Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot
January 11, 2010 by Christine Go
Ain’t Nothin’ Small About ‘Em
By Christine Go
Does size matter? Well, it does if you’re talking about grapes, namely Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot. These varietals produce big, bold wines, so why are they called “petite?” Give up? Because of the size of the grapes! Apparently both varietals have small berries, so they have a high skin-to-juice ratio. Since color and tannins come primarily from the skin and seeds of the grapes, more skin equals more color and tannins, which translates to tooth-staining wines with lots of structure.
So Petite Sirah isn’t petite, but is it related to Syrah? There’s been a lot of confusion about the origin of Petite Sirah, and it’s taken about a hundred years to figure out the answer to that question. If you check out the timeline on the “P.S. I Love You” website (an advocacy group for Petite Sirah), you’ll see that Syrah first came to California from France in 1878, but some called it Petite Syrah. Then, a few years later, a French varietal called Durif (named after the grape grower who propagated it) was introduced to California, and it was called Petite Sirah, since that was its common name in France.
We now know that Syrah/Petite Syrah is not the same as Petite Sirah/Durif, but they are related. In 1997, Carole Meredith, a professor at UC Davis, did a DNA analysis of Petite Sirah compared to Durif, and discovered that they are indeed the same. It turns out that Syrah and Peloursin, an obscure French varietal, are the parents of Petite Sirah. Syrah is prone to a fungus called “powdery mildew,” something familiar to gardeners in Western Washington, and originally Petite Sirah was developed to be resistant to it; but in humid climates, Petite Sirah is prone to another fungus called “grey rot.” This is why Petite Sirah does well in drier grape-growing regions. Today the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recognizes Durif and Petite Sirah as synonyms for the same grape. And just to add to the confusion, some wineries label their Petite Sirah as “Petite Syrah” even though it is not the same as Syrah.
Historically, Petite Sirah became popular in California as a blending grape, since its plum and dark berry flavors, firm tannins, and good acidity added a lot of body and structure to thin, light reds. Here’s a trivia tidbit: back when Americans were drinking generic jug wine blends, Gallo Hearty Burgundy was very popular. Guess what? Petite Sirah was one of the main components of that blend. Today there are hundreds of California wineries producing Petite Sirah, and it’s grown successfully in other drier regions around the world, like Australia, Israel, Chile and Eastern Washington.
So which Washington wineries are producing Petite Sirah, and where are those grapes grown? Here are a few examples: Thurston Wolfe gets Petite Sirah grapes from vines that were planted at Zephyr Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills in 1998. Milbrandt gets their Petite Sirah from Northridge Vineyard on Wahluke Slope. Petite Sirah is one of the varietals planted in Jones of Washington’s Unit 10 Vineyard on Wahluke Slope. Portteus Winery in the Rattlesnake Hills makes award-winning Petite Sirah from estate-grown fruit. Palouse Winery just won a silver medal at the Seattle Wine Awards for their Petite Sirah crafted from Portteus vineyard fruit.
What about Petit Verdot? Does it have anything else in common with Petite Sirah besides berry size? Well, it turns out that it does. First of all, Petit Verdot also is a blending grape that originated in France. It’s one of the five Bordeaux varietals—the others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. (Carménère, the sixth Bordeaux varietal, is hardly grown in France anymore, but is successfully grown in Chile.) Petit Verdot is a small component of many of Bordeaux’s best wines, mainly from the Medoc region on the left bank of the Gironde. Because of its strong tannins, blackberry flavors, and aromas of violets, it’s used in small amounts to add color, spice, and structure to a wine.
Petit Verdot means “little green,” and it’s aptly named, because it ripens very late or not at all, so in some years, the grapes remain green. That’s why it’s not more popular in France. Just like Petite Sirah, it does better in warmer climates where it can ripen fully, such as the Temecula region in Southern California, the east end of Long Island, and Eastern Washington.
Intrigued by Petit Verdot made in Washington? Then give it a try! For example, Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla produces award-winning Petit Verdot, as does Northstar, which uses fruit from StoneTree Vineyard on Wahluke Slope. Animale’s Petit Verdot comes from Gilbert Vineyard on Wahluke Slope. The Cara Mia Cadence vineyard on Red Mountain was planted to 10% Petit Verdot. Meek Vineyard in Yakima Valley near Red Mountain provided the Petit Verdot fruit for three Seattle Wine Award winners, OS Winery, Olsen Estates and Pleasant Hill Cellars.
Finally, wines made from both Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah will age nicely, thanks to their firm tannins. With so many delicious options available in Washington, it shouldn’t be difficult to find some petit/petite for your cellar…or enjoy a glass now with a hearty meal at your favorite restaurant.
Meet the Makers
There are a few winemakers in Washington State doing good things with Petit Verdot. We talked to two award winning winemakers of Petit Verdot to get the skinny on their vino.
As the winemaker, how would you describe your Petit Verdot?
On the aroma side…very earthy, dark fruit, blackberries and dark cherries, a little cassis, chocolate, and tobacco leaf. It’s round and full on the palate, ripe dark fruits, more earth, and ripe fine grained tannins.
What is it that made you decide on a 100% PV release?
Aside from being somewhat unique in Washington, this wine, for me, turned out to be a great hedonistic expression of Petit Verdot. We had to share it with everyone.
The 2007 is very relaxed, soft even, compared to some other PV efforts. Can you speak to the style that you’ve come up with for your 2007 release?
The 2007 was sourced from one block (Ranch #15 or “Olsen Hill”), one tank, fermented without commercial yeast or bacteria, lending itself to a longer cooler fermentation (about 28 days on the skins), preserving fruit character and taming the tannins that so many PV’s can exhibit.
What is the biggest challenge when working with PV (with respect to a 100% release).
There is a barrel selection process that weeds out a few outliers, but for the most part, about 95% of the wines make the final cut. Luckily, I have Leif (Olsen) bringing me the best fruit from Olsen vineyards, so my job is all that much easier.
Stylistic changes for the 2008 release?
I did play around with a few commercial yeast strains in 2008, and we have a new block coming in to production…stay tuned…
As a winemaker, how would you describe your Petit Verdot?
Our Petit Verdot is from the second warmest site in Washington State, the Wahluke Slope. This site, on decent years, gives enough heat units to get the darn grapes ripe. It is generally the last grape picked. Our Petit Verdot is big in every aspect, tannins, alcohol, color, and body. When first bottled, you almost gasp on your first drink. We like to say it will suck your brains out. But, on surprisingly little bottle age it mellows out with plums and dark fruit on the palate. It is not an elegant wine that strokes you; it is a Mike Tyson right hand smacking you in the mouth.
Since Petit Verdot is traditionally used for blending, what is the key to making a PV that is so drinkable on its own?
The location of the vineyard is the most important criteria for making a good Petit Verdot. You have to have the heat units.
For the 2006 release, your fruit was sourced from Gilbert Vineyards. How would you characterize the PV fruit from Wahluke Slope compared to that in other AVA’s?
We have sourced other vineyards for Petit Verdot and tasted Petit Verdot from some much respected wineries, and have found them to be lighter in color, tannins, alcohol and body. Again, you need a well managed vineyard in a very warm section of the state.
As a winemaker known for enthusiastic blending, what made you decide to release a straight Petit Verdot?
At Pleasant Hill, we try to stay ahead of the curve by making wines that are not on everyone’s radar, like Petit Verdot. Our first release was 2002 along with our Malbec. Now, everyone is making Malbec. We have traveled to many wine-making regions, both in the U.S. and abroad, checking their processes. At an experimental vineyard in Denmark, we tasted a Muscat grape that was from Siberia and could withstand 40 degrees below zero temperature. The wine was not good, but what the heck, it had alcohol.
What should consumers expect from future releases of Pleasant Hill’s Petit Verdot?
That is hard to say, but we are working on a blend for 2010 of Petit Verdot and Tannat. Now that should make a person shudder!