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Petite More

Why is a one-time blending grape now a varietal darling?

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Petite Sirah first made an impression on me as a grape, not as a finished wine. This was back when I had a harvest gig sampling grape-sugar content for a big Zinfandel producer in the old-school vineyards of Mendocino County. If you wanted to buy Zinfandel from those old growers, you had to agree to buy their "Pets" as well.

What impressed me about Petite Sirah was its total lack of charm as a fresh eating grape. Individual Zinfandel berries, as they near ripeness, make for tasty morning snacks when you've skipped breakfast and driven 60 miles to start the day. With Pets, you have to scoop into tight, crunchy bunches of mean, watery juice. Its tannin-rich skin is the key to the grape's longstanding reputation in California.

Petite Sirah was created in 1880 by a French nurseryman, dude by the name of Durif—which is also a recognized name for the variety. A cross of Syrah with Peloursin, it was promptly imported to California, where it became a mainstay of field blends with Zinfandel and Carignane.

Priest Ranch 2011 Somerston Estate Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($40) My favorite of a recent tasting, this wine integrates a sweet sensation of blackberry juice with furry, tongue-coating tannins a little more pleasurably than the others.★★★½

Carol Shelton 2012 Florence Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Petite Sirah ($40) Vaguely fruity aromas of grape jelly lurk beneath stone and rusty iron—maybe smokehouse almonds and a hint of oaky bourbon, too. A tart line of acidity runs through it; like drinking blackberry wine out of an iron flask.★★★

Collier Falls 2011 Hillside Estate Dry Creek Valley Petite Sirah ($40) Calling up aromas of blackberry cobbler and rye bread with caraway, this feels as heavily pigmented on the tongue as it looks on the glass, but the tannins are pretty harmless.★★★

Frank Family 2012 Napa Valley Petite Sirah ($35) Savory marjoram aroma, with plum and apricot fruit leading to a long but fairly drying finish—even the winery's tasting notes agree about that finish.★★★

Carol Shelton 2012 Rockpile Vineyard Petite Sirah ($40) With heavily toasted oak and a deep, rich purple color, this just might be the kind of Petite Sirah said to blossom after a good stay in the cellar.★★★

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