Syrah vs Petite Sirah – Find the Best Grapes and Flavor!

There are thousands of wine grape varietals in the world today. All the same, it is safe to say that there are more wine grape varietals than most wine enthusiasts will ever have the joy of experiencing.

Now, as if ordering as well as tasting wine at the local restaurant is not anxiety-provoking enough, many wine enthusiasts and drinkers still can not tell the difference between Syrah and Petite Sirah.

Yes, many wine lovers have grappled with this question for a considerably long time:

What is the difference between Syrah and Petite Syrah? Why are they spelled differently? Which one is smaller, better, or bigger? How sure are you that they are not related, seeing as they are so similar in pronunciation and spelling? Etc.

This is what this article is all about: explaining the difference between these two types of wine. So, sit back with your favorite glass of wine and let’s dive in!

Syrah vs Petite Syrah: General Information

But before taking them apart and discussing everything about them individually, it is necessary to mention the fact that Syrah and Petite Syrah are not the same: they are different varietals with different flavor profiles or compositions. Syrah grapes are much older than Petite Syrah grapes, and it hails from the northern Rhône region in France.

Petite Syrah – also known as Durif – came into existence as a result of the cross-pollination between a French red grape that is almost extinct, known as Peloursin, and Syrah. This procedure was conducted in the late 19th century by Francois Durif, a botanist. Although Petite Syrah was first grown in France, it never really took off in the republic as it wasn’t too well-suited to the growing climate.

However, it thrived in California – particularly in Mendocino, Sonoma, and Napa – and soon became very popular. It was introduced into the state in the 19th century, i.e. the late 1870s and was initially used to give tannin and color to jug wines. It was one of the most favorite grapes among vintners and by the 20th century, i.e. 1900, Italian immigrants residing in Sonoma County – as well as other parts of the state – used Petite Syrah extensively in what is referred to as “field blend.” This is a vineyard which is planted with several grape varieties side by side. It was from this vineyard that the fruits were harvested, crushed and then fermented simultaneously.

Syrah, on the other hand, is the noble red grapefruit of the Rhône Valley and had been in use in the northern Rhône for the full-bodied Cornas and Hermitage for centuries. It was also used in the southern Rhône for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes-du-Rhône blends as well.

Syrah was introduced to California in 1878, but by 1890, the few plantings were obliterated by a devastating root louse – known as phylloxera – which destroyed a limitless number of vineyards.

However, Syrah re-appeared in California in 1959, thanks to the Christian Brothers of Napa who decided to plant the grape on four acres of land as an experiment. Joseph Phelps happened to be the first to take note that the climate in California and the Rhône Valley were incredibly similar, and by 1974, he produced the first set of 100 percent bottling of Syrah in California.

Syrah’s allure has endured from Joseph Phelps’ first bottling through the ‘80s and has virtually remained unexplored by wine enthusiasts in the United States until the early ‘90s. This was around the time when alcoholic beverage hunters and wine lovers were thirstily searching for alternatives to Cabernet Sauvignon.

It is believed that Syrah is perhaps the fastest proliferating varietal in California as in 1982, only about 87 acres were planted. But by 1995, there were about 1,300 acres planted. Today, more than 7,000 acres are planted with Syrah. All the same, the total acreage of Syrah is somewhat tiny when compared with the 17,500 acres in Australia and the 32,500 acres in France.

The only similarities between Syrah and Petite Syrah are that they are grapes that make big, vibrant, red wines and also considered to be Rhône varietals. This is where their similarities end.

In the next few paragraphs, each varietal will be discussed individually in detail to show the significant differences between the two.

Syrah Wine Grapes, Character, Flavor Wine Food Pairing tips

As mentioned briefly earlier, Syrah is the red wine grape that dominates the Rhône Valley, and even more, are cultivated in France more than in any other nation in the world. Syrah is also grown nearly all over the world, close to 70,000 hectares.

Syrah is the only red wine grape that is allowed by the AOC rules in the appellations of Cote Rotie and Hermitage. It is the only grapefruit that is planted in the Northern Rhône today. Syrah is, therefore, one of the most widely planted and popular red wine grape varieties in the world as at today.

Main differences between Syrah and Petite Sirah

  • Grapes – While Syrah grapes come from France’s Rhone Valley, Petite Sirah grapes are a French import, but they are a cross between Syrah and Peloursin grapes.
  • Body – While Petite Sirah may sound lighter than its counterpart, this in fact isn’t true. Petite Sirah is bolder, boasting rich full flavor and powerfully dense tannins, giving Petite Sirah much more body.
  • World wide popularity – While Syrah is a popular choice practically world-wide, Petite Sirah is typically only produced in the United States. Petite Sirah was initially produced in France, but shortly after, production slowed down and most was imported to the US and the rest of the world.
  • Taste – Syrah is typically more moderate with acidity and tannins. It grows in cooler climates and has notes of fruits such as red plum, blueberry, olive, mild pepper, chocolate, herbs, and flowers. Petite Sirah on the other hand, has an inky black and purple color. It boasts big flavors with strong tannins and acidity. It has hints of black plum, smoky fruits, spices, pepper, dark chocolate, coffee, and caramel.

Syrah Grapes

Syrah grapes were developed from two ancient varietals and came into existence when a dark-skinned berry known as Dureza was crossed with a white-skinned grape called Mondeuse Blanche. This wildly successful experiment is believed to have taken place somewhere on the west bank of the Rhône.

This pairing is an interesting one as neither of these individual grapes ever gained any form of mass popularity before they were crossed. Both berries were planted in the Northern Rhône Valley which eventually became the home of Syrah. Both Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza are seldom seen and therefore, remain obscure until today.

Syrah Grapes: The Discovery of its Origin

The origin of Syrah grapes was discovered after extensive research was carried out at UC Davies. The study was spearheaded by the owner of Lagier Meredith wines in Napa – which produces excellent wine from Rhône varieties such as Syrah Grapes – named Carole Meredith.

No one knows how long Syrah grapes have existed with any degree of accuracy. Many believe the fact that ancient Romans possibly planted the grapefruit in Vienne, popularly called Cote Rotie today. According to the writings of a particular Roman known as Pliny the Elder, the vines at the time were known as Allobrogica.

However, it is possible for the Syrah grape to be even far more ancient than is realized. Some historians, after in-depth research, also opine that Syrah may have been grown by the Greeks over 500 years earlier than their counterparts, the Romans!

So, even though no one knows how long Syrah grape has been used in making exceptional wine, the grapefruit continues to gain even more popularity with each passing day.

Syrah exhibits its best expression in Hermitage and Cote Rotie. In Cote Rotie, some vintners blend the grape with Viognier to produce one of the most opulent, heavily perfumed exotic wines in the world.

Syrah is presently the sixth most planted grapefruit in the world today, though that has not always been the case. But then, the grape started prominence in the 1800s in both the Languedoc Roussillon area as well as the Rhône Valley.

Syrah’s Explosion in the ‘60s

In 1960, Syrah was planted on 2,000 hectares in France and rose to 68,000 hectares by 2005. Today, over 70,000 hectares are dedicated to the cultivation of Syrah, and there is no sign that number is going to dwindle. If anything, it is expected to continue increasing astronomically, thanks to the high demand of this alcoholic beverage all over the world.

The Languedoc-Roussillon appellation, which has up to 43,000 hectares of vines, has the most extensive harvests of Syrah.

Food Pairing with Syrah

Syrah is perfect when it comes to food pairings. The fact that it is a dry wine makes it highly suitable to a wide array of foods which include – but not limited to – smoked, roasted or grilled meat dishes such as beef, veal, barbecue, duck, sausage as well as chicken dishes. This implies that Syrah-based wines, as well as game, make an excellent and perfect pairing.

Syrah also pairs exceptionally well with fishes, braised dishes, and stewed meats. Syrah is – for many wine lovers – the only wine that works remarkably well with a variety of winter comfort dishes such as grilled steaks, cassoulet, American hamburgers, etc. Syrah also pairs excellently well with a plethora of different soft and hard cheeses.

Syrah Grape: Appearance

Syrah is a small-sized, dark-skinned berry that grows luxuriantly in small bunches. The shape of the grape looks somewhat like that of an egg and produces naturally high tannins and acidity, though these characteristics are not extremely high.

The best period Syrah grapes ripen is in dry climates in soils and terroirs which permit deep root penetration. The grape is relatively hard, though it is highly nonresistant to coulure after it flowers as well as attacks from oidium and mildew.

Syrah produced highly concentrated, deep-colored, rich or vibrant red wines which can age as well as evolve for several years. The typical flavors and scents you will perceive as you take a glass of wine made from Syrah include:

  • Flowers
  • Black cherries
  • Chocolate
  • Blueberry
  • Earth
  • Spice
  • Cassis
  • Licorice
  • Blackberries
  • Pepper
  • Plums
  • Truffles

Most of these secondary attributes usually develop during the aging process of the wine, thanks to the fact that Syrah thrives in a myriad of soils and terroirs. However, the wine grape performs best when cultivated in rocky, steep hillsides which are commonly found in the Northern Rhône Valley. That location is filled with limestone, schist, gravel, granite, iron, and sandy soils.

Wines made from the Syrah grape has been popular for centuries; this is evident because even the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was said to have raved about the quality and piquancy of wines of Hermitage in his diary.

In the early 19th century, Hermitage was known to be the most expensive wine in the entire world. This is evident when an advert from the famous Nicolas wine merchants located in Paris from 1821 was unearthed and revealed that both white and red Hermitage was offered at prices that were significantly higher than any Bordeaux or Burgundy wine.

Between the 18th and the 19th century, Bordeaux wine merchants blend portions of Hermitage with the aim of giving more backbone to Bordeaux wines. This was offered as customized service to interested parties.

The wines back then were ordered and named Bordeaux plus. Chateau Palmer, a French vintner, decided to pay homage to wines from previous centuries by producing wine in some vintages that blended approximately 15 percent Syrah with Margaux wine.

As mentioned briefly earlier, the first plantings of the Syrah grapefruit in California occurred in 1878 at the Napa Valley. But growers, at the time, mistakenly called the fruit “Petite Syrah” because of the small sizes of the berries. But it was not until 1884 that Durif imported Petite Syrah into California. More light will be thrown on this aspect of the arrival and development of Petite Syrah a bit later.

The style of Syrah-based wines varies widely, though this depends significantly on both the producer as well as the terroir. In Cote Rotie, for instance, a good number of vintners produced exceptional wines, the uncontroversial champions of the entire appellation, i.e. the top three wines are known as La Mouline, La La’s, and La Landonne.

But then, many other wine producers in Cote Rotie are working hard to produce wines of extraordinary quality using the Syrah grape in Cote Rotie. The majority of the wineries that are located on the Cote Blonde usually blend small portions of Viognier, the white wine grape in a bid to add aromatics and enhance the textures of the wines.

Syrah also produces great wine in Argentina, Australia, Spain, Chile, Italy, America, South Africa, Switzerland, etc. The grape was introduced into Australia in 1831 by James Busby from France. The berry, at the time, was widely known as Hermitage, where it originated from.

There were also several instances when the Syrah grape was labeled along phonetic lines for Syrah for Scyras and Ciras. But the French would have none of it, thanks to their protected designation of origin which they enforced, even though the “Syrah” was, at some point, changed to “Shiraz” in the 1980s. In Australia, many wine enthusiasts believe its best expressions arise from the planting in the Barossa Valley. The grape is called “Shiraz” in South Africa to this day.

After Joseph Phelps who was among the first known growers to produce Syrah in the sun-drenched state of California, Gary Eberle also made a mark in history as an early Syrah pioneer who began cultivating the grape in what is referred to now as the Central Coast.

Today, Syrah is cultivated in Northern California as well as Washington state, Oregon, and the Central Coast. Many wineries in America use Syrah for making fine wine. But the benchmark for the level of quality obtained from California Syrah is set by wines from Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non.

Although the popularity of Syrah in California appears to be overshadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon, the Syrah grape continues to gain a lot of favor with the masses and growers alike. To drive home this point, about 2,206 acres were devoted to the cultivation of Syrah in California in 1995, and by 2003, it was increased to over 16,000 acres.

Petite Syrah Wine Grapes, Character, Flavor Wine Food Pairing tips

Petite Syrah became known by that name due to the small size of the berries and not necessarily the name of the wine. It is one of the most potent and significant tannic wines produced in the United States, and until the early 1960s, the grapefruit was one of the most popular – and common – varieties that were planted in Napa Valley, California.

However, since that period, Petite Syrah appears to have fallen somewhat from favor while it’s the popularity of its counterpart, Cabernet Sauvignon, continue to soar to high heavens. Nevertheless, over the past few years, there has been a revitalization which is bringing Petite Syrah to the world stage in general, and California in particular as plantings of this small grapes have continued to increase significantly.

Petite Syrah can age for several decades. To enjoy the best Petite Syrah-based alcoholic beverage, the wine must be aged for a minimum of 2 decades or even more.  Don’t be surprised if you come across 40-year old Petite Syrah bottles that are concentrated, fresh, and highly vibrant.

Petite Syrah Grapes: The Discovery of Its Origin

Petite Syrah is a new grape variety that was created by Dr. Francois Durif when he succeeded in crossing Syrah with Peloursin, another grape. This wasn’t the primary aim of the experiment, though, because Dr. Durif at the time was looking for a way to make Syrah even more resistant to a fungus known as mildew.

Now, although the resulting new vine was decidedly more resistant to powdery mildew and other diseases, the compact way in which the grapefruit developed in bunches made the clusters highly susceptible to bunch rot.

The French, at first, discounted Petite Syrah’s potential to produce high-quality wine, holding on to the erroneous belief that the new vine will produce nothing but sub-par wines which lack the aromatic complexities and textures found in Syrah wine. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Today, Petite Syrah – formerly known as Durif in France – is only approved for cultivation in one appellation, i.e. Palette, which is located in Provence.

Although Petite Syrah was not all that popular in its place of origin, it found a home outside the shores of France; in California and then later on in Australia. Growers in California started cultivating Petite Syrah as far back as 1884 but appeared much later in Australia by 1908. For several years, the grape continued to rise in prominence and popularity in the Napa Valley before suddenly falling from favor.

In California today, many vintners produce wine from 100 percent Petite Syrah while a few others use the varietal as a blending grape with Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. When blended, the Petite Syrah grape adds a tannic backbone as well as color, and structure to the alcoholic beverage. The varietal also helps in reducing the mellowed or overripe jammy quality that is often found in Zinfandel.

The best of Petite Syrah comes from old vines, and the two best sources for old vine Petite Syrah are found in the grapes that are planted in the Library and Hayne vineyards. Both vineyards can be located at St. Helena, California.

Hayne vineyards have vines that were planted over 70 years ago, but it cannot hold a candle to the historic Library vineyard that has been a home for vines that were planted since 1890. These old vines give Petite Syrah density of flavor as well as incredible concentration. Another reason why old vines are crucial for Petite Syrah is that the grape is inclined to high yields, especially when it is young unless the plant is cropped back.

How Easy is It to Grow Petite Syrah?

Petite Syrah is relatively easy to cultivate, thanks to its natural tendency to produce massive and highly tannic wines, often on the rustic side. However, both growers and vintners are careful when it comes to managing the tannins. They can only do this effectively by achieving both ripeness as well as gentle extractions.

Food pairing with Petite Syrah

Petite Syrah produces purple-colored, dark and inky wines with flavors of spice, blackberry, black pepper, blueberries, and licorice. The robust, hardy, fruity, tannic, and dense alcoholic beverage pairs perfectly with a wide range of dishes including grilled and braised meats stews, meats, short ribs, barbecue of all types as well as hamburgers.

Knowing the Difference Between Sweet vs Dry Wine and the Impact on Your Overall Health

Another study has also buttressed the fact that red wine can be very good for your overall health, especially if it is consumed in moderation and dry. But before you reach for that red bottle of wine in your closet or dash to the nearest wine store in your locality, you need to pause and ask yourself whether or not you know the difference between sweet and dry wine. This question can be very confusing, especially if your favorite wine is fruity.

 Most people are always eager to reach for a bottle of red wine when they read about its benefit to health as reported by the Time magazine in which some people with type 2 diabetes drank just one glass of dry red wine along with dinner that was based on a Mediterranean diet.

The Time article also mentioned the benefits of drinking red wine, which includes:

  • Getting better sleep;
  • A higher level of good HDL cholesterol;
  • A substantial drop in components of metabolic syndrome, etc.

But the big question remains: which bottle should you reach for since you do not really understand or can differentiate between sweet and dry red wine? This is what is about to be addressed in this section.

The Difference Between Sweet and Dry Red Wine

The first thing you need to realize here is that before the juice – which is obtained from wine grapes – becomes wine, it contains lots of natural sugar (fructose and glucose) from the fruit that is grown in the vine. The presence of sugar in the juice is significant as it plays the crucial role of turning into alcohol during the process of fermentation. Without sugar, therefore, this would not be possible.

Now, a wine – whether red or white – is considered sweet when it contains a considerable amount of residual sugar, i.e. natural sugar that is left after the fermentation process has been completed.

It is, therefore, the amount of sugar that is left in a wine – i.e. which is known as RS or residual sugar – that qualifies it as “sweet.” However, it seems there are no stringently enforced or hard-and-fast rules that distinguish sweet from dry. This debunks the thought that residual sugar in wine comes from granulated sugar or from corn syrup which a lot of wine enthusiasts erroneously believe. This line of thinking is not unconnected to the fact that some cheap wine producers often use grape concentrate or sugar to sweeten their wines. This is why you should always take out time to seek high-quality wines from trusted and renowned vintners.

But according to research posted on a particular website that is dedicated to discussing wines and their origins, etc., a wine that contains less than 10 grams of residual sugar is to be considered “dry” while anything above 35 grams of sugar should be seen as “sweet.” The area in between these two extremes, i.e. from 11 grams to 34 grams, is referred to as “off-dry.”

In some instances, though, some wines can fall below the 10-grams residual sugar line and still have a sweet taste. This is often attributed to the fruitiness of the alcoholic beverage.

Wines usually range from 0 to 220 grams per liter sugar, depending significantly on the style. Even though wines can contain up to 10 grams of sugar per bottle, it can still taste dry.

  • Bone dry
  • Dry: 0-6 sugar calories per glass
  • Off-dry: 6-12 sugar calories for each glass
  • Sweet: 21-72 sugar calories for every glass
  • Very sweet: 72-130 sugar calories per glass

Take note that sweetness in sparkling wine is measured somewhat differently. But that is outside the scope of this article, so it will not be discussed here for now.

What Makes Some Wines Dry and While A Few Others Are Sweet?

During the winemaking process, yeast consumes sugar to produce ethanol – or what is generally referred to as “alcohol” – as a by-product. A wine becomes “dry” when the yeasts eat up all the sugars present in the juice. A sweet wine, however, becomes so because the action of the enzyme is interrupted or stopped – and this usually happens via the chilling of the fermentation – before it consumes all the sugars in the juice.

This is the primary reason why some sweet wines come with less alcohol content compared to dry wines. An excellent example of a wine that exhibits both characteristics is the German Riesling. This wine usually has approximately 8-9 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) when it is sweet and about 10-11 percent alcohol by volume when it is dry.

How You Can Determine the Residual Sugar in Wine

The truth is, as a human, you don’t have the ideal or adequate capacity to determine the exact amount of residual sugar in wine just by tasting it with your naked tongue. Even highly-trained or professional tasters often find it challenging to identify residual sugar in an alcoholic beverage like wine, though it is possible to learn this by constant practice.

The #1 reason why you cannot taste sweetness or the amount of residual sugar in wine is attributed to the other traits that most wines come with, which include tannins and acidity levels. These characteristics can severely distort your sensitivity to sweetness.

To verify this assertion, taste a few granules of sugar, i.e. a small portion of sugar on a teaspoon. Then while biting into a citrus fruit like lemon, get the same amount of sugar on your teaspoon and taste it again. The acidity you experienced from eating the lemon will effectively cancel out most or all of the sweetness from your tongue. This goes to show how unreliable it is to use your natural tongue to determine the level of residual sugar that is present in sweet wine.

The most accurate way to distinguish or identify sweetness in a glass of wine is by searching for the tech sheet about the wine in question. Many vintners or wine producers often provide the technical notes on each vintage as a courtesy. The amount of residual sugar is often displayed in one of three distinct ways:

  • As a percentage
  • In grams/100ml
  • In grams/Liter

But what happens if you cannot find the technical sheet or what if the residual sugar (RS) is not listed? Take careful note of the following tips:

  • Cheap wines generally have lots of residual sugar: It is safe to readily assume that the majority of the most affordable wines – which cost less than $10 – contain some amounts of residual sugar, possibly anywhere from 2-15 g/L. This rule is not cast in stone, meaning that there are exceptions to it. So, endeavor to look for more information when determining the amount of residual sugar in the wine.
  • Drink less: At 15 grams/Liter RS, a wine can only add approximately 7.5 sugar calories. This is why the best way to go is to drink wine in moderation. This will lessen the amount of sugar that will be floating around, unhindered, in your blood.
  • Buy affordable but high-quality wines: If you don’t want to encounter sugar-loaded cheap wines, then you have no choice than to spend a little more than you usually do on a bottle of wine. The producers of wines that cost around $15-20 usually featureless residual sugar, if any at all.

The grapes used in producing these wines are premium quality fruits, so the wines do not need sweetness in order to taste fruity.

Fruity is Not Equal to Sweetness

In your quest to finding out more about wines or perhaps in a restaurant or bar, you may have picked up the words “fruit-forward,” but don’t really know what it means or signifies. “Fruit forward” basically refers to the dominance of a particular fruit flavor other than the main grape used in making the wine. It could be that blackberry taste that is common to a Zinfandel or the black cherry flavor often associated with a Merlot.

In reality, neither Merlot nor Zinfandel contains any other fruit other than the grapes used in making the alcoholic beverage, yet these different flavors often come through. They are the primary reasons why such wines are usually described as “fruity.”

The majority of the bottles of Zinfandel and Merlot are dry since they contain little amounts of residual sugar. Sweet wines can also be described as “juicy” or “jammy,” so take note the next time you come across this wine descriptors.

Great Examples of Dry Red Wines

Researchers had taken their time to study dry wines and were able to glean the benefits when they paired dry red wine with a Mediterranean-style dinner. Dry red wines are incredibly food-friendly.

Here are some easy-to-find dry red wines you can enjoy at your leisure:

  • Syrah
  • Petite Syrah
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Zinfandel
  • Malbec
  • Pinot Noir
  • Carmenere
  • Sangiovese
  • Merlot
  • Grenache/Garnacha
  • Tempranillo

It is quite reassuring to know that many of the premium red wines out there – which taste “dry” – generally feature fewer amounts of residual sugar. Although a little sugar in red wine is not a bad thing, going on a sugar witch hunt before you taste the difference may prevent you from having an enjoyable experience.

Many wine enthusiasts and alcoholic beverage hunters do love – and prefer – a little touch of residual sugar in their red wine, and this is due to the complexity, body, and richness that sugar usually adds to red wine.

Conclusion: Syrah vs Petite Syrah Explained

So, you have learned that Syrah and Petite Syrah are their own varietals. Armed with this knowledge, you will never again be confused by a tasting menu in, wondering whether or not you should pick Syrah or Petite Syrah.

Both wine varieties offer a lot, especially when paired with something delicious for dinner. What makes wine-drinking a lot of fun is the simple fact that it is ever-evolving, and the flavors will always show up with something new.

Ben Holt

Ben practiced as a "Wine connoisseur" in the restaurant industry for over 2 years. He suggested, tested and educated diners on which wine would best fit their meal. Ben is also a freelance writer with over 4 years of experience. He now shares his insights on wine and wine accessories for those looking to take their love of this amazing beverage to the next level!

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