Sunday, July 01, 2007

Anything But Petite

Petite syrah has always been a bit of an enigma to me. Generally, the petite syrah I've had has been good, enjoyable to drink. But I've always struggled to pin down its identity, like trying to come up with a description of a completely average-looking individual.

I don't mean average in terms of quality. I just haven't been able to recognize a signature style or profile -- I couldn't pick it out in a blind tasting, for example.

The French must have felt similarly, since petite syrah has been given the cold shoulder in France for eons. Petite syrah is actually a grape grown in the Rhone region of France called durif. Durif is a clone of syrah that is the result of an effort to come up with a mildew-resistant varietal. Despite its inky dark color, the grape wowed no one in France, and it's almost non-existent there today.

Petite syrah, however, seems to do better in California's dry conditions. That's why California petite syrah today has legions of fans. Still, after trying a handful of petite syrah over a period of many years, I wasn't getting the passion or the devotion.

But a wine I had last night gets me a lot closer to understanding the fervor. I opened a 1997 Turley Wine Cellars Rattlesnake Vineyard Petite Syrah, and, no doubt about it, it's a big wine. A big Napa Valley wine. It's amazingly dense and concentrated, with peppery blackberry aromas. There was also just a bit of cocoa and alcohol on the nose -- this wine comes in at 15 percent alcohol. While this wine has a reputation for being quite tannic, the 1997 is drinking well right now -- the tannins have smoothed out and there's just so much body.

Turley Wine Cellars, run principally by Larry Turley, brother of the renowned wine consultant Helen Turley, has gained a reputation for making some of the best zinfandels and petite syrah around. Helen Turley's stamp is evident. The petite syrah is so dense, so well extracted that it's easy to see why it sells out quickly each year. It's really a wine built to impress the tasters. But is it balanced?

Hmmm. As much as I enjoyed the experience of tasting this wine, I'm not sure I'd seek it out again. I'm still not sure what foods to pair it with, and I have a better sense of what to expect from other varietals in this price range. But it is a fun, conversation-provoking wine.

If, like me, you're located on the East coast, you won't find it easy to obtain. Almost impossible, is more like it. I picked it up while on a trip to California in 1999 -- demonstrating why you've got to walk the wine if you really want to explore the world of wine. The Turley petite syrah was just under $50 when I bought it, but it goes for about $70 a bottle today. Not a cheap conversation-starter.


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