Wine can seem confusing, which is why so many people stick to Cabernet or Chardonnay, or if they are feeling especially adventurous, a Merlot or a Pinot Gris. When we start drinking wine, just distinguishing between those varietals can be difficult enough, so even more advanced winos can be excused for not being sure what the difference is between Syrah and Petite Sirah, especially when Shiraz gets thrown into the discussion.
Before we go any further, let’s dispose of the Syrah and Shiraz issue. They are the same grape. The rule of thumb is that Shiraz is an Australian version, and it is called Syrah everywhere else. Like all rules of thumb, someone will always give it a different finger, so sometimes you will see a California Shiraz. I refuse to buy these just as a matter of principle, but if someone else is buying and they are good, who cares? Either way, if you see either name on a bottle then you can be assured that they are the same grape, although there can be stylistic differences.
There is a legend that Syrah was used in Iran to make possibly the world’s first real wine. This legend is also supposedly the origin of this grape being called Shiraz after a city in Iran. When I was taking wine classes our always entertaining instructor taught us this fact. However, like many legends, this one is not true. DNA testing has shown that Syrah is a cross between two obscure grapes, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, and originated in France. Dureza is an almost extinct red grape and Mondeuse Blanche is a white grape that is following right behind Dureza towards oblivion, it is only grown on about 12 acres in Eastern France. Whatever its parentage, this is one tasty bastard of a grape.
The same can be said of Petite Sirah, it is also used to make very tasty wines, although they are quite different than Syrah’s and Shiraz’s. While I am going to focus mostly on the New World application of these grapes since Petite Sirah is not very well respected in Europe, it should be noted that the wonderful wines of both the Northern and Southern Rhone regions star Syrah. That includes famed wines like Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, and Côte-Rôtie.
Petite Sirah is typically what is known in Europe as the Durif grape, a cross between Syrah and Peloursin grapes. While it is related to Syrah, and many California varieties share some flavor similarities, they typically make quite different, but equally delicious, wines.
New World Syrah’s are typically made in one of two different styles in America, either as big, concentrated fruit bombs or as lighter, more subtle Rhone style wines. In Australia it tends to be blended with either some Cabernet Sauvignon, or increasingly, a little bit of Viognier. They also like to make a traditional Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, more commonly called GSM.
Petite Syrah, on the other hand, makes huge, powerful wines that have a color almost as dark and impervious to light as ink. Despite having some of the same fruit flavors as Syrah, Petite Sirah tends to be more acidic with huge tannins, making them very age worthy in many cases.
If you are a fan of big, juicy, delicious wines, then you should do yourself a favor and give these varietals a try. Syrah typically has bold aromas and flavors that can include blackberries, raspberries, black pepper, chocolate, smoke, and espresso. Despite its misleading name (Petite refers to the size of the grapes), think of Petite Sirah as Syrah on steroids. It is usually fruitier and more peppery. It is quite common for people to order Petite Sirah because they are in the mood for a lighter wine and since they like Syrah, that must be the right choice. Oops.