The difference between Petite Sirah and Syrah
We recently went to tour & taste at a new winery located in the San Bernardino mountains. During the tour we were “exposed” as Wine Shop owners. Normally this is fun, because it leads to some good conversation, but it turned ugly when another guest asked our host, Devin, the difference between Petite Sirah and Syrah. Devin, who was great, was busy getting our next wine, so, his response to the question was “Let’s have the Wine Shop owners tackle this one,” then he darted away to get pour number 3.
I wish I could tell you, I answered this question succinctly and clearly, but that is not what happened. I stammered out: “Well….. they are two totally different grapes. Petite Sirah has small berries and Syrah is like-super-known for aromas of pepper.” At that moment in space and time, everyone in the wine industry died a little.
Like most exchanges that don’t go like I hope, I have replayed it, researched it and now I am ready. So, in the rare case that some asks me that exact question again, I can tell them; “I wrote a blog about that, you should check it out.” Here goes:
Syrah is a red wine grape, hailing from the Rhône Valley in France. A Syrah wine is most famous for having strong aromas and flavors of black pepper. A Syrah is very much influenced by the climate it grows in. Cooler climates tend to produce medium to full bodied wines, with medium levels of tannins and notes of blackberry, mint and black pepper. Hotter climates produce more full-bodied wines, with soft tannins, ripe fruit, spices, black pepper, and earthy leather.
We are most familiar with Syrah in three contexts:
As a varietal wine, Syrah is produced from Washington State to New Zealand. Focusing on the origins of Syrah as a varietal wine we can really see the profound impact that climate can have on Syrah. Syrah is made as a varietal wine in the Hermitage region of the Rhône Valley (although not labeled as such, because in France it is about the region). The French AOC naming system really works out well here and is very helpful as there are big swings in the sun and temperature patters in this area of the Rhône. Côte-Rôtie Syrah will highlight pepper and can mature to include hints of leather and tar (cooler). While a Syrah produced in Croze-Hermitage will be much juicier, with ripe berry and of course pepper (warmer). The impact of climate gets even more noticeable in regions with bigger differences in climate, such as Paso Robles or Walla Walla Washington.
Syrah is great solo, but also shines as a blending grape. In the Southern Rhône Syrah is one of the required grapes of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Syrah is one of the three grapes of the region’s famous GMS blends (GMS: Grenache, Mourvèdre, &Syrah) The GSM blend originated in the Rhône valley, but has also found success in California, South America, South Africa, and Australia. Most of our Paso Robles producers have at least one GSM in their portfolio. Syrah is also a core grape in California Rhône Rangers. Rhône Rangers are wine blends the include Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, and Syrah.
Syrah makes an excellent addition to blends as it can brings its pepper, blackberry, leather, anise and other spices to both the aroma and taste of the blend.
In Australia and South Africa, Syrah has found a unique home, where it has been produced for generations as Shiraz. Shiraz still has highlights of black pepper, but they are matched will highlights of dark chocolate. Shiraz wines tend to be full bodied, rich, and fruity wines. A few producers have recently experimented with low levels of carbonation (somewhere between a Vino Verdi and a Lambrusco). These “Sparkling Shiraz” wines are intended to be cooled and enjoyed as a very big, very strong, refresher.
Petite Sirah is the US and Israeli name for Durif. Durif is a red wine grape historically grown in Australia, California, France and Israel. Recently it has been planted in the Pacific Northwest and on the eastern seaboard. It has also been introduced into the winegrowing regions of Chile, Mexico and Canada. Petite Sirah is an easy, vigorous vine to grow, but very difficult to bring to harvest. It is susceptible to mold. because its berries are small & tightly clustered together. This can trap moisture between the berries and create the perfect environment for mold spores to grow and spread, which can quickly ruin a crop.
Petite Sirah wines are typically very tannic with deep dark coloring. This is due to the berries, (you could call them… Petite). This high skin to juice ratio highlights what skins bring to a wine. The dark inky coloring and rich textures come from the skins. Seriously, next time you have a Petite Sirah, hold it to the light and see if you see from one side of the glass to the other. The juice of the Petite Sirah grapes is highly acidic. The combination of high tannins and high acidity create aging opportunities. It is possible to age Petite Sirah for up to 20 years.
On the nose a Petite Sirah will have a bouquet of herbs, pepper and tart fruits (think blueberries). Petite Sirah will be full bodied and if the winemakers used new oak, there can be hints of chocolate in the middle of the tart tannin taste.
It is not uncommon to see Petite Sirah used as a low percentage blending grape. It does a masterful job, of shoring up wines that need acidity, tannin, and color. As little as 5% can make a big difference.
Since it is risky to grow, it is not uncommon for wineries to make variety vintages when the growing season goes well but hold them back for tasting room visitors only. Since it is hard to produce high volumes year to year, these wines become a treat. In bad years, if most of a crop is lost to mold, wine makers are apt to need the little Petite Sirah they get to blend with varietals like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
As you can see Syrah and Peitit Sirah are very different. Both are wonderful in their own way. Syrah is currently a world favorite. While Petite Sirah is produced on a much smaller scale.
We always have a good Syrah in the shop and right now, we are excited about a new Syrah that came in last Wednesday from wine maker Gregory Graham. Notes are below.
We also have a brand new Petite Sirah in the shop from wine maker Le P’tit Payson. It came in last week. It in on this week’s tasting. Please stop in and give it a try. Notes are below.
2012 GREGORY GRAHAM SYRAH $24.99
100% Syrah – Crimson Hill, Lake County, California
90 Points, Wine Enthusiast
TASTING NOTES: This Syrah is very concentrated with dark chocolate, blackberry, capers and soy aromas. The silky rich fruit flavors consist of layers of sweet plum and blackberry, with toasted oak and mocha. This full-structured wine calls for heavier or rich fare such as smoked chicken alfredo or grilled meats
2014 LE P’TIT PAYSAN PETITE SIRAH $24.99
100% Petite Sirah - Monterey County, CA
91 Points, Wine Spectator
Picked at atypically low sugars for the variety. Fermented in small lots. Aged on lees in less than 10% new oak. From a limestone and shale rich block on Pierce Ranch in southern Monterey County. 336 cases made.
TASTING NOTES: Crunchy, with lots of gooseberry and thyme notes bouncing around, while flint and fleur de sel accents drive the mouthwatering finish.
P.S. We didn’t even talk about food pairing. Next time you are in the shop look at the food pairing book and see what creative and surprising meals Syrah and Petite Sirah will complement.
J. Robinson, J. Harding and J. Vouillamoz Wine Grapes – A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours pg 316-317 & 779, Allen Lane 2012 ISBN 978-1-846-14446-2
J. Robinson "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 514 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0-19-860990-6
Petite Sirah Advocacy Association. Archived from the original on 2006-08-19.
O. Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes pg 88 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0-15-100714-4