter culture (CHR Hansen or Equivalent)
Other equipment or needs
• 15-gallon (57-L) food-grade plastic bucket for fermentation
• 5-gallon (19-L) carboy
• (1-2) 1-gallon (4-L) jugs
• Racking hoses
• Wine press
• Inert gas (nitrogen, argon or carbon dioxide)
• Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 81–86 °F (27-32 °C).
• Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments.
• Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 mL.
• Ability to measure residual sugar at the completion of fermentation.
Step by step
1. Clean and sanitize all your winemaking tools, supplies and equipment.
2. Crush and destem the grapes. Transfer the must to your fermenter.
3. During the transfer, mix in 15 mL of 10% KMBS solution (This addition is the equivalent of 50 ppm SO2).
4. Take a sample to test for Brix, acidity and pH. We’ll take this up later.
5. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered. Keep in a cool place overnight.
6. The next day, sprinkle the Fermaid K directly to the must and mix well.
7. Go back to those lab results you took yesterday. Typical Brix for this style is 24-25 °B. Typical pre-fermentation acid levels will be 4.0 to 7.0 g/L. Adjust as necessary using tartaric acid to pre-fermentation level of 7.5 to 8.0 g/L. Don’t worry here; the malolactic conversion will drop the acid levels.
8. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Mix the Go-Ferm into the water to make a suspension. Take the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension and the must. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the difference in the temperature exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, you should acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the must juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes.
9. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter and mix.
10. You should see signs of fermentation within one to two days. This will appear as some foaming on the must surface and it will appear that the berries are rising out of the medium. This is referred to as the “cap rise.”
11. Push the grapes back into the juice to promote color and tannin extraction. This is called “punching down” and should be done three times per day.
12. Monitor the Brix and temperature twice daily during peak fermentation (21 down to 10 °Brix). Keep the temperature between 81–86 °F (27–30 °C).
13. At about 16–19 °Brix, sprinkle in the DAP and punch-down.
14. Taste regularly through fermentation to determine if the tannins are extracting too quickly. If the astringency is high, you can consider pressing early if you have the color you wish to achieve.
15. If you haven’t pressed by the time the Brix reaches zero (0 °B) (about 5-7 days), transfer the must to your press, and press the cake dry. Keep the free run wine separate from the press portion for now. Measure the residual sugar through tasting, Clinitest tablets, or through an outside lab.
16. Transfer the wine to your carboys or 1-gallon (4-L) jugs. Your press fraction may only be a gallon or two (4 or 8 L). Make sure you do not have any headspace. Place an airlock on the vessel(s). Label the vessels.
17. Inoculate with your malolactic bacteria. Cover the tops with a breather to allow CO2 to escape.
18. Monitor the malolactic fermentation (MLF) using a thin layer chromatography assay. Follow the instructions included with the kit.
19. When the MLF is complete, add 2 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is the equivalent to ~40 ppm addition.
20. Measure the pH and titratable acidity. You want a finished TA of about 6.5 g/L. The pH is secondary but should be around 3.7. Consider adding acid to adjust the pH and TA prior to settling, but taste the wine first to make sure it is not too tart.
21. Place the wine in a cool place to settle.
22. After two weeks, test for SO2 and adjust it as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. Maintain at this level. You’ll just need to check every two months or so, and before racking.
23. Rack the wine clean twice over 6-8 months to clarify. Consider during this period using some oak chips for one to two weeks.
24. Once the wine is cleared, it is time to move it to the bottle. This would be about eight months after the completion of fermentation.
25. Make the project fun by having a blending party to integrate the press fraction back into the free run. You may not need it all, use your judgment and make what you like.