WHAT IS PETITE SIRAH?
A Very Short History
Historically, true Syrah in France was referred to as Syrah, Schiras, Sirac, Sirah,
Petite Sirah, Petite Syrah and other names as well. Petite may have had little to do
with the smallness of the grape; it was more likely just an affectionate descriptor of
Syrah. Nonetheless, some French winegrowers were convinced that there actually was a
"petite", small grape Syrah which grew around Hermitage and Cote Rotie and which was
superior to the larger, "grosse" grape Syrah which grew elsewhere in France.
Research at UC Davis in the 1990's revealed that the identity of Petite Sirah was further
obscured around 1880 by a grape breeder named Durif who cross-bred Syrah and Peloursin at
the University of Montpellier, creating a new varietal bearing his name. "Durif" was
developed because of its resistance to powdery mildew, a prevalent problem for French
Syrah. Durif produced small berries with saturated color, dense fruit and many of the
characteristics of Syrah. Now, the "petite-ness" of the grape was surely indicative of the
varietal. Because of Durif's Syrah-like qualities, it was often called Petite Sirah.
It was around the time that Durif was developed that American vintners were actively
searching for Syrah for their vineyards. Some who were looking for the superior Cote Rotie
"petite" Syrah no doubt mistakenly chose Durif. Later, others intentionally identified and
imported Durif because of its strong color, elegant fragrance and good yield. While much of
the true Syrah in California was wiped out by phyloxera in the 1890's, most of those vineyards
were replanted in the latter part of that decade. The confusion caused by Petite Sirah's
complex history was fully entrenched; many winegrowers unconsciously intermixed Durif,
Peloursin, Syrah and other red varietals. After almost a hundred years of uncertainty, DNA
testing in the latter part of the 20th century, particularly at UC Davis, created a methodology
for positively resolving the confused identity of these plants in American vineyards.
Durif has never been well supported in most areas of France. While it resisted powdery mildew,
Durif's propensity to develop rot during France's humid growing season left most French
winegrowers disinterested. On the other hand, California's Mediterranean-like climate is very
sympathetic to the successful farming of Petite Sirah (both Peloursin and Durif). And while
Petite Sirah makes rough and tannic wines if the grapes are picked too early or if the grapes
are pressed too aggressively, an increasing number of wineries are now treating the varietal
with the care necessary to create the beautifully colored, complex and long finishing wine
discerning eonophiles demand.
While many "Petite Sirah" vineyards have been interplanted with a confusing array of varietals,
we at Carver Sutro have DNA tested our vines at UC Davis and have discovered that what we call
our "Petite Sirah" vineyard is 100% Durif (**We have a very promising 7 year old Syrah vineyard
as well, but we will not bottle that wine under our label until we can be certain that it will
successfully complement our Petite Sirah).
Fife, Dennis; "Petite Sirah; The Mystery Uncovered", Wines and Vines, September, 2000.
Sullivan, Charles L.; A Companion To California Wine, 1998.