01/21/09 – Who’s Your Daddy? (a syrah / petite sirah blind tasting)

By Jesse on January 19, 2009

Our annual March Madness blind tasting tournament is just around the corner, so we really need to start getting our palates back in shape. In that spirit, this week’s meeting will be devoted to a fun little blind-tasting exercise I like to call “Who’s Your Daddy?” The name refers not only to the throw-down, balls-out nature of the competition, but also to the fact that one of the grape varieties in question is the genetic parent of the other.

Here’s how it works: everyone brings a bottle of either Syrah or Petite Sirah in a brown paper bag. We taste through the bagged bottles one by one, and discuss the various characteristics we encounter. Then everyone makes a guess as to which of the two varietals it is, after which we reveal the bottle and tally the results. (You might be a little shaky at first, but by the end of the lineup you’ll be picking ’em out like a pro.)

First, lets answer an important question: what is the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah? And where does “Shiraz” fit in?

Syrah is a red grape hailing from France’s Rhone Valley, where it makes legendary single-varietal wines in the northern end of the region (Hermitage, St. Joseph, etc.) and is blended with Grenache and Mourvedre in the south (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes du Rhône, etc.) In the new world, Syrah is made into single-varietal wines full of dark fruit and ground pepper characteristics, as well as being blended with Grenache and Mourvedre to make Rhone-style blends. The Australians, along with some producers in the US and elsewhere, refer to Syrah as Shiraz (we’ll get into the nomenclature more at the meeting, but the important point to be aware of is that “Syrah” and “Shiraz” are the exact same grape).

Petite Sirah is a different grape, but one that has close ties to Syrah. Petite Sirah is another name for the French varietal Durif, created in the 1870’s as a cross between Syrah and a minor French blending grape. The genetic lineage of Petite Sirah (or Durif) was debated for some time, but recent genetic testing confirms what has long been speculated: that Syrah is definitely one of Petite Sirah’s true parents (the whole story can be read on this page, compliments of the “Petite Sirah Advocacy Organization”).

So why call it “petite?” Is it less spicy and full-bodied than Syrah? Not at all. The word “petite” actually refers to the size of the grape, which is smaller than Syrah, and thus is capable of producing a fuller, more concentrated wine. This website contains an awesome breakdown of the various characteristics of both grapes — essential reading as you prepare for Wednesday night. Also, if you’re interested, click here to watch Gary Vaynerchuk taste through a lineup of Petite Sirahs (including one bottle that many of you will recognize).

To participate in this illustrious tasting, all you need to do is seek out a delicious bottle of either Syrah (aka Shiraz) or Petite Sirah (aka Durif), and bring it inside an anonymous paper bag. Lets avoid blends with other grapes, as that would only complicate things, and instead just stick to single-varietal bottles. As always, if you’d rather bring a crisp $10 bill, you can feel free to do so.

We’ll be meeting at Jason’s fishy apartment in Brentwood. The RSVP system functions like this: if you want in, you click on this link and tell me so (don’t forget your full name, e-mail address, and a cute message conveying to me your intentions). Priority is given to long-term members but seats are also reserved at each and every meeting for new people. If you’re denied entry due to a meeting exceeding capacity, don’t worry — you’ll be at the top of the list the next week.

Once you’ve received your confirmation e-mail with some directions, go find yourself a bottle of Syrah or Petite Sirah — or scrounge up ten American dollars — and put your drinking cap on. We’ll see you on Wednesday at 9:00.