ROTA’s RAMBLINGS ON WINE: Che Syrah and Petite Sirah

A terrible blight (read mold) called Powdery Odium ravaged much of France in the mid 1800’s. By the time this disease was eradicated, the vines were weakened and set up for the next scourge which was even worse. It was a root louse called Phylloxera Vastatrix which wiped out almost all of the vineyards in Europe and greatly affected the New World. Hold this thought because this will constitute a future Ramblings.

Syrah is particularly prone to mold because the grape clusters are rather tight. By the time mold is manifest, it’s too late because it grew from the inside out. This prompted specialists to find a way to better ventilate the clusters by hybridizing.

 

Bear in mind that genetic engineering didn’t exist back then and hybridizing was a long trial-by-trial, exhausting task. Pollen had to be collected from the stamen of the trial plant with a small painter’s brush and applied to the sticky surface of the pistil of the host plant which is located just above that blossom’s ovary. When the cluster has been pollinated, a bag is placed over it to prevent any foreign pollen from getting involved. Then the fruit development and ripening pattern have to be analyzed and ultimately, a wine had to be made, analyzed and, of course, tasted. Try going through a hundred or so trials, keeping copious notes and records. It gives me the notion that nurserymen of that period didn’t live long lives.

It was Dr. Francois Duriff who successfully hybridized Syrah with a local (Rhone Valley) darling called the Peloursin. The new varietal was named Duriff after the good doctor and it goes by that name in Australia to this day. This combination produced smaller berries which allowed for better control of various molds. Smaller berries also accelerated the juice-to-skin ratio which extracted much more color and flavor from the skins, creating dense, intense, full bodied, huge (read brooding) wines. Early on, the wines were gritty, tannic monsters (so monstrous that bottles have been known to grow fur). Vintners soon learned to pick later rather than earlier and to press the skins gently, sending aggressive pressings to the distiller.

Soon, balanced, robust, rich, age-worthy wines were on shelves throughout France. Inevitably, this grape made it to Californian shores (circa 1915) and the “old timers” (like John Parducci) would plant Petite Sirah with other varietals to make Field Blends much like the Grenache vineyards in the South of France. A field blend is picking everything from that vineyard, keeping and fermenting it together and the field becomes the wine. Ultimately, Petite Sirah thrived in the dry, Mediterranean climate of California which is similar to that of Southern France.

The Name Game:
American marketers were searching for a name that would give the wine “shelf appeal” in the self service supermarket environment. They thought Duriff could not be associated with anything, much less wine. They grappled with Peloursin and thought not a chance. Finally, one bright, young “exec” thought smaller berries; why not Petite Sirah? As a final touch in relating to but separating from Syrah, they altered the spelling.

Here is an analogy that will help you. Would you see a movie starring Marion Morrison? What if that person was John Wayne??!! How about Bernie Schwartz? I’ll bet you would pay quickly to see that person as Tony Curtiss. It’s all about marketable, friendly names that can be easily associated with and related to.

The British Empire which ruled the seas and filled them with trade vessels was masterful in naming wines with difficult market appeal. Here are a few examples.

Bordeaux: This region had hundreds of Chateaus with French names – one harder to pronounce than the next, if you were not French. They simply dubbed the wines as a category called Claret (pronounced CLA- ret). By the way, they were instrumental in creating the famous Classified Growths of Bordeaux Vineyards in 1855.

Then, there is Germany with hundreds of vineyards equally hard to pronounce, if you are not German. The Brits called these wines along the Rhein and Mosel Rivers Hock Wines named after the town of Hochheim where that signature, slender Hock bottle was designed – green for Mosel and brown for Rhein (Rhine). To demonstrate confusion there are almost 200 villages along these rivers that end in heim.

Now the tongue twister for champions which again was rescued by British marketers: It was a region in the very dry part of Andalusia in southern Spain visited by the Greeks and called Xeres or Dry Land (witness Xerox or dry process). Later, it was invaded by the Moors and they called it Sherrisch. Finally, with the help of a Crusade, the locals reclaimed the land and called it Jerez de la Frontera (pronounced hay-RETH day lah fron-TER-ah). Who could possibly relate to that? So the Brits simply called the wines of the region Sherry and sub-classified the wines as Dry Sherry, Fino, Cream Sherry, etc. “Shall we ave a spoh a sheddeh”?

And, let’s never forget that the British classified and grouped all of those non-descript, average Country Wines or table wines as PLONK, which means the carafe was simply plonked on the table without comment, much less fanfare.

And, here’s a name that involved a Brit in the New World which will jog your memory every time you are in a supermarket produce section. Sir William Thompson came to California bringing with him two mating pairs of starlings for which we have never forgiven him. He also brought along some grapes that grew in England’s “Banana Belt” around Bath called Lady de Coverly which he planted along the San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley. A devastating flood occurred one year, as in those days the San Joaquin was a significant river. (Today, it’s merely a trickle.) Sir William was prompted to say: “Well that ends my grapegrowing.

A couple of years later, he returned to the flood scene and noticed wild grapes growing in profusion. He, naturally, tasted a berry and it was delicious WITH NO SEEDS….!!! It was a mutation initiated by the flood waters and it was called Thompson Seedless and Sir William became known as Seedless Thompson, albeit he sired 12 kids.

Back to Petite Sirah:

Here are the aroma/flavor profiles of this Rhone style varietal.

Fruit/Vegetable: Beetroot *** Blackberry *** Black Currant *** Black Raspberry
Wood: Chocolate *** Clove *** Mocha *** Toffee *** Vanilla
Other: Black Licorice *** Black Pepper

Marriages:

Meat: Here is a wine created for carnivores. From slow-cooked briskets, to smoked sausage to rich braises and stews. Charcoal grilled steaks or burgers. Boldly flavored meats are especially good like Mongolian barbecue, Mexican Mole or Beef Chili and Asado. Red meats with a sweet edge like Teriyaki or a barbecue sauce (in Pulled Pork) show especially well. And, don’t forget Mom’s Meatloaf.

Cheese: Surprisingly, Petite Sirah pairs with a wide range of cheeses and you can even bend the rule a bit by serving a mild blue veined cheese without causing a tannic collision with the salty cheese. The larger-than-life presentation of Petite Sirah and the perceived sweetness in its juicy fruitiness allows this marriage. So, without trepidation, serve a Camembert, Teleggio, Aged Cheddar, Liverot, Morbier or Chaumes.

Game: The assertiveness of game meats matches well with the boldness of Petite Sirah – perfect with venison, elk, boar and even moose.

Spice: Slightly spicy Asian dishes such as Garlic Beef or Tandoori Lamb Kabobs and most Southwestern fare.

Humble Foods: Burgers, hot dogs (Mustard based dishes), smoked meats, most sandwiches and just about any red meat with Ketchup on it.

Chocolate: A good wine to pair with 80% Cocoa Chocolate, if so inclined.

Divorces:

By itself: Like most powerhouse red wines, Petite Sirah begs to have a munchable companion. It’s no fun to drink this wine by itself or alone, for that matter.

With Fiery Hot Food: Remember alcohol only exacerbates capsaicin and/or the heat in spice. The combination could be memorable, but not in a good way.

With Delicate Food: The robust nature of this wine will simply overrun any shy flavors.

With Fish: The tannins inherent in this wine will give fish a metallic flavor.

When Old: When Petite Sirah is young it is flavor-packed and explosive. When aged, its prowess diminishes and it should be paired as one would with an older Syrah or Zinfandel.

(Once again, I owe a debt of gratitude to my favorite Sommelier Evan Goldstein and his second book Daring Pairing)

V. Sattui Petite Sirah:

This wine harkens from the fabled Rutherford Appellation as well as our certified organic Vittorio’s Vineyard adjacent to the winery.  Dark and deeply colored, it sports highly extracted flavors of blackberries and wild plums with underlying, enticing, barrel notes of vanilla, pepper and smoke.  Full bodied and muscular, the wine has abundant tannins but not those that grip your tonsils; so the wine is approachable now with a bottle promise of at least 10 years.  So lay it down with your gorgeous Cabernets with confidence.

A Thought to Embrace  

Looking forward, American marketers will always have their plates filled with foreign grape/wine names to Americanize and familiarize for a long time ahead. There are thousands of grapes and local, darling wines that are totally unknown a scant 100 miles from their source(s) and their magic is just waiting to be discovered. Consider a book just published listing Italy’s 624 local and indigenous grape varieties heretofore unknown, and you’ll get an idea of what excitement lies ahead for consumers and marketers alike. Maybe, God will grant me another 25 years of life to witness and record these new dimensions added to our wondrous world of wines. Of course, much depends on regularly (and moderately) taking my  medicines of the vine and you know I’ll be sharing my findings with you.

“A good name is like a precious ointment; it filleth all around about and will not easily away; for the aromas of ointments are more durable than flowers”

Francis Bacon 1561 – 1626

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