Petite sirah used to have something of an identity crisis. Despite its name, the grape isn’t a diminutive version of syrah. To the contrary, wines made from petite sirah are usually inky-dark, full-bodied and sometimes very tannic.
Now the variety is better understood. Acreage in California has been climbing steadily, and San Luis Obispo County is by far the leader in the coastal counties, with more than 1,400 acres, mostly in Paso Robles.
Petite sirah and Paso Robles seem to be a good fit. I recently judged 20 petite sirahs at the Central Coast Wine Competition at the Paso Robles Event Center, and the vast majority were from Paso Robles. Judging a category of 20 big, often tannic reds can be an ordeal, but this group was actually pretty exciting. There were some duds — too much tannin and/or oak were the most common complaints — but most of the wines were good or even exceptional.
The top petite sirah was the 2011 Broken Earth Winery Petite Sirah ($22, but not yet released), from the winery’s estate vineyard on Highway 46 East in Paso Robles. Although petite sirah can sometimes be a little one-dimensional, this one is spicy, floral and structured, with ripe black fruit, a note of lavender, some spicy oak and firm tannins.
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Broken Earth winemaker Chris Cameron says he has worked with petite sirah for many years in other places and always found it to be a handy blending component. But he thinks Paso Robles petite is more expressive.
Paso Robles, he explains, is able to produce grapes with concentrated flavors and high acidity to go along with their high sugars. “Petite sirah in Paso loves the dry heat and benefits from the much cooler evenings,” Cameron says, “although 2011 and 2012 had relatively warm nights by comparison through ripening. This, I believe, has advanced the fruit ripening to be more in balance with sugar ripening — hence the wonderful results. The variety is a bit of a juggling act but certainly worth the effort.”
The other gold medalists were the 2011 Hearst Ranch “The Pergola” Petite Sirah ($25, July release), which offers ample lively black fruit, a lovely floral note and firm but approachable tannins, and the 2009 Donatoni Petite Sirah ($25), which has exuberant fruit, a note of dark chocolate and firm tannins.
Other standout petite sirahs, all from Paso Robles, included the 2010 San Marcos Creek ($28), with its ripe, spicy black fruit, hint of tobacco and very firm tannins; the dark, glass-coating 2008 Frolicking Frog ($32), which is lively and quite fruity; and the 2009 Hidden Oak ($30), a wine with fresh, dark fruit, a note of cedar and tannins that are more polished than what you find in many petite sirahs.
One wine displayed petite sirah’s potential in the cool climate of Edna Valley. The 2010 Phantom Rivers Petite Sirah ($28) from Wolff Vineyard is spicy and rich, with dark fruit, firm tannins and a distinctive peppery note.
Next week, I’ll have other highlights from the competition.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Vina Robles 2012 Roseum ($13)
This rosé, made from syrah, is very aromatic, with ample berry fruit and a soft finish. It carries its rather hefty alcohol (14.9 percent) well. Available only from the winery.