A Child by Genetics Alone

#166 – March 11, 2011

This week I wanted to talk about another grape varietal that, like Carignan, has a somewhat dubious Israeli past and it now experiencing a resurgence of sorts – Petite Sirah. Historically, Petite Sirah was used either as a blending agent to add body, flavor and color to other wines (usually inferior ones), or to produce wine that was total drek, so much that it that any Petite Sirah wine was tainted in the eyes of the Israeli wine consumer, regardless of its provenance or quality. Even today, the majority of Petite Sirah grapes planted in Israel are used as blending agents and not single varietal wines. However, a number of wineries are producing some really nice Petite Sirah wines which are recommended below (I have also included two of my favorite Petite Sirah-blended wines below). I would note that apparently some of the best Israeli Petite Sirah wines are produced by Vitkin and Sea Horse, which are Israeli non-kosher wineries and thus, not tasted by me nor reviewed below.

But first a quick primer on Petite Sirah. Recently recognized as a cross between Syrah and an obscure grape known as Peloursin, created when pollen from Syrah crossed with the Peloursin flower resulting in a new varietal. This new varietal was discovered in the late 1800’s by a French botanist named Durif, who named the grape after himself (Durif is another, less known, name for the varietal). Petite Sirah is sometimes misspelled as and confused with Petit Syrah (a clone of Syrah that yields extremely small berries) or Petit Sirah, 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 and mixing up of the fields.

The grape’s resistance to mildew was the primary reason for its cultivation, although the grapes grow in tight clusters making it highly susceptible to rotting when wet, but the French’s lack of ability to produce high-quality wines with Petite Sirah led to it falling quickly from favor, and today almost no Petite Sirah is grown in France. Better luck has been achieved elsewhere in the world including Israel, California Australia, where Petite Sirah is the primary blend in some of the region’s best fortified wines. While Petite Sirah doesn’t have a large following, its fans are devout and passionate. I recommend checking out the Petite Sirah fan site Psiloveyou.com, 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. Some experts consider Petite Sirah a candidate for a true Israeli varietal along with the aforementioned Syrah, Carignan, Cabernet Franc and potentially Grenache.

Single Varietals

Shiloh, Petite Sirah, Sod Reserve, 2007: Shilo is yet another Israeli winery that has shown tremendous improvement in the quality of its wines over the last couple years. While still somewhat overpriced, a number of its wines (I suggest checking out the 2006 Mosaic and Barbera as well) are both interesting and delicious and this is one of them. A big, bold and full-bodied wine, with plenty of jammy blackberries and other black fruits matched by tight tannins that have nicely integrated (but still need some serious opening up time in the glass). I’d suggest opening this up at least 2-3 hours before serving and even decanting it in advance, as the air will do it some good. As with many Petite Sirah wines, a shorter finish than one would expect from such a powerful wine, but one laden with spice, anise and a pleasant hint of bitterness.

Ella Valley Vineyards, Petite Sirah, 2007: An extremely limited edition that was only available in Israel, I first tasted this a while back at a wine tasting organized by the Israeli economic mission to the US. I emailed Avi-Ben from the tasting to request a number of bottles which I was lucky enough to secure and a subsequent tasting of this wine only served to validate my opinion of its deliciousness! The first time Petite Sirah released by the winery and, like literally everything else they make, it is a success. Characteristically powerful tannins wrapped around gobs of jammy black fruit including blueberries, blackberries and cassis, together with some cigar box notes make this a wine to contend with. However, all that power is wrapped in an elegant velvet covering 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.

Dalton, Petite Sirah, Estate, 2009: Dalton is rapidly on its way to challenging the Galil Mountain Winery for the best QPR wines. It’s producing some great wines in the Estate series and its first varietal release of a Petite Sirah is no exception. A very aromatic wine redolent of lavender with plenty of jammy fruits and black pepper on both the nose and palate. As opposed to some of the other Petite Sirah wines reviewed, this one was less characteristically true by being approachable out of the bottle with less robust tannins that were better integrated as well. A round and mouth-filling wine that is an YH Best Buy.

Carmel, Appellation, Petite Sirah, Judean Hills, 2007: The 2006 vintage of this wine won Decanter’s wine of the month last year and the 2007 is up to the challenge posited by its younger brother. While “old vines” means different things around the world, these Petite Sirah vines are over 30 years old and produce a well-concentrated and full-bodied wine. The raspberries, blackberries, cassis and plums on both the nose and palate are less jammy than in the other Petite Sirah wines I tried, and when combined with the spices, Mediterranean herbs and tobacco overlay, make for a very nice wine indeed. Another YH Best Buy.

Carmel Vintage, Fortified Petite Sirah, Judean Hills, 2007: 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 the Porto Cordovero wine, I often enjoy this wine with food as it pairs nicely with most sweet desserts.


Recanati, Reserve, Petit-Sirah/Zinfandel, 2006: This is probably the wine I drink the most often. It goes well with loads of foods, although it also drinks very nicely on its own, has a fair share of complexity but is very approachable for newbie wine drinkers and is enjoyed by almost everyone – and it’s an YH Best Buy to boot! The addition of the softer Zinfandel grape serves to “cut” the Petit Sirah, and helps soften the wine somewhat making it less tannic, resulting in a wine with almost sweet tasting tannins. Rich with a very fruity nose of blackberries, blueberries and cherries on a nice backdrop of an initial hint of dark chocolate and then minerals, a peppery overlay and touches of licorice, leading into a finish redolent of cinnamon and cloves.

Carmel, Mediterranean, 2007: Over the last couple of years, one of the hot topics of discussion in wine-geek circles has been methodologies for promoting the increasingly excellent Israeli wines beyond their current and natural “kosher” niche which I have discussed here and here. A prevailing trend is to promote these wines as being Mediterranean wines with a specific structure and terrior influence. I believe this was one of the driving forces behind this wine (evidenced to some extent by its name). The interesting blend of 37% Carignan, 26% Shiraz, 20% Petit Verdot, 15% Petite Sirah and 2% Viognier comes together very nicely. Loads of fruit on the first nose which settles down a little and allows the various flavors of the wood and fruits to meld into an interesting medley of plums, currants, blackberries, toasty oak and spices. A nice long finish rounds out this interesting and different wine.