Since the next Wine Blogging Wednesday theme is petite sirah i decided to do some research into the background of the Petite Sirah grape. Petite Sirah, Durif or pinot de l’hermitage, respectively if you are American, Australian, or French, is a grape producing wines of massive proportion. It is the only reasonably well-known grape variety to be named after a person, botanist Dr François Durif, who propagated it in the Rhone Valley in late 1800's. Interestingly, the Durif vine was not propagated from cuttings but originated from seed stemming from a Peloursin vine germinated by Syrah pollen.
The main reason for, and importance of, the development was that it demonstrated the resistance to downy mildew, a fungal disease that had been causing widespread damage to European vineyards in the 18th and 19th century. Whilest the grape showed resistance to downy mildew it was very susceptible to grey rot in areas where there is high humidity such as the Rhone Valley. As a result the French, however, were never charmed by the wine produced from the grape and today there is very little grown there.
While never quite taking off in France, Durif did take a hold in the United States (California) and Australia (Rutherglen). Today these two regions are still the primary producers of the Durif variety. Both regions are warm and dry, conditions in which the durif grape thrives without much threat from grey rot. The late 1800's saw much of the Vitis Vinifera planted in both the US and Victoria wiped out by the root louse phylloxera. It was at this time that Durif was introduced in both regions.
Exactly why Durif was introduced in either Australia and the US is unclear. I am inclined to think that, if not the introduction, then the spread of Durif was more often incidental than by design. In the US durif was called petite sirah, and the syrah petite syrah. The two Rhone varieties coexisted and were often mistaken for each other. The Prohibition saw the Durif became a favorite as it was tough and stood up well to cross-country shipping by rail.
On other hand in Rutherglen the gold rush taking place at the time possibly provided a ready market for the wines. Very little is known about why exactly durif grape found it's way there. As in the US it is highly probable that some of the spread can be attributed to the similarities in appearance between the Syrah and Durif vines certainly in old age. Even recently there has been much confusion between the syrah (Shiraz) and durif grapes. This is how Carmen vineyards came to grow Petite Sirah in Chile for example. There is no doubt that this also played a large role in the spread of durif (petite sirah) during the late 1800's and early 1900's.
Typically, the Durif grape produces monumental wines dense, impenetrable purple/black in colour with massive concentration, balanced by a massive palate normally laden with black fruits, licorice, chocolate and vanilla. And it doesn't end there as the the tannins are big, but soft and the alcohol high. Paradoxally it also has a soft side, allowing the wines to be enjoyed right away or cellared for 10+ years. Decanting wines these wines is absolutely essential in order to enjoy these wines at their best, as is a number of years cellaring.
Today the Durif is still not a widely grown grape although it is becoming more popular. In Australia its home is Rutherglen, and it rarely strays from here. Total tonnage for Durif in Australia was 5430 tonnes a mere 0.5% of the 1,023,006 tonnes of red wine grapes crushed in Australia in 2005. In terms of planting Durif covers 402 hectares of a total red planting of 98,112 hectares, just 0.4%). In the US California is home to Petite Sirah. The popularity of the grape is similar in the US (California to be more exact because it grows 90% of all wine grapes in the US) where in 2006 36,281 tonnes, 1.9% of the total red crush of 1,873,892 tonnes, was crushed. The grape accounts for 2640 hectares from a total of 119,003 hectares just 2% of total red wine grape vine.
Durif: a grape producing wines of massive proportion, but miniscule in production.