Is Petite Sirah the Same as Syrah?

Question from Cheryl: Is Petite Sirah the same as Syrah?

Reply: Hi, Cheryl. Thanks for writing! They’re not the same, but they’re related. Dr. Carole Meredith, of UC Davis, used DNA comparison to determine that two varieties of southern France, the very ancient Syrah and a grape called Peloursin are the parents of Petite Sirah.  

Syrah is such an old variety that it may be that Julius Caesar enjoyed a goblet of Syrah, in his time, just as much as we do, today! Peloursin is almost unknown in California and isn’t considered a particularly distinguished variety in France. 

In the 1870s a man named Durif made this crossing with the hope that he’d have a mildew-resistant version of Syrah. Petite Sirah is still known as Durif in southern France. What he got was a variety that does have better mildew resistance, but also happens to be quite vulnerable to bunch rot. It’s a tight-clustered variety that really wasn’t well suited to the growing conditions there. 

However – in warm, dry climates, like ours here in northern California, it does quite well! It was introduced, here, in 1878.  

For a long time Petite Sirah has been viewed as a lesser step child of Syrah. It was used as a blender for any red that wanted more pigment and tannin. It’s gaining in popularity, almost by the day, and it even has its own fan club! Check to learn more about it. 

I’m starting to feel like a history teacher – let’s get to the good stuff: what to expect from these grapes. 

Syrah is famous for its deep, bold flavors, rich, black fruit and tremendous pigment. It can show lots of earth and spice, especially black pepper. It’s often smoky and may display an animal character that almost reminds you of meat. These last traits apply, in particular, to Syrah from its homeland in the Rhone region of France. The California and Aussie versions tend to show greater fruitiness and not much in the way of animal character. 

I think of Petite Sirah as Syrah on steroids – black, inky, tannic, hearty. The flavors can be quite similar but Petite Sirah seems,  perhaps, more rustic (in a good way!), where Syrah has more elegance. Both can be very long lived. All of this depends upon where/how it’s grown and how it’s handled in the cellar. 

It wouldn’t be right to talk about it without mentioning Shiraz, which is the Aussie name for Syrah. BTW, the Aussies are quite definite that you should say “Shi-RAZZ”, not “Shi-RAHZ”! Hope that helps! 

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