It's clear that syrah is becoming one of our area's most commonly cultivated grapes, but I don't hear much about petite sirah? Aren't those grapes similar? And if syrah grows well here, wouldn't petite sirah?
— Ted F., Medford
Consumers' confusion is understandable. But local winemakers know that syrah and petite sirah are separate varieties with their own characteristics.
The signature grape of France's northern Rhone Valley, hearty syrah also thrives in the Rogue Valley, where the climate often is likened to the Rhone's. Syrah produces wines that are big and powerful but hearty and smooth without the tannins and acids of some other red varietals, such as cabernet sauvignon. In the southern Rhone, syrah is blended with softer grenache and other grapes to make the popular Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape red wines.
Petite sirah is not syrah at all but a descendant of a minor Rhone grape called Durif. When syrah and petite sirah both became better known in the 1970s, many U.S. winemakers and consumers starting using the two names interchangeably.
As an individual grape, petite sirah hasn't enjoyed syrah's popularity. But some winemakers are capitalizing on its inky hue, powerful tannins and blackberry fruit. They also blend it in small quantities with zinfandel, pinot noir, merlot, malbec and other red grapes.
And if you want more terminology to untangle, don't forget about shiraz, the varietal grown in Australia from French syrah grapes imported in 1831. Widely planted Down Under, the grape often is softer, sweeter and smoother than its ancestor, perhaps because of slight mutations over the past 182 years.
Send questions to "Since You Asked, A la carte" Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; email to firstname.lastname@example.org.