February 4, 2007

1999 Kent Rasmussen Petite Syrah, Napa Valley, California

We posted a review of a Kent Rasmussen Carneros Pinot Noir a couple of weeks ago. We liked that wine a lot and enjoyed learning about this highly regarded winery. I saw this Petite Syrah by Kent Rasmussen and thought it would be an interesting wine, especially given its vintage of 1999.

Petite Syrah (Sirah) is an interesting grape varietal. Many people assume that it is a version of Syrah, and they are not incorrect, but Petite Sirah is a distant, distant hybrid cousin of Syrah and has its history intertwined with winemaking in California in the late 1800's.

In the 1880's a French doctor specializing in the wine producing grapes of southern France began experimenting with hybrids and clones. His name was Dr. Francois Durif, and he created a new grape based on the seed of an ancient varietal, Peloursin, and the pollen of a grape he assumed to be Syrah, which through genetic testing we now know to be the source. He named this new varietal after himself, Durif, which was not especially catchy.

During the 1870's the Syrah varietal had been introduced into California with much success. Among the Syrah vines were many that produced very low-yielding but concentrated fruit. These came to be known as Petite Syrah and began to be cultivated in their own right separated from what vineyard owners took to be traditional Syrah. In the mid-1880's the Durif varietal from Dr. Durif was brought over to California and vineyard owners began planting vineyard lots to experiment with diversifying their vineyard holdings. The Durif grape in California came to be known as "Petite Sirah." During the 1890's Phylloxera destroyed almost all of the Syrah vines of California and as the Durif/Petite Sirah vines were thriving and seemed resistant to Phylloxera many vineyards were replanted with Petite Sirah brought over from France or from cuttings from the existing vines. Though Petite Sirah is distantly related to Syrah, in several vineyards the name came to mean Syrah, Petite Syrah, Petite Sirah and Durif. It was not until the 1990's that it was conclusively established that Petite Sirah is genetically related to the noble old-world Syrah of the Rhone, the same grape that makes up Hermitage and Cote-Rotie.

Kent Rasmussen makes wines from several different varietals, but as mentioned before it is Pinot Noir that the winery is most known for. Petite Sirah, though, is a favorite and the winery has consistently produced excellent vintages of this varietal. Interestingly, the 1999 vintage was the last vintage that the winery referred to the wine as "Petite Syrah" and in 2000 they began labeling it "Petite Sirah," which is technically more accurate.

We decanted this wine and let sit for about 45 minutes before tasting. When we poured we were very surprised by the nose. It was full of terrific blueberry fruit, round and almost sweet smelling. This was balanced by a little bit of coffee and a very distinct quality that was hard for me to place. At first I thought it was almost like the sweetness of kerosene, with a tinge of sulfur or tar. All in all, the nose was complex and very interesting. The palate delivered soft blueberry and blackberry balanced by nice tannins, totally reined in, and an earthy finish with the same tar-like quality that was in the nose. It was very balanced and the structure would lend itself very well to pairing with a variety of foods. We found this wine enjoyable and an excellent value given its excellent quality.

cost - $22.99

winecommando rating (1-10) - 8.75

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