A variety of red wine characterized by an inky red color, peppery scents, and generally strong tannins. In these respects it is quite similar to its namesake, the Syrah grape.

But wait, you said that Petite Sirah is a wine, not a grape. What's the deal? Well, Petite Sirah is a grape, and it's not. Confused? I sure was...let me start at the beginning.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a man by the name of Dr. Durif was experimenting with the breeding of new red wine grape varieties in the Rhone Valley in France, home to such storied types as the Syrah grape. He managed to come up with a variety he named after himself, the Durif, which was generally scorned by winemakers of the time. It did have one major advantage: it was resistant to some types of damaging mildew.

In the 1890s, California winemakers had a problem. They had planted European grape varieties of vitis vinifera, and these were nearly wiped out by a New World pest called phylloxera. After the plague, winegrowers would plant phylloxera-resistant vitis labrusca rootstocks and graft vitis vinifera types (such as Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon on top. New plantings of Syrah were called Petite Sirah, and the name kinda stuck.

At the same time, some winegrowers were introducing Durif in order to protect themselves against phylloxera. The grapes are very similar to Syrah, and eventually they took over the name from Syrah proper.

But here's the problem. Recent DNA testing conducted by the University of California at Davis shows that vines considered to be Petite Sirah are either Durif (about 90% of them) or a lesser-known variety called Peloursin (about 10%), which is a cross between Durif and Syrah. Compounding the problem is the fact that many winegrowers can't tell varying types apart, and many vineyards considered Petite Sirah actually contain lots of Syrah or other varieties.

The situation has been somewhat sorted out now, thanks to DNA testing--Petite Sirahs are generally made out of a combination of Durif and Peloursin, collectively called "Petite Sirah." In any event, Petite Sirah wines, far from being a "little cousin" of the big Syrah types, are full-bodied and flavorful themselves.

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