By Sharon Kapnick
Celebrates 50 Years of Varietally Labeled Petite Sirah
There are many reasons to be impressed by Concannon Vineyard, for it claims a long history of firsts: It’s the oldest family-operated winery in the country, with its first harvest in 1883. It’s situated in Livermore, one of California’s first wine regions, on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area. It was the first successful winery founded by an Irish immigrant. And it was among the first to make Bordeaux-style wines in California. Women will be especially pleased to learn that in 1950 Concannon hired Katherine Vajda, the first technically trained female winemaker in the U.S.
But the first that is most important to many red wine lovers--Petite Sirah fans in particular--is that head winemaker Jim Concannon in 1961 planned for the country’s first varietally labeled Petite Sirah. He was encouraged by Dennis Caldwell, a retailer in Pasadena, who promised to buy 354 cases of the wine. This was a significant offer. Today’s equivalent, says Concannon, would be 30,000 cases!
Nevertheless, it was a risky move. At the time Cabernet Sauvignon was the only red varietal of great importance in the state. Petite Sirah was used just to add pizzazz–color, body, structure and spice--to blends. It was, for example, an important component in Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, the wine many baby boomers fondly remember, along with Blue Nun, Chianti in straw fiascos, Mateus and Lancer’s, as their introduction to the mostly unfamiliar world of wine.
Concannon’s 1961 vintage Petite Sirah debuted in 1964. The bottling quickly sold out, history was made, and Petite Sirah went on to become Concannon’s flagship wine. Concannon led the grape from near obscurity to a significant varietal with its own advocacy group, P.S. I Love You. Formed in 2002, the group aims to familiarize wine lovers with Petite Sirah, which has been overshadowed by several more prestigious, highly sought after red varietals and blends.
There’s nothing petite about the varietal, except the size of the berries. Dubbed “the little grape that could,” it makes big, hearty, bold, intense wines characterized by their inky-black color, lots of blackberry, some blueberry and black fruit flavors, a bit of black pepper, significant tannins, high acidity and plenty of body.
The grape was created in southern France in 1880, a cross between Syrah, the most noble red of the Rhône Valley, and Peloursin, a very old, little known local variety. Initially named Durif, after the nurseryman who promoted it, it was developed to resist the powdery mildew that attacks Syrah. But the grapes couldn’t tolerate the humidity in the southern Rhône, where today it’s practically extinct. According to wine historian Charles L. Sullivan, it was brought to California in 1884 by a grower who dubbed it Petite Sirah. The vines flourished in their sunny new home, especially where the rocky, gravelly soil resembles that of the Rhône.
Petite Sirah is one of the 22 grapes California’s Rhone Rangers consider to be one of their own. Their website states that “the Rhone Rangers have adopted Petite Sirah ... due to its extensive interplanting with traditional Rhone varietals in California.” In the past decade, partly owing to the growing popularity of Rhône-style wines, Petite Sirah has gained respect and almost cult status. More and more winemakers are offering it. According to Jo Diaz, founding executive director of P.S. I Love You, while in 2002 there were only 62 growers and producers in California, today there are 1,009.
This summer Concannon celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first Petite Sirah. Jim was honored in July–on his 80th birthday–for being the Father of America’s First Petite Sirah. By chance, it also happened to be the 100th anniversary of his grandfather’s planting his first Petite Sirah vines in 1911. If you’d like to do some celebrating of your own, or if you’d just like to try some Petite Sirahs, here are a few wines to start with:
2008 Conservancy Petite Sirah: Aromas and flavors of berries--especially blackberry--plum, chocolate and mocha, well balanced, creamy oak tones; an excellent value, as good as many Petite Sirahs that cost at least twice as much
2009 Conservancy Crimson & Clover (50% Petite Sirah, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 10% Zinfandel). This recent release was made by 4th generation vintner John Concannon as a tribute to his dad, Jim. Crimson refers to the deep color of Petite Sirah and the clover is the traditional Irish symbol for prosperity. Aromas and flavors of currant, blackberry, clove and vanilla. Bold, lusciously fruity, well structured
2006 Heritage Petite Sirah: Aromas and flavors of blackberry, raspberry, black currant, blueberry and cherry; some chocolate and coffee; hints of mushroom and pepper. Intense, complex and well balanced. Soft, silky tannins. Heritage, Concannon’s top cuvée, is made only when the vintage is exceptional. Grapes hale from one of the oldest single-vineyard blocks.
2004 Heritage Petite Sirah. Aromas and flavors of blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, cassis, chocolate and spice. Full bodied. Extremely long palate. Made from selected lots of old vines. Low yields lead to very concentrated flavors.
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