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Petite Sirah Versus Petite Syrah, Versus Durif, The Debate Heats Up

Last week, I was just trying to reiterate that in the US, it’s spelled Petite Sirah (with an “i”), not Petite Syrah (with a “y”).

Little did I know, or think, that the Durif fans would come out of the closet… But they have, and let’s just get this smack down over with; hopefully, once and for all (but I won’t be holding my breath for this one).

The first reference to Durif came from Matt, in the comments section. He wrote,

It’s Durif, People. TTB should only accept labels with the D. A vine breeder by the name of Durif, intentionally bred this variety to have certain characteristics. He should get the credit, even if he is dead.

Well, he has a point… In France. Very little is grown there, by-the-way. The French don’t want or like this cultivar, with the exception of Gilles Liege. Gilles believes in its history, regardless of what others in France think. He and I exchange Emails. He Emails me in French. I translate it, then send my response in French back to him, which I’ve also translated through Yahoo’s Balel Fish. (It’s a primitive way of communicating, but it gets the job done.) Gilles calls it Petite Sirah, just as a point of interest.

So, let’s consider why Durif crossed Syrah (noble male grape) with Peloursin (peasant female).

[It sounds like a torrid love affair, and in many ways, it is.]

Francois Durif wanted to create a variety that would be resistant to powdery mildew, and he was successful. But… the big “but,” his crossing (which Durif unabashedly named after himself, so we’d still be talking about him today) is very prone toward bunch rot.

To understand bunch rot, you need to think of a grape cluster whose berries are so tight that as the berries sit together they lose their round shape, because they’re pressing so hard against each other. Now, image a rain that goes on for days. These grapes are now soaked. Then, the sun barely comes out again, before the rain continues off-and-on for the next week or two. You can kiss that harvest goodbye, because the cluster – after the first rain – might not dry out, and bunch rot will begin. With continued rain, there’s nothing to salvage.

So, why would France keep this variety around, considering that it could take down the entire Rhone in one fell swoop/harvest? In France, it just doesn’t make much sense, and this is why it’s not grown in France (then and now). The French don’t want, nor do they acknowledge Petite Sirah. they were more than happy to see this peasant grape leave the country (except for Gilles, as I’ve noted).

For all intents and purposes in France, Durif failed… the variety and the man wanting to eliminate powdery mildew. He did create a way to have bunch rot take down the entire Rhone, however, and that’s not a success story by any stretch of the imagination, as he would want it to be told with his

Along comes Charles McIver of Mission San Jose, in 1884. He went to France to bring back vitis vinifera. He brought back what he thought were Syrah grapes. They were so tiny that he called what he had (and there was no doubt Syrah in what he brought to the US, too) “Petite Sirah.” There’s a variety of Syrah grapes in the Rhone, whose berries are so tiny, they’re referred to as Petite Syrah.

So, it is more important than ever, as you can see, in this country to get it right… Is your Petite Syrah – Petite Sirah, or is it Syrah’s Petite Syrah?

Is this crazy enough for you, yet? This is why I kept it simple last week, but I guess all the dirty laundry of this torrid love affair needs to be aired.

Here’s the next link in Petite Sirah’s history, and the rest is just that… history.

Enter the Australians.

When PSILY got started, I was immediately asked by the Australians to start a group there, too. I don’t live there, and can’t run an organization a half world away, and my US guys were keeping me pretty busy, anyway. The Australians were sharp enough to see where PSILY would be going, though.

So… I just got an Email from an Australian who wrote the following to me:

Jo, Petite Sirah should be Durif. Dr Durif invented this bold tannic mildew resistant variety around 1880. This variety has only been in the Barossa about 5 yrs. I planted 2 acres last year. Will pick about 60 kg. Enough to make sauce from, only.

My response to him:

Thanks for your Email. I understand your passion. I agree that in Australia it should be Durif, as your country has always called it such.

In the US, we’ve been calling it Petite Sirah since 1884, for 126 years. Our history books are filled with PS references.

There are 8,000 acres in the world, with 7,000 of them being in the US. We have 688 labels with Petite Sirah on them in the US… Perhaps five or six (only) have it spelled it with the “y.”

Our ship set sail a long time ago. And in the US, the majority rules, regardless of anything else. The majority of people in the US call it and want it to be Petite Sirah. We’re not interested in marketing Durif, because there’s already too much confusion between Petite Sirah, Petite Syrah, Syrah, and Shiraz. (There’s another debate: Syrah or Shiraz? Should the French call it Shiraz? Will they?)

Had the US not taken it on, it would be pretty much gone, and this debate wouldn’t even exit.

We’ve made it our own… And, there are a few vintners in your country that would love to export their Durif to the US as Petite Sirah, but your government won’t allow that. When I started PSILY, I received Emails asking me to do the same for Australia. I had to respectfully decline, because my American vintners have kept me too busy.

So, keep up the great work with your Durif, because you are also keeping it historically in the books, and we’ll do the same over here.

What do you think? Petite Sirah or Durif…

[SIDEBAR: PSILY is having our annual Dark & Delicious event on February 19, at Rock Wall Wine Company (Kent Rosenblum’s new place). We have over 40 wineries pouring Petite Sirah and over 25 foodies. If you love Petite Sirah, this is the place to be for $60 and three hours of wining, dining, free parking, etc. Tickets can be purchased through PSILY.]

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5 Responses to “Petite Sirah Versus Petite Syrah, Versus Durif, The Debate Heats Up”

  1. Chris says:


    I know at least one Washington wine maker selling Durif labelled wine.
    http://davenlore.bigcartel.com/product/durif I don’t know where Gordon sources these grapes but I’d guess it’s the Yakima Valley or Horse Heaven Hills. I’ll ask him next time I see him, don’t know if he’ll tell me. Every other winery here that I’ve seen sell this wine, Thurston Wolfe, Alexandria Nicole, Masset, call it Petite Sirah.

  2. Jo says:


    God bless Greg Masset of Masset Winery. He’s my only Washington State member, and we’ve had great conversations.

    I have another member in CA that calls it Durif, and that’s his choice. It just makes it a lot harder for him to sell it, because VERY few people know the real story behind PS.

    Thanks for commenting….

  3. Jo, I love you 🙂 Great post!

  4. Jo says:


    Thanks for the comment about it being a great post. I had so much fun creating my cartoon bubble content.

    I’m probably one of the few people in the world who can write this with great abandon each time, without incensing the world that I’m so over the top emotional.

    PS I Love You

  5. Jo says:

    My friend Lynn Alley, who worked with Dr. Harold Olmo at UC Davis just sent a very interesting comment to me via Email. I asked if I could share IT, and yes said, “Yes.”

    Lynn is currently writing Dr. Olmo’s biography. No publication date has yet been set; but when it is, it will be a fascinating read, as Lynn spent many of her working hours with this iconic figure at UCD. Lynn got to know Dr. Olmo really well.

    She wrote:

    “Very interesting to me that in 1938, Dr. Olmo spent six months in France for the purposes of really getting to know French grape varieties, viticulture and regions. He was based in Montpellier where he spent time studying the University’s grapevine variety collections there, taking careful notes and bringing home, in many cases, samples. He speaks of a grape variety in the collection which he says was labeled and called ‘bas plante;’ and he was convinced that it was what we here call Petite Sirah. He has written a description of the plant and I think he may even have brought home leaf samples.

    “I’ve asked Jean Michel Boursiquot if he has ever heard of ‘bas plante’ and he says he has not, but Dr. Olmo was quite clear in his journal.

    “Also, as I recall (and I must go back and look), he said there were two or three selections right next to each other in the Montpellier varietal collection. One was Durif, one was this ‘Bas Plante.'”

    [SIDEBAR: Jean-Michel Boursiquot is France’s foremost authority on French grapevine varieties, and primary varieties ID to INRA.]

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