The petite sirah grape is neither petite nor is it syrah. That much we know.
Petite sirah, sometimes spelled petite syrah, is a mystery grape with a shady reputation. It's been hanging out in the vineyards of California for some time, producing burly red wines that delicate palates dismiss as crude.
During the 1980s, the conventional wisdom was that petite sirah was actually the French durif -- a coarse, thuggish wine variety in its own right.
But that theory has come into question. Now petite sirah's origins are even more mysterious than those of zinfandel, which was recently "outed" as Croatia's plavac mali.
For years, the rap on petite sirah has been that it is a low-class, no-account, unsophisticated grape even more southern (south of France, that is) than its distant relation, the noble syrah, which produces such widely adored wines as Hermitage and Cote Rotie.
The assumption in recent years has been that the true syrah would inevitably nudge aside the remaining petite sirah vines. And in fact, many acres of venerable petite sirah vines have been uprooted to make way for more fashionable varieties on younger vines that will produce more tons of grapes.
It's a shame, because petite sirah is a grape with its own distinctive character. It produces concentrated red wines that typically display flavors of blackberry, game, coffee and chocolate. It also often shows a "dusty" quality that is an acquired taste. Among grape varieties grown in California, only cabernet sauvignon can rival its aging potential.
Fortunately, petite sirah has always had its friends -- a stubborn band of winemakers who understand that the variety is capable of making extremely flavorful and concentrated red wines with enormous aging potential. They see California's dwindling acreage of old-vines petite sirah as a viticultural gold mine, and they're digging for all they're worth.
Wine retailers say they've noted increased interest in petite sirah in the last few years. Apparently, some savvy consumers have noticed that some petite sirahs -- notably those of Guenoc, Foppiano, Bogle and Concannon -- are among the best red-wine values on the market today.
This increased interest has inspired some producers to go for the gold with petite sirahs costing $20 and up. Some of these wines are very impressive. It'll be interesting to see whether people buy them.
My recent tasting of the rather limited selection of petite sirahs on the market has uncovered some real diamonds in the rough. Here are the best:
1991 Foppiano Reserve "La Grand Petite" Petite Sirah, Napa Valley ($24). This enormous wine still needs a decade to show at its best, but its combination of concentration and complexity suggests it could be California's answer to Chateauneuf- du-Pape.
1994 Elyse Petite Syrah, Napa Valley ($22). This huge, ripe, soft-textured wine adds a splash of blueberry to petite sirah's typical palette of flavors. It's a very young wine that you can drink now, but it requires a few hours of breathing.
1993 Guenoc Petite Sirah, North Coast ($14.49). Guenoc's 1993 and 1992 have previously been recommended in this space as extraordinarily complex wines for relatively moderate prices.
1992 Ridge York Creek Petite Sirah ($21). A 5 percent splash of zinfandel adds a touch of class to this typically excellent wine from Paul Draper, one of petite sirah's most passionate advocates.
1994 Concannon Petite Sirah, Central Coast ($11). Concannon's bargain-priced effort is surprisingly easy to drink young, but it's no wimp. There's plenty of structure behind the fruit, but I would drink it over the next two years rather than keep it for a decade.
1994 Bogle Petite Sirah ($9). The Bogle is an unusually soft-textured petite sirah that doesn't have as much of the "dust" flavor as most of these wines. It's a good wine for beginners who want to get to know petite sirah.
1992 Foppiano Petite Sirah, Sonoma County ($12.49). This burly, earthy giant is a bit coarse and closed, but it has a generous heart. A little heavy breathing should "gentle its condition," and it could age for up to a decade.
Michael Dresser's column appears every other week in this section. Readers may write to him in care of The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Please include a daytime phone number.
Pub Date: 9/29/96