Sunday, December 26, 2010

Two faces of Petite Sirah from Langtry Estate

Petite Sirah has over the last century become a typical Californian variety, just like Zinfandel. According to the latest harvest report, there's 2 864 hectares of Petite Sirah planted and in production. Still it’s not particular common as a varietal wine – most of the grapes end up in blends with Zinfandel and Rhône varietals, where they add color, structure, deep fruit flavors and some spiciness.
The most important regions for Petite Sirah are San Joaquin Valley (687 hectares), where it is blended into bulk wines at low prices, and San Luis Obispo County (470 hectares), where Paso Robles have proved to be a very reliable source of some very good varietal wines. Matthias Gubler, winemaker at Vina Robles in the eastern side of Paso Robles, is very excited about Petite Sirah and believes that Petite Sirah will be one of the fines grapes of the region in the future. He is not the only one to salubrate this grape. Well known Bob Foley of Robert Foley Wines in Napa Valley, is also very fond of Petite Sirah.
Today one will find some Petite Sirah in Sacramento, Yolo, Almeda, and Lake County. Napa Valley (283 hectares) and the inland of Mendocino (209 hectares), Sonoma (198 hecatres) are also homes of some fine wines of Petite Sirah.

Durif is the original name of this grape (at least, that’s the common and also by DNA proved theory), although there are a few alternatives to it. Anither one, not proved, is that Petite Sirah is a natural crossing that occurred in the late 1800s, at the time when many European grape varieties were brought to United States. I always refer to the evidences scientist like Dr Carole Meredith have come up with, and it this case it clear that Petite Sirah was born in France in the 1870s, as Durif. The French wine growers never liked it, but growers in California planted it in the 1880s, most likely as a field blend with Syrah (just to make it more confusing), Zinfandel, Carignane and Alicante Bouschet. At least, this is how you will find the oldest vines of Petite Sirah today.
The grape itself seems to have picked up more of the character of Peloursin than of its other parent, Syrah. Color is always dark and the tannic structure important, but although the wines are rich in dark fruit flavors, they most often lack the complexity the wines of Syrah shows.

Guenoc Valley is a single estate appellation in the southeastern corner of Lake County. It’s just in the shadow of Howell Mountain of Napa Valley – and so are the prices of the wines from here. There’s only one producer here, Langtry Estate, but on their ranch of 8 900 hectares, only 162 hectares are planted to vines. They make four wines of Petite Sirah, two of them from the Serpentine Meadow Vineyard, which is located on the valley floor below the winery (altitude is around 300 meters above sea level). The unique thing about this vineyard is that the soil is dominated by serpentine, a soil type very high in magnesium. That, and the fact that the soil tends to absorb a lot of water, and then dry out very quick, creates a lot of stress to the vines. Most winegrowers have noticed that the vines become weaker, thinner, more sensitive, and also later to ripen the grapes. Well, this may well be so elsewhere, but these wines are superb!

2007 Petite Sirah Serpentine Meadow Vineyard / 90-91 p
One hundred percent Petite Sirah normally results in a very rough and tannic wine, but in this case I find it to be surprisingly well balanced. The reason for that is spelled “tannin and bitterness management”. First of all it is important to reduce yields to get the grapes fully ripe – I guess the serpentine soil, to a certain extent, is part of that. A strict selection, fully destemmed grapes, and a careful extraction during the fermentation are also crucial. At Langtry Estate, the winemakers also remove as much seeds as possible during the fermentation process.
The wine is dark, dense and purple blue in color. On the nose, you’ll find a sweetish spiciness of the 24 months of ageing in the highest quality American oak barrels, but not too much oak tannins on the palate. The fruit flavors are truly text book to Petite Sirah – the wine is loaded with blueberries and sweet plums, but in a good way, and the richness makes a good balance with the structure. I kept the wine in the glass for 15 minutes, and it opened up beautifully during that time, so decanting is half an hour prior to serving it is recommended. It’s not a charming wine to just take a sip of – this is a wine that’s needs rich foods like steaks, venison, duck or goose.
Drink it 2010-2017.

2007 Petite Sirah Port Serpentine Meadow Vineyard
/ 90 p
This is quite funny – it’s actually almost the same wine as the dry version. During the fermentation, a small lot was treated differently … with the port wine method. When the alcohol had reached six percent, a neutral brandy from Sonoma was added to the fermenting wine, which killed the yeast and left around 75 grams of sugar unfermented. In the ready wine, alcohol then reached 19 percent. It’s a superb, sweet and quite port like wine with lovely flavors of sweet blueberries, cherries and chocolate. Acidity is good, and of course the high alcohol gives a kick in the long, sweet and silky aftertaste, but that’s just what it should. I’d love to taste this with a chocolate fondant with compote of cherries, or to a blue cheese like Forme d’Ambert. Serve it at 14-16 degrees.
Drink it 2010-2022.

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