Que Syrah, (Petite) Sirah
The conventional wisdom holds that Petite Sirah is a coarse, "lesser" grape, without the style or the class or the noble heritage of the unrelated grape with which it shares a similar name: Syrah.
Indeed, there's little question that Syrah (or as the Australians call it, Shiraz) is a grape with a longer and more impressive history. It was allegedly brought back to France's Rhone Valley from the Crusades by a medieval knight named Gaspar de Sterimberg, who is said to have hung up his sword and shield, announced that he would study war no more, and planted a vineyard in the estate he called his Hermitage. Syrah (with a "y") makes a robust wine with a characteristic black-pepper fragrance that makes it fairly easy to pick out in a blind tasting. With a little age, it develops "gamey," "meaty" notes of considerable complexity.
Petite Sirah (witn an "i") makes a full-bodied wine with lots of black fruit and sometimes pepper. It will age for many years without changing at all - I had a 1957 from Inglenook in 1992 that tasted as if it was just bottled. I've heard tales that it eventually matures into something more complex, but this process may take decades. Petite Sirah is a modern American moniker for a workmanlike French grape called Durif, experts say; historically used as a blending grape to add its inky color and full body to lighter wines, it's widely dismissed as boring and of little interest on its own.
But the conventional wisdom only works when all other things are equal. I wouldn't be so bold as to declare Petite Sirah a likely competitor against the top Shiraz-based wines of the Rhone or Australia. But in recent tastings comparing California Petite Sirahs against California Syrahs of similar vintage and price, I've found little consistency, and would be hard pressed to argue that one or the other is better. Much depends on the quality of the fruit, the wine maker's decisions (including, specifically, the use of oak), and perhaps on the taster's mood on any given day.
The lesson here is simple: Don't be too quick to pass a wine by because the conventional wisdom scorns it ... at least not without taking all the variables into consideration.
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A set of Si/yrahs
Bogle Vineyards 1997 California Petite Sirah ($8.99)
FOOD MATCH: Excellent with pollo al diablo, grilled chicken breasts with a lemon marinade and a sprinkle of red-pepper flakes.
Qupe 1997 Central Coast Syrah ($13.99)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with a simple chicken sautee finished with a lemon-butter pan sauce.
T-Vine 1997 Contra Costa County Syrah ($19.99)
FOOD MATCH: A little too much wood and power for the pollo al diablo.
David Bruce 1997 Central Coast Petite Sirah ($15.99)
FOOD MATCH: Washes down the chicken sautee mentioned above, but the oak makes it an iffy food wine.
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