July Recap Quiz and Contest

Champagne GlassAs promised, here is our monthly quiz!

This month, our prize is a copy of the newly revised third edition of Exploring Wine, which just happens to be one of the books included one our newly released suggested CWE Reading List for those studying for the Certified Wine Educator Exam.  It’s a beautiful book!

Every month, we offer an end-of-the-month quiz (with prizes, of course) on the last day of the month. Quiz questions cover the educational material posted to Wine, Wit, and Wisdom for the month. This month’s quiz has 10 questions that cover the topics and information included in our posts for the month of July. Everything you need to know to pass the quiz is here on our blog!

To refresh your memory, our posts for the month of June were:

  • Neither Petite nor Syrah…Petite Sirah (July 3)
  • Lillet. Kina Lillet. (July 6)
  • Pineau des Charentes:  Extreme Fortification? (July 11)
  • Maraschinos and Manhattans (July 13)
  • Blood and Wine – Sangre and Sangria (July 17)
  • The Wine Formely Known as Tricastin (July 19)
  • The Cannons of Cape Town (July 22)
  • The (Confusion of the) Torrontés Family Tree (July 27)

Everyone who takes and passes the quiz with 100% of the questions correct by August 8, 2013 (midnight CST) will have their names put into a drawing for the prize! You can take the quiz over and over again if you like…it’s all about the education! The winner will be notified via email on August 9! Click here for a link to the quiz. If you have any questions, contact us at:  bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org .

The (Confusion of the) Torrontés Family Tree

Chenin Blanc GrapesTorrontés, a vinifera cross native to Argentina, is known for producing crisp, fruity, and floral wines redolent of peach, apricot, mandarin orange, honey, melon, and rose.  While Chile, Spain, and a few other countries grow grapes that go by the same name, Torrontés – actually several closely-related varieties –  is grown primarily in Argentina. Along with Malbec, it is considered one of the two “signature varieties” of the country.

A wine labeled “Torrontés” from Argentina may actually be made from three separate but related varieites.  Torrontés Riojano is the most widely grown, the most aromatic, and is considered to produce the highest quality wines.  Torrontés Mendocino, the least aromatic, is also the least widely grown; and Torrontés Sanjuanino takes the middle ground.

All three varieties of Argentine Torrontés are thought to be natural vinifera crossings involving Muscat of Alexandria that occurred on Argentine soil. As for the parentage of each, it gets a little tricky:  The leader of the pack, Torrontés Riojano, is known to be a crossing for Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica, otherwise known as the Mission grape. Torrontés Sanjuanino is a separate crossing of those two same grapes. Torrontés Mendocino is a mystery, thought to be a crossing of Muscat de Alexandria and an unknown variety.

Casa Rosada ArgentinaOf the versions of the grape grown in Argentina, Torrontés Riojano is by far the most widely grown and renowned. As the name suggests, it thrives in the La Rioja region, and is also widely planted in Mendoza and the Salta region of northern Argentina.  It seems to do particularly well in the arid, ultra-high altitude vineyards of Salta where the conditions allow the grape to retain a crisp acidity and develop the intense floral aromas the grape is known for.  Torrontés Sanjuanino is planted mainly in the San Juan province, but even there plays second fiddle to Torrontés Riojano.  Torrontés Mendocino, despite being named after Mendoza, is rarely seen there and is mostly found in the southern province of Rio Negro.

For many years it was thought (naturally, I think) that the Torrontés of Argentina was the same grape, known by the same name, grown in Galicia and other regions of Spain. It was thought that the grape was simply brought to the new world along with an influx of immigrants from Galicia into Argentina.  However, recent DNA evidence has shown there is no relation between the two grapes. The Torrontés of Galicia, grown mainly in the DO of Ribeiro, is now known to be identical to the Fernão Pires of Portugal.  It aslo appears that many different grape varieties go by the name “Torrontés” in Spain. To quote Jancis Robinson and her co-authors in Wine Grapes, “Confusion reigns supreme over Torrontés in the Iberian Peninsula.”

Crios TorrontesChile grows a good deal of Torrontés, sometimes under the synonym “Moscatel de Austria.”  There are varying reports of its exact provenance, with some publications claiming that most Chilean Torrontés is the Sanjuanino version and others that claim it to be Riojano. We do for certain that much of the Torrontés grown in Chile ends up distilled into Pisco.  Wines (and grapes) labeled as Torrontés in Chile may also actually be Torontel, a closely related but separate crossing of Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla. Tortontel-by its correct name- is grown in many regions in Chile.

In case you would like to be confused even more, there is also a red grape known as Torrontés, which also goes by the names Tarrantes and Turrundos. Perhaps that is a good topic for another day.  For now, I think I need a glass of Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés, Cafayate, 2012 (peach, melon, honeysuckle, tropical fruit, and most likely Torrontés Riojano) to calm my brain down.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your SWE Blog  Administrator – bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org

 

The Cannons of Cape Town

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

If you ever visit the wine regions of South Africa, and find yourself wandering around Cape Town at lunch time, be warned:  a cannon is about to go off! There’s no need to worry, but if you aren’t expecting the resounding boom, the sound of the Noon Gun may have you running for cover.

The Noon Gun has been fired in Cape Town at noon, every day except Sunday, since 1806.  The gun – two cannons, actually – is located just outside of the center of the city on Signal Hill. Signal guns have been a part of Cape Town since the Dutch settled here in 1652, and the two cannons on Signal Hill were part of the original artillery stashed at the Imhoff Battery at the Castle in Cape Town. In 1806, the two cannons were removed from the Battery and placed in town for use as signal guns.  After the loud retort from the cannons unnerved a few too many citizens, the cannons were move to Signal Hill, where they still stand.

The Noon Guns atop Signal Hill

The Noon Guns atop Signal Hill

The original signal cannons of Cape Town, 18-pounder, smoothbore muzzle-loaders, are still in use today. The ritual represents one of Cape Town’s oldest living traditions. They fire every day at 12 noon sharp, except Sundays and public holidays, and are maintained by the South African Navy. On Friday January 7, 2005, both the main gun and backup gun failed to fire owing to a technical difficulty. This was the first time in 200 years that the noon gun had not fired as scheduled.

The Noon gun was used as a time signal for the sailing ships in the harbor, to allow them to calibrate their navigational instruments and accurately calculate their location. However, their original use as a “signal gun” is much more interesting.

In the 1800’s, Cape Town was known as “The Tavern of the Seas,” as one of its main commercial functions was the provisioning of vessels making the long trip from Europe to India and the rest of the East. As the ships approached, the cannons atop signal hill were fired to let the farmers and the merchants know that provisions were needed.  A series of cannons, all set on hilltops, would relay the message far inland.

The Kanonkop Wine Estate

The Kanonkop Wine Estate

One such cannon was located on a farm called Kanonkop, Afrikaans for “Cannon Hill.”  Kanonkop, located in the “red wine bowl” of Stellenbosch, is now a well-known, fourth generation family wine estate producing highly regarded red and rosé wines.  The vineyards at Kanonkop are heavily planted to Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

The top-flight wine at the Kanonkop Wine Estate, Paul Sauer, is a Meritage blend named for one of the original owners.   Their widely distributed Cape Blend, Kanonkop Kadette, is produced as both a medium-bodied, crisp red wine and a dry, lively rosé.

The term Cape Blend can be used to denote any red wine produced in the Cape Winelands made with a minimum of 20% Pinotage, South Africa’s “native home” vinifera variety.  However, many winemakers think that Pinotage should a larger part of the blend, in homage to the unique characteristics of the region and the grape.  Kanonkop’s Kadette is 57% Pinotage, while the rosé version is 100% Pinotage.

For more information on Cape Blends: http://www.capeblend.co.za/news.aspx

The Wine Formerly Known as Tricastin

Rhone1973 was a very good year for the winemakers of the Côteaux du Tricastin.  The region, which sits on the eastern bank of the Rhône River, was approved as an AOC after nine years as a VDQS.  It’s a unique area, slightly at a crossroads, being the northernmost appellation of the southern Rhône, with vineyards sitting at a slightly higher elevation than elsewhere in the Rhône.

A year later, construction began on the Tricastin nuclear plant, just west of the Rhône, and within a few miles of the vineyards. In France, where three quarters of the electricity is generated via nuclear power, you are never far from a reactor. So, life went on, both nuclear and bucolic.

That is, until July 2008, when 4,755 gallons of Uranium solution were accidentally released in a “Level One International Nuclear Event.” That’s level one out of seven, on the Nuclear Reactorsmall side, so officially this event was labeled as an “anomaly” as opposed to an “accident” or even an “incident.” However, no one seems to like the thought of nuclear radiation near their food, wine, or water!

Needless to say, sales of Côteaux de Tricastin wines plummeted.  In a business where image is everything, the name “Tricastin” had become associated with a nuclear error, however small. Some producers reacted by printing the name of the appellation in teeny-tiny print, or even moving it to the back label.  Others brought in Geiger counters to prove the wine was not radioactive. Some even gave into EU incentives to dig up their vines and find a new profession.

Others began to look for a more permanent solution, and petitioned the INAO for a name change.  The INAO, defenders of terroir that they are, do not take name changes lightly. However, in this case, a change was allowed and as of the 2010 vintage, Côteaux du Tricastin is now officially known as the Grignan-Les Adhemar AOC.

Château de Grignan

Château de Grignan

The new name refers to Grignan, the main village of the region, which comes complete with an elegant Château and ties to both nobility (the dashing Count of  Grignan was a member of the noble Adhemar family) and French literature (the 17th-century letters of the Marquise of Sévigné were addressed to an inhabitant of the Château). The vignerons of the region thought this was a nicer association than glow-in-the-dark wine.

Along with the name change, tougher standards for the wines of the region were enacted, which include lower permitted yields, restrictions on herbicides, and minimum percentages for the highest quality grapes.

Red wines of the Grignan-Les Adhemar AOC are made from Syrah and Grenache, with Carignan, Mouvèdre, and Cinsaut permitted up to levels of 15% each, as long as their combined total does not exceed 30%. Whites are a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussane, and Viognier; with no single variety allowed to exceed 60% of the final blend.

The name change of the Côteaux de Tricastin to Grignan-Les-Adhemar is one of the many wine-world updates you can find in SWE’s new, improved, and updated CSW Study Guide, to be released in September 2013.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CWE – your SWE Blog Administration bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org

Blood and Wine…Sangre and Sangria

SangriaSomewhere near the very beginning of every wine class, an eager student asks about Sangria.  They seem to think it is a type of wine, most likely because they have seen bottles of it alongside the wine selection at their local supermarket.

Now, before I go any further, let me assure you: I love Sangria. I’ve served many a punch bowl of it, and often order it a restaurant where the wine-by-the-glass selection looks otherwise questionable.

However, I want to get the point across to my students and fast…Sangria is not a type of wine, despite the bottles you see at the grocery store.  While we’re at it, I remind them that a Mimosa is not wine and a Kalimotxo is not wine.  What all three are, however, are popular cocktails, and in the case of Sangria, a type of punch made out of wine. The tradition of making punch from wine, such as Claret punch in Bordeaux and Gluhwein in Germany, is widespread.

Sangria actually has an interesting history, as should be expected for a drink whose name is based on “Sangre,” the Spanish word for “blood.”  If we go back to 200 BC, we arrive at the days when the Romans were conquering the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans, of course, brought their tradition of wine and viticulture everywhere they went, and planted some of the first vineyards in Spain.

The locals, looking for refreshment, made fruit-infused, watered-down drinks from the hefty red wines of the region. We know that the tradition of wine consumption at the time was to dilute wine with water, so this makes sense. One theory states that the drink was simply called “sangria” after the color of blood.

Another theory on the name Sangria is based on the “four humors,” or bodily fluids (blood and three others too gross to mention). In the days of Ancient Rome, it was thought that varying levels of the four humors were present in a person based on their diet and activity. Personality characteristics and temperament were also based on humors.  A person who aligned with the blood humor was said to be sanguine and considered to be courageous, hopeful and amorous.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see how these traits can also be the result of daily dose of wine punch!

Sangria and TapasAt the 1964 World’s Fair, held in New York, the Spanish “world area” served its traditional fruity red wine punch to the crowds, and the people loved it! Sangria became popular in the United States, and started its inevitable march towards American commercialization and bottles of Arbor Mist Zinfandel “Sangria” in the ensuing years.

In case you are now dying to try a glass of refreshing Sangria, or think it would be a hit at your next Tapas or Paella party, here’s my recipe.  From what my fuzzy memory can recall, this recipe grew out of a version that I copied down from a library copy of Time Life’s “Food of the World – Spain” book back in the 1980’s. I’ve revised it constantly over the years so that it doesn’t much resemble that original, but I would love to see the original, if anyone still has a copy of those books!

Sanguine Sangria:

  • 1 Bottle Red Rioja Crianza Wine (sure, you can substitute any red wine, or even white wine, but we are trying to keep it real here)
  • ½ Cup Spanish Brandy (again with the keeping it real)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 orange, seeded and cut into thin rounds
  • 2 lemons, seeded and cut into thin rounds
  • 1 red apple, cored and cut into thin slices
  • 1 bottle (750 ml) sparkling water

Method:

  • Place the prepared fruit, sugar, and brandy in the bottom of a large pitcher or other container.  Stir around a bit until well mixed, and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour.  If you need to prepare ahead, you can do this step the night before, and leave it in the refrigerator overnight.
  • When ready to serve, add the wine and stir well.  Add the sparkling water and give another stir.
  • Serve over ice in a tumbler or wine glass.  Make sure everyone gets a few pieces of fruit.

Be careful with this…its goes down easily and is thirst-quenchingly refreshing.  However…it packs a punch.  You’d best know what you are doing.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your SWE Blog Administrator…bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org

 

Maraschinos and Manhattans

Scary red-glowing neon orb.

Scary red-glowing neon orb.

You can’t have a real Manhattan without a Maraschino Cherry. Or a true Rob Roy or an Old-Fashioned. It’s a given, a well-stocked bar needs to be stocked with Maraschino Cherries.

But have you ever wondered how they make them?  Just how do they turn those lovely, crimson-red barrels of healthy, fresh-fleshed fruit into those screaming neon balls of red? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but they bleach the cherries in a solution of calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide until they turn yellow, and then they marinate them in a vat of high fructose syrup and Red Dye #4 for over a month, until they turn clown-red.

It wasn’t always this way.  Back in the “good old days,” Maraschino cherries are a treat brought to us via the Dalamatian Coast of Croatia, where fresh, local marasca cherries were marinated in Maraschino Liqueur, which was distilled from the same type of cherries.  They made a tasty (and alcoholic) treat.

cherriesThe cherries were a popular treat in America right up until prohibition…when they were no longer legal.  At this point, good old American ingenuity took over and Professor Ernest H. Wiegand of Oregon State University spent six years perfecting the art of making ”maraschino” cherries with Oregon’s Queen Anne cherries and without the Maraschino Liqueur. The result, many years later, is the following FDA definition of what a Maraschino cherry can be:  “Cherries which have been dyed red, impregnated with sugar and packed in a sugar syrup flavored with oil of bitter almonds or a similar flavor.” If you want your cherries brilliant blue or ghastly green, they must be called “cocktail cherries.”

If you don’t care for bits of sulfur dioxide or Red dye #4 in your craft cocktail, why not try making your own marinated cherries?  The original recipe, according to the Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur website is also the simplest:  take cherries and marinate them in an equal amount of Maraschino Liqueur.  Let them sit in the refrigerator about two weeks and indulge.

I’ve also been experimenting with a more complicated series of cherry recipes, and have come up with what just might be the ultimate Manhattan cocktail cherry.  Try it yourself, and see if you agree!

Manhattan-Marinated Cocktail Cherries

  • cherries real1 pound fresh cherries – wash, but do not pit or de-stem.  They are so much more interesting that way.
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup Bourbon
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 fresh vanilla bean

Method:

  • Bring the sugar and water to a boil on the stovetop. There’s a lot of sugar in there so be careful not to let it burn.  As soon as it begins to boil, turn the heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes.
  • Break the cinnamon stick into a few pieces.  Slicke the vanilla bean down the center and place both in the bottom of a large glass or metal bowl.  Place the cherries on top.
  • Mix the Bourbon in with the still-warm sugar syrup and pour over the cherries and all in the bowl.  Use a plastic spatula to stir them up a bit, and then let cool.
  • When cool, place in a sealed plastic container or glass jar and refrigerate. Try to contain yourself until at least the next day. Great for snacking, Rob Roys, Old Fashioneds, and of course the following recipe for a Manhattan.

manhattan cocktailThe Manhattan Cocktail

  • 1 ½ ounces Bourbon
  • ¾ ounce sweet vermouth
  • A dash of bitters
  • A maraschino cherry (see above, if you know what’s good.)

Method:

  • Fill a mixing glass one-half full of ice.
  • Add the Bourbon and vermouth.
  • Using a metal tin, seal your mixing glass and shake for 15 to 20 seconds.
  • Strain into a cocktail glass. Give it a dash of bitters and garnish with a Maraschino cherry. Enjoy!

Manhattan recipe from SWE’s Certified Specialist of Spirits Study Guide

The Luxardo Maraschino Website: http://www.luxardo.it/liqueurs/maraschino.htm

Posted by Jane A. Nickles, CWE….your SWE Blog Adminstrator bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org

Pineau de Charentes…Extreme Fortification?

Vieux Pineau“Fortified Wine Day” in my professional wine studies class is one of my favorite classes to teach.  The incredible array of colors, aromas, and flavors offered by fortified wines amazes the students, and the rich histories of Port, Madeira, and Sherry are full of tales ripe for the telling.

It’s a favorite day for the students as well, although that could be due to the 20% alcohol content of some of the wines.

Yesterday, after tasting Ruby Port, one of my students asked, “dude, what would happen if you just added brandy to grape juice…would it be like extreme fortification?” At least that’s what I think he said.

It’s a good question, albeit in need of some editing. What if we asked it question a bit more properly, as in: “What would happen if a winemaker added grape spirits to wine must, before it even begins to ferment?”

The answer would be “Vin de Liqueur!” Vin de Liqueur is a unique type of fortified wine that is fortified just before or just after fermentation begins, creating a strong, sweet liquid.  Vin de Liqueur is very close in style to Vin Doux Naturel; the main difference being that Vin Doux Naturel is allowed to ferment until the residual sugar reaches around 10%.

Vins de Liqueur are made in many places throughout Europe. They are often referred to as “Mistelle” or “Mistela,” and the style has been copied in the new world as well.  The Italians make good use of the technique, producing a blend of unfermented grape juice and brandy called “Sifone” that is often used, in turn, as a sweetening agent in Marsala.

CharentesThe most famous French Vin de Liqueur is Pineau des Charentes, made in the départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime in Southwestern France.  The region of origin is technically the same as the region of origin for Cognac.  Pineau de Charentes is produced by combining Cognac with freshly pressed grape juice, in a ratio of approximately one part Cognac to three parts must.  The Cognac must be at least one year old, and the mixture is aged for at least 18 months in oak.

Two older varieties are also made, including Vieux Pineau, which is at least 5 years old, and Tres Vieux Pineau, (“Very Old Pineau,” if my high school French hasn’t failed me), which is at least 10 years old. These older versions are rich, complex works of art as compared to the fruity, floral, and crisply acidic young version.

Many of the large Cognac houses make Pineau, and there are several small, artisan producers that focus on Pineau exclusively.  The Cognac house of Normandin-Mercier makes several versions, including white, rosé and “Tres Vieux.”  Almost 90% of the Pineau de Charentes that is produced is consumed locally, with another large percentage going to Belgium.  However, it is available in the United States and seems to have been discovered by the “Craft Cocktail Movement,” so it should be easy to find…just ask your local celebrity mixologist.

Cognac and Pineau de CharentesAs with many fortified wines, Pineau de Charentes has a good back story. This one tells of a wine and brandy making Monk who, in 1589, filled a barrel with freshly pressed grape must, not knowing that the barrel was already partially full of aging Cognac.  Five years later, a bumper crop had him emptying out a series of barrels to use for new wine, and he discovered what he had done five years earlier.  By this time, of course, his Cognac and grape juice “mistake” had evolved into a rich, thick, sweet liquid…and, as they say, the rest is history.

Pineau de Charentes from Nonmandin-Mercier:  http://cognacnm.fr/products-page/pineau-des-charentes/pineau-des-charentes-tres-vieux-blanc-75-cl-17-vol

 

 

 

 

 

Lillet. Kina Lillet.

Vespter MartiniFrom the book Casino Royale (Chapter 7), by Ian Fleming:

“A dry martini,” (Bond) said. “One.  In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

A few chapters later, Bond names the drink the Vesper Martini, in honor of Vesper Lynd, a Special Agent at M-16, who of course turns into a love interest, at least until it is revealed that she is a double agent.

While James Bond, double-agents, and strong cocktails might seem to be the key points of this story, as a true student of spirits, I am even more intrigued by the mention of Kina Lillet…so I decided to do a bit of detective work myself.

Lillet BlancLillet is a French aperitif that has been produced since 1872 in the town of Podensac, France, just south of Bordeaux. Lillet is based on Bordeaux wine that has been both aromatized (flavored with herbs) and fortified (strengthened with distilled spirits).  Lillet is made with the typical grape varieties of the region: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle for the Blanc; Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for the Rouge and Rosé.

Lillet is approximately 85% wine, sweetened and fortified with various citrus liqueurs, flavored with orange peel, and aged in French oak barrels. Lillet also includes Cinchona bark from Peru, the “secret ingredient” that contains quinine, as is used in tonic water, thus making Lillet a “cousin” of Vermouth and technically an aperitif known as a quinquina.  Lillet actually contains very little quinine, and no other botanical flavorings besides citrus fruit, making it one of the mildest quinquinas in terms of both botanicals and flavor. Other brands of quinquina include Dubonnet, Cocchi Americano, and St. Raphaël.

The original Lillet, once known as Kina Lillet, was re-formulated in 1986 to make it a bit less bitter and a bit less sweet, is now known as “Lillet Blanc.” Lillet Blanc is a light, refreshing, fruity drink that is crisp, sweet, and somewhat floral. Lillet Blanc is popular as an aperitif in France, served chilled or on ice with a garnish of lemon, lime or orange.

Maison du Lillet now produces four versions of its product, including Lillet Blanc. Lillet Rouge, released in 1962, might remind you of the sweet, fruity red wine flavors of James BondLambrusco.  Lillet Rosé, released in 2012, has a grapefruit-edged bitterness and is the sweetest of the four products. Reserve Jean De Lillet 2009, vintage-dated and based on Sauternes, is the newest (and most expensive) product, released in 2013.

Aspiring mixologists who want to make an authentic Vesper Martini may want to use Cocchi Americano instead of Lillet Blanc in the recipe, as purists insist that Cocchi Americano is closer in taste and flavor to the original Kina Lillet, being stronger in quinine and therefore more bitter than today’s version of Lillet Blanc.  After all, you wouldn’t want to disappoint Mr. Bond.

Maison du Lillet – http://www.lillet.com/

 

Neither Petite nor Syrah…Petite Sirah

Petite SirahZinfandel and Malbec, take a seat…the big dog has arrived.  I hold in my hand a glass of Michael-David Vineyards “Earthquake” Petite Sirah.  This wine looks like red crude oil, weighs as much as a linebacker, blasts flavors like a blow torch and leaves some cotton on the roof of your mouth.  Despite the name, there is nothing petite about Petite Sirah. It’s not a small version of the grape known as Syrah.  And, for the record, the “i” in “Sirah” isn’t a typo – but if you spell it with a “y” that’s ok as well.

So, if Petite Sirah is not petite and not syrah, what is it?  The grape is one of those vinous mysteries, solved CSI-style with the miracle of modern DNA testing in the U.C. Davis laboratory of Dr. Carole Meredith.

What we call Petite Sirah, it turns out, is a very old variety born and bred in the 1870’s by a French Nurseryman named Dr. Francois Durif.  It seems that the good doctor wanted to create a grape that had the flavor components of Syrah and the resistance to powdery PS on the vinemildew of a grape known as Peloursin. He crossed Peloursin and Syrah and named the resulting grape, like any proud father, after himself.  Durif became a minor success, was planted in quite a few vineyards, and was used as a blending grape in Rhône Reds.  But, alas, Durif never really became a major French variety as it failed to produce high-quality, distinguished wines in the South of France.

Durif migrated to the United  States in the 1890’s, where it fared somewhat better.  Durif thrived in the California sun, was easy to grow, and produced a high yield of  four to eight tons per acre in the Sierra Foothills and Central Valley of California.  In those days, Durif was a major player in the red blends of the Golden State.  If we could go back in time to the days of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, we’d be able to detect a bit of the deep, dark red fruit and dusty cinnamon flavors of Petite Sirah in there…maybe even dominating the blend.

However, in the early days of California wine making, many vineyards were field blends – a variety of grapes grown together in one vineyard with little regard to varietal pedigree and the name “Durif” got lost along the way, much like what happened to Carmenère in Chile.  Later, when someone needed a name for the variety, the grape was named “Petite Sirah.” We can only assume this was due to its Syrah-like flavor and the small size of the grape – the only possible explanation for the moniker “petite”.

Those small grapes grow in big clusters with very thick skins and high tannins.  A good Petite Sirah has a deep red color, a hefty, somewhat “rustic” feel and substantial but ripe Earthquake Petite Sirahtannins. Walk carefully around this wine…it can pack quite an alcoholic punch, sometimes reaching as high as 15%.  In the bottom of the glass you will find rich fruity aromas including of sweet plum, blackberry, cherry, currant and cassis.  Take a sip and you’ll notice the rich fruit flavors…I think this wine defines the term “jammy”. Go ahead and take another sip…look for the flavors of black licorice, chocolate, coffee, black pepper, vanilla, and cedar.  This wine can be quite complex…you might also find aromas and flavors of herbs, violets, brown sugar, orange peel, clove, and cinnamon.  It’s got a lot going on.

Petite Sirah is still grown in France, although like many a local celebrity, it was never much appreciated in its home town.  Australia has a few vines, as well as Argentina, Chile, Israel, and recently, Washington State. The one region to really take to Petite Sirah is California.  The grape is grown throughout California and does particularly well in the warmer regions of the Golden State such as the Sierra Foothills and Lodi, where, in the words of the back label of Earthquake Petite Sirah, it makes a wine that is “over the top and shattering to the veins!”  I couldn’t agree more.