A Guide to Petite Sirah – Everything You Need to Know

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Glass of red wine on a table with food

If you’re ready to invest in more wine for your growing collection, or are eager to introduce intriguing yet classy varietals, you’ve likely scoured numerous avenues in your quest. You might have narrowed in on wines from California, having discovered and then sampled high-quality bottles of Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ve likely seen interesting bottles of California Syrah, Riesling and Petit Verdot, and may have even explored niche markets for Semillon and Viognier from the Golden State.

A different California varietal equally worthy of adding to your wine cellar collection, though, is none other than Petite Sirah.

What Kind of Wine Is Petite Sirah?

Petite Sirah wine comes from the Petite Sirah grape, a dark-skinned beauty that grows in dense clusters on the vine. This grape is small in size but big in flavor.

Petite Sirah's bold flavor comes from the high skin-to-juice ratio of the grape, which produces an inky black-purple wine with high tannins and high acidity.

The Petite Sirah grape is the offspring of two French grapes – Syrah and Peloursin. Both of the parent varietals come from the Rhone-Alpes region, while Petite Sirah originated further south near Tullins in southeastern France.

In France and elsewhere outside of the United States, Petite Sirah is known as Durif. This name comes from Francois Durif, the French botanist in whose nursery the varietal originated in the 1860s.

This varietal has been in California since 1884, when Charles McIver introduced it to his vineyards in the San Jose/Alameda County area. It waxed and waned over the years, falling out of favor in certain areas but holding true in places like Napa Valley and Livermore AVA.

Other than California, there are a few wineries in Israel and Australia with Petite Sirah vineyards. But while it may have originated in France, modern Petite Sirah production in France is almost nonexistent.

Historically, Petite Sirah has acted as a supportive wine rather than as the standout star. For years it was relegated to the role of assistant in Zinfandel blends, and occasionally provided bolder tannins and color in weaker Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir vintages.

While Petite Sirah continues this tradition today, it has earned a place as its own varietal. California produces numerous 100 percent Petite Sirah wines, along with blends where 85 to 90 percent of the wine is comprised of this inky purple star.

How Does Petite Sirah Compare to Syrah?

Although Petite Sirah and Syrah have similar spellings, they aren’t different versions of the same wine. These two wines are different varietals altogether.

Syrah is its own distinct varietal, having appeared as the offspring of the uncommon Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche hundreds of years ago in France’s Savoy and Rhone Valley. Its grapes are slightly smaller than average, with a dark skin and a red-purple color in the glass. Syrah wines have moderately high tannins and moderate acidity.

Compared to Syrah, Petite Sirah grapes are quite small, and are deeper in color. They produce a dark purple, tooth-staining wine with bold tannins and acidity.

The Taste of Petite Sirah

As mentioned earlier, Petite Sirah may be a small grape, but its flavor is anything but small. A good description of Petite Sirah wine would be: big, bold and memorable. This wine has a full body and a mouthfeel that is often described as chewy and intense.

Petite Sirah offers up flavor notes rich in plums and smoky, dark-berried fruits. It also releases a heady mix of spices, dark chocolate, caramel, licorice and coffee.

In warmer California climates, Petite Sirah has bolder fruits and typically more alcohol, while cooler California climates lead to a Petite Sirah with slightly sour fruits, more earthy flavors and hints of citrus.

Regions of California Producing the Best Petite Sirah

Unlike other wines that turn out well in some regions and fall flat in others, Petite Sirah has the blessing of excellent base qualities that result in solid ratings across the board.

Here are the five main California regions producing Petite Sirah:

1. Central Valley

Lodi and Clarksburg

Known for its warmer, drier climate that occasionally receives cooling delta breezes, the Central Valley produces bold, jammy Petite Sirah wines. You’ll see wines from Lodi and Clarksburg praised for their consistent quality and affordable price.

2. North Coast

Sonoma County and Mendocino County

The North Coast has cooler temperatures but plenty of sunny days that bring out Petite Sirah’s inherent richness. As a result, Petite Sirah wines have more of an earthy profile, along with florals and deep, bold fruits.

3. North Valley

Napa Valley, Alameda County and Lake County

North Valley wines are typically considered to be at the top of their class for complexity. This is also where you can find most of the oldest Petite Sirah vines. Petite Sirah wines from the North Valley tend to have enhanced minerals and excellent balance.

4. Central Coast

Paso Robles and Santa Barbara

This region varies from sheltered, warmer climate AVAs like Paso Robles to cooler climate, low rainfall AVAs like Santa Barbara. Petite Sirah wines from the Central Coast are often deeply fruity, with intense aromas and strong balance.

5. Sierra Foothills

Mariposa County to Yuba County in the north

This extensive region has warm, sunny days but decidedly cool nights, allowing for more drawn-out ripening. Petite Sirah wines from the Sierra Foothills have bold, concentrated flavors and good complexity.

Food Pairings for Petite Sirah

As an intense wine, Petite Sirah needs to be paired with richer, more aromatic foods. Trying to pair this wine with a lighter meal results in mismatched tastes and drowned flavors.

Meats: Venison, lamb, ribs, roasted or barbecued pork and beef, glazed ham, chicken with bold, creamy sauces

Cheeses: Blue cheese, aged goat cheese, Gouda, Limburger, asiago

Vegetables: Leeks, garlic, olives, cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, mushrooms

Herbs and Spices: Cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, fennel, chile pepper, juniper, rosemary

Chocolate: Dark chocolate, typically 75 percent or higher

To discover Petite Sirah for yourself, we encourage you to see what JJ Buckley Fine Wines has on offer. Our collection of Petite Sirah wines can set you up for many delicious meals to come.