Wine Talk: La Grande Petite

The Petite Sirah grape variety is a variety that has had a welcome makeover in the 2000s and it is producing some fantastic wines.

grape vine 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
grape vine 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Petite Sirah grape variety was a new immigrant to Israel in the 1970s, but was initially used as a blender in simple wines to provide color and structure.
However, it has recently undergone a quality revival, not unlike the Carignan I wrote about a few months ago.
The change in Petite Sirah’s fortunes began when boutique winery owner Yair Margalit insisted in using 15% Petite Sirah in his rare Special Reserve. He insisted that this addition, to 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, was what made the wine “special.”
Then two boutique wineries began to make Petite Sirah varietal wines. They were the Sea Horse Winery at Bar Giora in the Judean Hills, and Vitkin Winery, at Kfar Vitkin in the Sharon Plain. Both wineries decided to specialize in more unusual varieties.
The pioneering larger winery, which decided to rejuvenate the variety, was Carmel. A large proportion of the Petite Sirah vineyards in the country were theirs, but had previously been used for entry level blends. However the winery chose a 40-year-old vineyard in the Judean Hills, with thick-trunked, low bush vines, almost on the ground, and drastically reduced yields. The results were that the unfashionable Petite Sirah was found to produce wonderful wines, which were totally original.
International recognition followed. The Appellation Petite Sirah 2005 was awarded four stars by wine critic Stephen Brook in Decanter magazine. Last year the Appellation Petite Sirah 2006 was awarded Wine of the Month by the same magazine.
Now wineries such as Chillag, Dalton, Ella Valley, Tabor and Tishbi have all began to produce good wines from this variety, and Avidan and Recanati have excellent blends, in which the Petite Sirah is the dominant variety.
Despite its name, until the late 1990s, Petite Sirah (sometimes spelled Petite Syrah) was thought to have nothing to do with the more noble variety Syrah. It was first known as the Durif variety, in southeastern France, because it was propagated by a Dr. Durif.
However, in 1997 its parents were identified by the University of California at Davis as Peloursin and… Syrah! As it started life in a Mediterranean climate, it is no surprise that this variety is extremely well suited to Israel’s eastern Mediterranean climate.
It never caught on in France, but Petite Sirah has a growing following in California, and it also grows well in Australia.
Petite Sirah produces very dark, inky wines, with black fruit and a tantalizing aroma of violets, with a backdrop of black pepper. The wines are tannic, with a plummy, meaty flavor. The wines are usually full-bodied and suitable for the largest steak or a selection of grilled meats. Petite Sirah is a wine for carnivores.
Experts from abroad are more interested in tasting an old-vine Petite Sirah or Carignan, rather than yet another Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. If Israel is looking for regional identity, then Petite Sirah is a wine that is reasonably unusual, the variety is perfect for our climate and the wines produced are original with strong regional character.
There is no reason why Israel should not become known for its Petite Sirah. The country may not produce the finest wines, but they are certainly amongst the most interesting.
For the Israeli wine drinker they provide a welcome alternative.

Some of the best Petite Sirahs in Israel are listed below.

Dalton Estate Petite Sirah 2009
A very deep-colored red wine, with an aroma of violets. Very concentrated, with balanced aromatic oaky flavors and a long finish. Great value.
Carmel Appellation Petite Sirah Old Vines 2007
Almost black in color, with a delicate hint of violets. Very full bodied, with an earthy animal character. Shows the alternative style provided by this variety.
Recanati Special Reserve Petite Sirah Zinfandel 2007
This blend is included because the Petite Sirah is dominant. The wine is fruity, with good balancing acidity and soft tannins. A refreshing, flavorful wine.
Vitkin Petite Sirah 2007
Quite a big wine. Blackberry and blueberry aroma with hints of bitter chocolate and mocca. Firm and concentrated.
Tabor Adama II Petite Sirah 2009
 Deep-colored red wine with a black fruit and peppery aroma. Produced by Tabor Winery in the Lower Galilee.
Tishbi Estate Petite Sirah 2007
Dark horse from Tishbi Winery. The wine is deep with a concentrated sweetness of fruit that is attractive.
Sea Horse Munch 2008 (Not kosher)
Wines from this winery are always individual, interesting and challenging. Rare wine, limited production.
Chillag Petite Sirah 2006 (Not kosher)
Rare Petite Sirah produced by Chillag Winery. Very heavily oaked wine, aged for 24 months in barrel.
Ella Valley Vineyards Petite Sirah 2007
Very firm, concentrated wine. Chewy, full bodied. Needs a big steak. Impressive wine.
 Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about Israeli wine for both international and Israeli publications. [email protected]