Tasting Petite Sirah, California's Little Big Wine

It was born in 1880, and four years later came to California. But for another 80, almost nobody knew it.

Petite Sirah is one of California's historical vines and among the earliest varieties introduced to the state, but for decades it languished as an anonymous blending wine. Blame the color, a Dracula-dark, rug-ruining reddish burgundy-blue, which also made it an excellent addition to other reds in need of a stiff body-boost. Still, no winemaker dared stamp “Petite Sirah” on a bottle label.

Then in 1961, Jim Concannon, winemaker at his family's namesake vineyard in Livermore, set aside a small portion of that year's Petite Sirah, previously used only for blending into Concannon's other reds. The wine matured and showed promise as a varietal release. In 1964, the Concannons deemed it ready and able. They stamped the label with the grape's name, a reference to its small berry size, plus a misspelled rendering of one of the variety's parent grapes. The first-ever vintage bottling of a Petite Sirah had arrived.

With the Concannon release, Petite Sirah (still called Durif in France after the Montpellier breeder who created it) underwent a revolution, from blending grape to tasting-room draw. The variety would become Concannon's signature wine, while beyond the Livermore Valley Petite Sirah was suddenly fashionable. Winemakers took a second look at their Petite vines and, one by one began bottling the wine unblended. Petite Sirah's growth has accelerated in recent years. In 2001, 65 California wineries released one; in 2010, the number surged to 723. More will surely join the movement this year, as the trendiness of this reddest of red wines shows no sign of cooling.

To taste dozens of Petites at a go, visit the Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda on Feb. 18 for the annual Dark and Delicious Petite Sirah food-and-wine tasting event.

Unwilling to wait? We were. SFoodie recently gathered up a panel of eight tasters to evaluate five Petite Sirahs.

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