A Dash of Spice in the Best California Wine Blends: How Petite Sirah is Transforming Napa Valley

Best California Wine Blends

The best California wine blends often use Petite Sirah for vibrant color and an intense, spicy flavor. Photo Credit: Wikipedia CC user Adam & Tess

The first time I tried a glass of Petite Sirah at a restaurant, I had no idea what was in store for my senses. Hearing the name “Petite Sirah” roll off the sommelier’s tongue conjured up images of tiny, delicate grapes, like a miniature version of the Rhone Syrah I knew so well. After one sniff and sip, I instantly realized my mistake; there was absolutely nothing dainty about these flavors. The heady aromatics practically singed my nose with spice, while the dense, concentrated fruit hit my taste buds like a semi-truck that lost its brakes. This isn’t a wine for the faint of heart, which might be why so many winemakers are using it to add some kick to the best California wine blends. If you’ve had a spicy, intense red blend out of California recently, chances are good that Petite Sirah was the secret ingredient.

Tracking Petite Sirah’s Rise in Popularity

Petite Sirah is a grape that does much of the heavy lifting when it’s used in blends, but rarely gets credit for its hard work. Wine critic Mike Dunne explains, “Even in varietal wines like Zinfandel and Syrah, it can constitute up to 25 percent of the wine with no open acknowledgment whatsoever that it is making a crucial contribution to the wine’s overall impact.” However, in recent years, Dunne says he’s seen more winemakers openly talk about their love of Petite Sirah, and how it intensifies both the color and flavor of the wine. This varietal has been planted in California for more than 100 years, and it is only now gaining mainstream popularity.

The grape was bred to be a crowd-pleaser. In the 1870s, French grower Dr. Francois Durif was obsessed with the fruity taste of Syrah, yet he was frustrated by the mildew that often clung to the vines. He decided to cross breed a mildew-resistant grape called Peloursin with Syrah, and thus the Durif grape was born. News of the grape quickly spread to California, where winemakers eagerly planted rows and rows of vines; the fruit flourished in the sunny climate, producing as much as eight tons per acre. Since most winemakers planted the grape with other varietals, the name “Durif” got lost over the decades, and winemakers started calling the grape “Petite Sirah” instead (likely because the grapes were small, but the flavors were as intense as Syrah).

In the 1970s, winemakers cultivated about 14,000 acres of Petite Sirah in California, but the grape slowly lost popularity as Cabernet cult wines and Chardonnay stepped into the limelight. By the 1990s, Petite Sirah vineyards had shrank to about 2,400 acres, and many winemakers had entirely forgotten the grape. That was until 10 years ago, when the number of Petite Sirah acres suddenly shot up to 7,265 acres. Now, winemakers grow more than 10,000 acres of the grape, and this number is expected to increase by as much as 50 percent over the next few years in the sunniest terroirs. Collectors aren’t necessarily buying and drinking more Petite Sirah, but they are buying more blends that use the grape; experts like Mike Dunne think that the rise of red blends in the region is responsible for this grape’s comeback.

Expect an Increase in Spice and Price

Part of what makes Rhone-style Syrah producers like Sine Qua Non so popular is the intensity and complexity of the wine, and winemakers say that adding Petite Sirah to red blends is a sure-fire way to replicate these kinds of flavors. Based on critic reviews and sales, the best California wine blends of the past five years no longer taste like the jammy, fruit-bombs of the past. Rather than sugar, we’re seeing more spice in modern wines, coming from grapes like Syrah, Grenache, and Petite Sirah, or from oak barrelling. As a collector, you can expect to see many more red wine blends described as “spicy,” especially if Petite Sirah comes into play.

With popularity also comes an increase in market value. Right now, the largest market for pure Petite Sirah is in the $7 to $10 range, which is expected to increase by 49 percent before 2018. As high-end producers making the best California wine blends grow more of this varietal, you’ll likely see an uptick in price for blends containing Petite Sirah, especially if drought conditions continue in the state.

The Best California Wine Blends for Your Cellar

If you’re looking to invest in your own Petite Sirah vintages, collectors have had success with Michael David Earthquake, which Mike Dunne says increased in price by 30 percent last year. A wine blogger jokes that Earthquake “looks like red crude oil, weighs as much as a linebacker, blasts flavors like a blowtorch, and leaves some cotton on the roof of your mouth.” He says this is what makes this Lodi-based label so compelling, especially at tasting competitions.

You’ll also want to consider vintages that are already well-established on the market, like Sine Qua Non’s 2012 Petite Sirah. This vintage goes for as much as $5,500 on average, per bottle, and is expected to age well for the next 20 years or more. Finally, you should look into Quixote’s Petite Sirah Helmet of Mambrino, which takes decades to fully mature. Critics describe this wine as tight at first, but with the potential to become legendary the longer it stays in a cellar. When you invest in the best California wine blends with even a hint of Petite Sirah, be prepared to wait at least 20 years to enjoy the bottle.

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