Think Syrah and Petite Syrah

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE,  – September 15, 2004

Barbecue is nonnegotiable. It’s not that negotiating your way through a plate of it is challenging, exactly (don’t even try using anything but your fingers with the sensational blackberry-sauced ribs). No, what’s nonnegotiable about it is its obstinate deliciousness. Barbecue absolutely cannot be resisted. Wise diners simply surrender.

This leaves only one practical issue to resolve: What wine should you drink with barbecue? For me, the answer is as straightforward, lip smacking, and deeply satisfying as barbecue itself: Syrah and Petite Syrah.

Yes, I know, that’s two answers, not one. But Syrah and Petite Syrah are connected, not only by similar, sensuous flavors, but also by history and, frankly, by the fact that most of us have never quite known how they are different anyway.

Syrah is a grape indigenous to France’s Rhône Valley. From there it was transported to South Africa, Australia (where it was inexplicably rechristened Shiraz), and finally the United States, probably in the 1880s, sometimes under the name Petite Syrah (though now Petite Syrah is a different variety). At the rate Syrah is being planted in California today, it is destined to become the state’s next major red grape in terms of quantity. However, because of the sheer number of brand-new Syrahs on the market, the style and quality of the wines vary widely. At its best, Syrah is earthy, powerful, and full of berry flavors.

What we now call Petite Syrah (or Petite Sirah; both spellings are common) has a murkier story. It has also been grown in California since the 1880s, or before, according to professor Carole Meredith of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. In the early days, some of these vines were probably a type of Syrah that had small grapes. (All things being equal, winemakers prefer small grapes for their high ratio of skin to juice. Because color, flavor, and tannin come primarily from the grape skins, small grapes yield the most concentrated and flavorful wines.)

Over the course of many decades, however, different varieties were mixed in vineyards with these “petite Syrah” vines, creating what are known as field blends. As other varieties were interplanted with Petite Syrah, and as new vineyards were started with unidentified cuttings from older vineyards, the true identity of Petite Syrah grew more and more obscure.

Then in the 1990s, Meredith and her colleagues began groundbreaking work profiling the DNA of grapevines. For the first time, this allowed us to really understand what had been in our wineglasses all those years. And what did they find when they “fingerprinted” many of California’s Petite Syrah vines? They generally fit into one of three categories: a field blend of many varieties, including Syrah, Carignane, Zinfandel, Barbera, and Grenache; Peloursin, an ancient Rhône grape; or Durif, a cross of Peloursin and Syrah developed in France in the 1880s. Most are in fact Durif, a grape that is all but extinct in France today.

Alas, none of this information shows up on wine labels, but maybe that just adds mystery to the wine, giving it cultlike appeal. What is clear is that Petite Syrah ― like Syrah ― is massive, rich, rustic, and saturated with chocolate and berry flavors. Which is a good thing, all in all, because you can’t sip something petite with barbecue. And Petite Syrah is anything but little.

Sunset’s Wine Club

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