Ξ August 6th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |
PS I Love You, Petite Sirah’s highly motivated advocacy group, held their 7th Annual Petite Sirah Symposium and tasting at Concannon Vineyard August 4th. I was invited to attend the Media Tasting by the organization’s executive director Jo Diaz (also of Diaz Communications and Juicy Tales). I knew I would be away on vacation in the San Juan Islands of Washington State on that date but the draw of event proved irresistible. That, and the simple fact you don’t turn down an invite from Jo. I cut my vacation short, hopped on a plane, and was at Concannon Vineyard outside of Livermore Tuesday morning, well before the Media Tasting was to begin. As a wine lover with very little understanding of Petite Sirah or of its producers, it was too good an opportunity to ignore. And I am very glad I attended!
I had tried single varietal bottlings of Petite Sirah (or Durif, as it is also now known. Long story! For a good write up please see Dennis Fife’s article) in the past, all of it from the supermarket. Routinely disappointed, I simply didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Often the wines were flabby, big fruit monsters with little finesse or complexity, no acid or vigorous tannin, especially when purchased at a lower price point, and when sourced from larger AVAs, the Central Coast, for example. Long known principally as a grape used to fix or modify other varieties, some larger producers, by blending Petite Sirah fruit harvested from around the state, have done the grape’s reputation no favors as a stand-alone variety. Like much of low-end Pinotage, another little known, easily ruined grape, the drinking experience can be positively awful. But when I took a look at PS I Love You’s impressive membership roster of wineries producing at least one variety bottling, I must say I suspected I was in for a brutally honest reeducation, the kind of comeuppance in which every wine writer ought to delight.
The first question I had, when confronted by this extraordinary member’s list was why were there so few Petite Sirahs in the supermarket? Even in better markets with well-regarded wine selections, I could rarely find more than two or three producers, even then almost always from the usual suspects. And they would be shelved below the Syrahs and at some remove from the monotonous ocean of Cabernet. I can honestly say I am no closer to understanding why after having now been floored by the excellence of the wines I tasted at the Symposium. The experience was not unlike that of opening the door to a long-forgotten room at a museum. Ah! So this is where we put the American Wine History display.
And what a history is enjoyed by this grape. Indeed, one of the finest wines I tasted was from the former site of the PS I Love You Symposium, the venerable Fopianno Vineyards where Petite Sirah has been grown for decades. I was to enjoy their ‘03 Russian River Estate Reserve in the presence of the winemaker, Natalie West. The wine was young, with a bright acidic finish, firm tannins, and just a hint of oak rounding out the finish. Ms. West explained she uses only 20% new oak. For me wine is all about structure. This wine had it.
And this Petite Sirah example was among the last I tasted, over 25 in all, many of them twice. Yet still there was a compelling, obvious distinction from all others I sampled. Indeed, one of the great surprises was the extraordinary plasticity Petite Sirah has to differing terroirs, and equally is it a testament to the respect for the same shown by almost all of the winegrowers. Of course, there were some ‘troubled’ wines, wines lacking in terroir, to say the least. But of all those that brightly shone each was very unlike the other.
Take the Mounts Family ‘07 Dry Creek Estate PS. It was a much lighter style, perhaps the lightest of all PS present. Even at 15.5% alc it was well balanced, very fresh, with almost a rustic finish. A world apart from the Foppiano, but as much a pleasure. (Imagine the difference between Sta. Rita Hills Pinot and that of a Pinot from the westside of the Santa Cruz Mountains, for example.) The wine was poured by the Gary Cooper-like David Mounts, winemaker.
Between each of those expressions, with respect to weight on the palate alone, was the truly outstanding ‘04 York Creek, Dynamite Hill Ridge from the Spring Mountain District. Again, the balance of this wine and the first two was a delight. The ‘04 Ridge had higher acid, was quite lean, tannic, with a long fruit finish. Beautiful wine. It will age well for years. An ‘03 Lytton Estate was also poured by David Gates, Vice President of Vineyard Operations for Ridge. But inasmuch as it is a blend of 77% PS and 23% of Zinfandel, it is outside of consideration for my purposes. (It was very good!) Thank goodness I arrived early. When the membership broke for lunch a bottle of any producer’s already opened wine was taken to one of a dozen random tables. That was the last I saw of the ‘04!
Another expressive terroir wine, this one from the a higher elevation, 2000-2400 feet, is the first release of Fortress Vineyards, an ‘07 Estate Petite Sirah from the Red Hills AVA in Lake County. Owner Barbara Snider (along with her husband, Gary) explained to me that after many years of selling their grapes to wineries they finally decided to begin wine production themselves. Why is it that first time winemakers so very often knock it out of the park? Well, their Petite Sirah is another quite superb expression, this one, as noted, from upper elevations.
And about first time winemakers, I simply must gush a bit about the Aver Family Vineyards’ offering, the ‘06 Blessings. Near the end of the tasting I wandered over to their allotted space in Concannon’s barrel room and was casually poured a taste. My eyes must have bugged out of my head because Carolyn Aver, wife of John Aver who was also present, began laughing at my expression! John Aver in all seriousness said “We get that a lot.” There exists only a few cases left of this wine from an initial production of 25. A fellow blogger next to me was also drawn to the juice. I begged her not to write about it until I could buy some. She said she was just about to Tweet her favorable opinion. Desperate, I asked the Avers if I might buy some then and there. Tomorrow my half-case arrives!
Strictly speaking, the Aver Family wines, though from their estate fruit, are made and finished at CrushPad in San Francisco. The winemaker in charge is the very talented Kian Tavakoli. But the Aver’s involvement is considerable.
There were many other excellent examples. Those mentioned above especially pleased me. Indeed, I’ve had my understanding, such as it was, entirely recast with respect to this variety. Give the grape a try.
A very special thanks goes out to Jo Diaz for inviting me to this embarrassment of riches. And to Concannon Vineyard for their hospitality.