Eric Cullen, a wine tasting room crew member in Sonoma, California, says this is one of the most often questions he is asked. Here, his answer, which we’ve abbreviated. For the whole story, go to SonomaPicnic.com.
“Syrah” and “Petite Sirah” are two completely different grapes. Both grapes make big, rich red wines, and both are considered Rhône varietals, but that’s where their similarity ends. These two names, because of the common name “Syrah,” have unsurprisingly been the source of confusion. Add to the fact that many producers label their Petite Sirah “Petite Syrah,” and that the Australians’ Syrah is called “Shiraz,” and it’s a wonder anyone can find the wine they really want.
Petite Sirah has a long and important history in California. It was brought to the state in the late 1870s [and] was used to give color and tannin to jug wines. It was a favorite grape among home winemakers and by 1900, The Italian immigrants of Sonoma County and other parts of the state used Petite Sirah extensively in what is known as a “field blend”: a vineyard planted with many grape varieties side by side, from which the fruit was harvested, crushed and fermented simultaneously.
In contrast to Petite Sirah’s rustic status, Syrah is the noble red grape of the Rhône Valley. It has been used for centuries in the northern Rhône for the full-bodied wines Hermitage and Cornas, and in the southern Rhône for Cotes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape blends. The grape was brought to California in 1878, but the few plantings were completely gone by 1890 due to phylloxera, a devastating root louse which has destroyed countless vineyards.
Syrah re-emerged in California in 1959, when Christian Brothers of Napa planted four acres as an experiment. Joseph Phelps of Napa was the first to recognize the similarities in climate between California and the Rhône Valley, and in 1974 he produced the first 100-percent bottling of Syrah in California. From Phelps’ first bottling through the 1980’s, Syrah’s allure remained unexplored by drinkers in the U.S. until the early 1990’s, when drinkers began looking for alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Syrah is possibly California’s fastest proliferating varietal. In 1982, there were only about 87 acres planted. By 1995 there were 1300 acres planted. Today there are over 7000 acres. Still, California’s total acreage of Syrah is tiny compared to the 32,500 acres in France and 17,500 in Australia.
Syrah’s color is dark purple; an “inky Syrah” is a common description evoking its bold nature. Syrah fits the bill as an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon due to its sophistication without excessive tannins; however, like cabernet, 100-percent Syrah demands aging. The wine takes on a silky mouth-feel and loses tannins as it matures in the bottle. Winemakers typically recommend between four and ten years of bottling age for 100-percent Syrah.
Plum and blackberry fruit, smoke and leather, and pepper and spice characterize the flavors and aromas of a Syrah. This wine pairs well with any of the foods with which you would pair a big red wine.