The Bold and the Beautiful

#275 -July 14, 2014

During the three years since it was last showcased on these pages, its popularity has (relatively) increased, the sophistication and frequency it is used has grown and the number of choices to enjoy its fruity power is very welcome.  One practical indicator of this is that in order to provide a significant number of tasting notes my prior newsletter included a number of Petite Sirah-based blends, while this week’s missive stands on its own with varietal wines only (thus excluding wines such as Ben-Haim’s Petite Sirah heavy (60%) and recent medal-winning Mythos).  Overcoming its dubious Israeli past where it was initially densely planted in the mid 70’s, heavily watered and driven to produce extremely high yields of highly dubious quality.  Part of Carmel’s history included multiple versions of the grape in its infamous (and now somewhat resurrected) “Selected” version, including being labeled as Syrah, Petit Syrah and Shiraz.

Historically (in France, Israel and elsewhere), Petite Sirah has been used as a blending agent, lending its robust body, flavor and color to give (usually inferior) wines a friendly boost.  Used to “thicken” Cabernet Sauvignon, darken Pinot Noir and reduce the “jamminess” of Zinfandel, it seemed like the varietal had something for everyone other than itself (the Shoemaker’s children always go barefoot).  Other times it was utilized to produce a varietal wine of such drek, that it completely “lost” the Israeli wine consumer, regardless of its provenance or quality.  Even with the increased interest and quality, the majority of Petite Sirah grapes planted in Israel (and around the world) are used as blending agents and not single varietal wines.  However (and like Petit Verdot in some ways (a similar success story)), a number of wineries are producing some really nice Petite Sirah wines, most of which are recommended below.

Recently recognized as a cross between Syrah and an obscure grape known as Peloursin, Petit Sirah was apparently created when pollen from Syrah crossed with the Peloursin flower resulting in a new varietal (go rapidly disappearing honeybees).  This new varietal was discovered in the late 1800’s by a French botanist named Durif, who, with typical French modesty, named the grape after himself (Durif is another, less known, name for the varietal).  Petite Sirah is sometimes misspelled as Petit Sirah or confused with Petite Syrah (a clone of Syrah that yields extremely small berries), and labels can be confusing in this regard.  Such confusion is somewhat a result of early Californian planters who confused the grape with other varietals such as Petite Syrah and Syrah, leading to cross planting, mixing up of the fields and a labeling mismatch that is sometimes hard to decipher.

While Petite Sirah is prized for its dense color and deep flavors, its resistance to mildew was the primary reason for its widespread cultivation (despite the fact that the grapes grow in tight clusters making it highly susceptible to rotting when wet) but it quickly fell from its perch once the French discovered how difficult it was to coax any qualitatively meaningful wines from it, and today almost no Petite Sirah is grown in France.  Despite the perceived superiority of French winemaking, many countries has managed to achieve success with Petite Sirah, including Israel, California and Australia, where Petite Sirah is the primary blend in some of the region’s best fortified wines.  Yair Margalit, of the famed (and non-kosher Israeli) Margalit Winery, was among the first in the country to discover the grape’s potential when he happened across some old-vine Petite Sirah  and started blending it with his Cabernet Sauvignon wines.  While Petite Sirah doesn’t (yet) have a large following, its small fan base, of which I am a proud card-carrying member, are devout and passionate.  I recommend checking out the Petite Sirah fan site, which has a great timeline of Petite Sirah’s life.

Some of Petite Sirah’s typical characteristics include a chewy nature, inky dark color, heavy tannins (a result of the high skin to juice ratio of the small berries) and relatively high acid, with jammy blueberry and blackberry notes (somewhat similar to a Malbec), and with the addition of some smoke and pepper on occasion.  However for the most part, and as is the case with many Israeli wines, the Israeli versions aren’t as true to the varietal as one would hope although, with Petite Sirah, they come close.  In addition to Carignan, Cabernet Franc and potentially Grenache, Petite Sirah is most definitely a superb candidate for one of those “Israeli” varietals we are perpetuate in search for.

Carmel, Appellation, Petite Sirah, 2009:  As we have discussed in the past, “old vines” means different things around the world and the criteria to enter the rarified world is substantially lower in Israel than most other grape-growing regions. While not official, the “standard” in Israel is approximately 30 years, with the fruits of such vines producing a well-concentrated and full-bodied wine.  At a very reasonable (for Israel) 13.5% AbV, the wine is among the better options within Carmel’s nicely curated “Appellation” series.  Consistent with other wineries, the best QPR tends to be with the more esoteric varietals, and Petite Sirah still fits into this genre.  A round and mouth-filling wine with big and bold tannins that still need time to settle down, this wine is just now coming into its own.  With lovely notes of black crushed fruit including blackberries, rich plums, cassis and a hint of red fruit creeping in, the fruit is nicely matched by slightly spicy oak from the 15 months spent in oak, bramble, lead pencil and some green overly that contributes some character to this lush and rich wine.  When opening now, give the wine an hour to open up and enjoy though 2015, likely a bit longer.

Carmel Vintage, Fortified Petite Sirah, Judean Hills, 2007:  With late harvest and Port-style wines being made from every varietal under the sun, there was no reason to expect that Petite Sirah wouldn’t play a role in this scenario.  With Israel’s (relatively) long history of Petite Sirah, the higher quality and lower yielding old vines are readily available and Carmel takes advantage of this availability to create a deep, complex and luscious dessert wine that tantalizes and pleases at the same time.  Made from 100% old vine Petite Sirah grapes and fortified with additional alcohol, this is a delicious dessert wine.  Aromas of raisins, plums, chocolate and spices come at you with first sniff but not overly aggressive.  On the palate, a rich, deep and very sweet wine with flavors of mocha, coffee, sweet (and slightly tangy) jammy berries with enough acidity and pleasant spiciness to balance the sweetness from becoming overpowering and flabby on the palate.  Hints of slightly bitter almonds do a good job of keeping the sweetness honest and the entire wine in good balance.  As opposed to some of the other Port and Port-style wines, I often enjoy this wine with food as it pairs nicely with most sweet desserts.

Dalton, Petite Sirah, Estate, 2012:  Along with Recanati’s version, this is one of my super “go-to” wines, providing a delicious drink that is well made, consistent and sufficiently complex to entice novice and advanced oenophiles alike.  Another similarity with Recanati’s version below is the fact that the 2012 version is likely the best yet and reason enough to wait out the slow depletion of 2011 stock until the glorious 2012 vintages hit our shelves (here in the US; in Israel the 2012 version of both is already on sale).  A medium bodied and friendly wine, with plenty of black forest fruit, blueberries, notes of vanilla and spice from the oak, cedar, tobacco and impeccable balance with the acidity and spice combine for a food friendly and fruity wine that maintains its maturity while tantalizing with its youthful freshness. Drink now, early and often and stock up to drink for the next year or two.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Petite Sirah, 2009:  As you all know, Ella Valley Winery is one of my favorite Israeli wineries, while also being a winery most severely in need of my marketing and consulting services to cure some of its prestige, management and other ills that unfortunately take the focus away from its high-quality vineyards, talented winemaker and incredible wines.  First launched with the 2007 vintage, Ella Valley has been creating special stuff from their Petite Sirah grapes since their first try and the 2009 version is no exception.  With most top-tier versions of Petite Sirah coming from the illustrious growing areas of the Judean hills, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ella Valley is home to some of the country’s top Petite Sirah.  Characteristically powerful tannins wrapped around gobs of jammy and controlled black fruit including blackberries and cassis, together with some blueberries, cigar box notes and bramble make this a wine to contend with, showing structure and balance form the 16 months in oak.  However, all that power is wrapped in an elegant velvet glove making this rich wine somewhat restrained and allowing you to take in all it has to offer.  A medium to long finish rounds this one out.  I’d give this one at least a year, maybe two before opening and then enjoy through 2019, maybe longer.

Hajdu, Brobdingnagian, Petite Sirah, 2012:  While many of Jonathan’s wines have settled in and reflect a higher degree of subtlety and elegance than in the past, this is one wine that brings to mind the Brobdingnagian wines of 2007 – huge, powerful and necessary to contend with while retaining that characteristic balance and structure together with a heard to discern but definitely there and very special elegance that is a hallmark of nearly every wine that passes under his über-talented hands.  This wine represents all that is varietaly true and characteristically expected of petite Sirah – big, black and blue, in your face and sublimely delicious.  Rich notes of blackberry, black cherries, ripe blueberries, slightly smoky oak, bramble and plenty of spiciness are all present on this deep and richly extracted wine.  Along with the fruit and word, the wine opens up to reveal layers of tobacco, cedar, well-worn saddle leather and near-sweet tannins.  An extended finish that lingers rounds out this beauty.  Run to Jonathan and beg for some – it will be worth your while.  Give it the respect it deserves and don’t open it for 12-18 months, after which is can and should be enjoyed through 2022.

Har Bracha, Petite Sirah 2011:  From a relative newcomer comes a affable and approachable version of this wine, utilizing the great terroir of the Shomron to produce a nice wine that spent nine months in stainless aging on oak staves to provide it with a little muscle and body.  While not in the same caliber as the Dalton and Recanati versions, this is a delightfully friendly wine with nice, mostly red, crushed berries and well-integrated tannins that are wrapped around a core of fruit, hints of lightly roasted coffee beans and nice hints of spice.  A medium finish rounds out the wine.  Drink now or over the next 12-18 months.

Herzog, Petite Sirah, Prince Vineyard, 2010: As I discussed in my 2014 Crystal Ball newsletter, exclusive and limited edition wines are increasingly important within the kosher wine world.  Representing this trend is this wine, a delightful Petite Sirah available only in Herzog’s own tasting room located in Oxnard California.  With a dark and brooding nose and palate replete with black forest fruit, floral and lavender notes, a streak of bell pepper and a hint of blueberry, the wine needed some time to open up and reveal is lush fruit and powerful backbone but it was worth waiting for.  Accompanied by bramble, some more green notes and spicy oak, this medium to full bodied wine is worth seeking out and giving a whirl.  Drink now through 2016 (Only in Herzog’s Tasting Room).

Recanati, Mediterranean Reserve, Petit-Sirah, 2012:  For the longest time this wine was known as a Petite Sirah – Zinfandel blend despite the fact that it only contained a minimal percentage of Zinfandel.  It has and continues to be one of my most oft-recommended wines given its combination of affordability, complexity and approachability to non-wine drinkers.  However, with the uprooting of the remaining Recanati Zinfandel vineyards the wine has stepped out of the closet into its full and unadorned Petite Sirah glory, and a glorious debut it is.  Having enjoyed every single vintage of this wine, the 2012 vintage is easily among the best they have ever made (2012 in general was an awesome vintage for many Israeli wines).  As opposed to its Marselan sibling that was monogamous with French oak, this wine utilizes a bit of American oak as well, heightening the perception of near-sweet fruit (and contributing to its approachability).  With big and bold notes of cassis, blackberry and bramble accompanied by freshly picked blueberry, a tinge of smoked meat, hints of menthol, a rich vein of minerals underlying the whole package and plenty of slightly toasted oak lending character as well.  As with almost everything Gil and Ido produce, the wine is so well made it’s amazing.

Weinstock, Cellar Select, Petite Sirah, 2011:  As with Carmel’s Appellation series, the best wines in this mid-range and high-QPR label are the more esoteric wines, including this Petite Sirah (and of course, my beloved Cabernet Franc).  Another classically deep, dark and dense Petite Sirah that well represents the varietal while remaining fruity and approachable to those who want nothing more than a quickie.  With great balance and a bold structure that still needs time to open (decanting is recommended in order to properly enjoy all the wine has to offer), the wine is loaded with mostly black fruit, plenty of blueberries, a subtle note of boysenberries along with anise, lavender and plenty of spice.  A dense and slightly tannic structure that settles down with air (or time), the wine is highly enjoyable and worth stocking up on.