Years ago I was at a big Midwestern wine judging, and, being a rookie then, I had to pay my dues by judging a few rounds in the division for winemaking amateurs.
The panel leaders had one request: “Be honest with your scores, but also try to find something good to say about each wine, so you don’t discourage the home winemakers.”
That came home to roost when we judged the petite sirahs. In unskilled hands, those wines could be inky black, super tannic, peppery acid bombs, and it was a real strain to come up with those kind words.
Even in more experienced hands, petite sirahs in that era were peppery and hard to drink when young, needing more than 10 years to soften. They were used mostly for blending, to add backbone to softer red wines.
How things have changed. Today growers have figured out how to tame petite sirah. They plant it in better soils, let it ripen longer before picking. They’re turning out wines that, while still sturdy, are also hearty, smooth and drinkable, with flavors of boysenberries, black raspberries, licorice, brown sugar and even bacon.
And they’re still popular for blending with softer red wines for that extra punch.
Petite sirah can be a puzzling grape. It’s often confused with syrah, the heady, full-bodied grape of France’s Rhone wines. It is in fact a grape called “durif” in France — a cross between syrah and another French grape called peloursin.
Being bold itself, it goes well with bold foods — beef roasts, pork chops, wild game, roast goose and sharp cheeses.
It fits nicely with my never-ending quest urging readers to broaden their palates by trying new wines. Bon appetite!
▪ 2012 Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis Estate Petite Sirah, Stags’ Leap District, Calif. (85 percent petite sirah, 15 percent other varietals): deep dark hue, aromas of violets and other flowers, flavors of black raspberries, black pepper and anise, full body, big, ripe tannins, long finish; $90.
▪ 2013 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Calif. (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah): hint of oak, dark hue, aromas and flavors of black plums, black raspberries and spice, hearty and full-bodied, big, ripe tannins; $20.
▪ 2014 Apothic “Dark,” red wine (petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, teroldego): dark hue, aromas and flavors of black cherries, black coffee and dark chocolate, full body, sturdy tannins; $14.
▪ 2013 Cupcake Vineyards “Black Forest” red wine (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, zinfandel, petit verdot, petite sirah): dark purple hue, floral aromas, big flavors of blackberries, espresso and spice, big, ripe tannins; $11.
▪ 2012 Clayhouse Estate “Show Pony” Petite Sirah, Red Cedar Vineyard, Paso Robles, Calif. (100 percent petite sirah): deep dark hue, aromas and flavors of blackberries, black pepper and spice, full-bodied and hearty; $40.
▪ 2014 McManis Family Vineyards Petite Sirah: inky hue, aromas and flavors of black plums and black pepper, full body, long finish; $11.