- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- BIG AND BOLD : Vina Robles winemakers Matthias Gubler (left) and Aaron Jackson (right) make spicy, complex Petite Sirah wines.
When Gubler produced the Vina Robles 2004 Petite Sirah Endpost, a reserve level wine, I thought I’ve finally found a Petite Sirah I love and highly recommended it. So I was thrilled when he recently opened a bottle of the Endpost so I could see how it had aged. What was a big, showy wine upon release wasn’t nearly as impressive at this stage. It wasn’t bad, still big and fruity, but it was tightly wound and not giving. Of course, a few more years aging and it could still come around.
The Swiss-born winemaker then honestly informed me: “This was not my usual style in making Petite Sirah. We used 100 percent new oak (barrels), which we no longer do, and it was an experiment at the time. My style is more drinkable, the typical Vina Robles style.”
WINE OF THE YEAR: The winner of the “2009 Critics Challenge,” an international wine competition held in San Diego, was Paso Robles winemaker David Frick for his Clayhouse 2006 Petite Sirah ($24 retail). Awarded the highest honor as “wine of the year,” Clayhouse has consistently earned gold medals in wine competitions across the country. “The 2006 has five to six percent Syrah just to soften it so it’s more restrained and elegant,” Frick explained. “Petite Sirah makes a big wine typically; you have to work with it to keep it under control.” Frick says their mature vineyard is the key to their success.
The 40-year-old Petite Sirah vines were planted in 1968 with cuttings from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley wine region. Compared to the large crop yields in 2005, he noted 2006 was a cooler growing season with average rainfall, resulting in higher quality grapes. Frick has been part of the winemaking team since their first wines were made in 2001 by Napa Valley winemaker Tom Eddy. “Petite Sirah is coming into its own as a well respected variety, so I expect to see a lot more diversity and style,” Frick said. “Ours has been more approachable earlier with better structure than those grown in warmer climates, like Lodi. We strive to make wines that over-deliver for the price.”
Indeed, we tasted the 2003 Petite Sirah estate wine and it was much more impressive. It offered an array of tasty fruit flavors with loads of spice and juicy acidity and it was still very well balanced. I preferred it to the reserve I’d raved so much about, and it was more food friendly. His 2007 Petite Sirah from Jardine Ranch was also impressive. Spicy and complex with red and black fruit flavors with the full-bodied, briary characters one expects from this variety, it’s a quaffable wine that’s also food friendly.
During our tasting at Vina Robles I was introduced to another young winemaker, Aaron Jackson, whose eponymous brand “Aaron” is devoted to Petite Sirah. His mantra made me laugh—“Go big or go home”—and it’s the style of Petite Sirah he prefers. But his 2006 was impressive with its big blackberry and plum flavors highlighted with briary notes of spice, leather, and meat, quite well balanced and drinkable on its own. Jackson explained: “I use toasted barrels for more mid-palate structure. My wine has darker chocolate and coffee flavors, which are opposite of Matthias.” Jackson, who began making his brand in 2002, says he likes extended barrel aging, as he says it’s done in Napa. “I like to push barrel age closer to 50 percent new oak, and usually bottle in August,” he said.
Both winemakers stress the importance of the right vineyards, while keeping crop yields down and harvesting in September to avoid overripe grapes. Vina Robles planted Petite Sirah in 1997 to enhance blends, but seeing its potential in 1999 they began producing it as a single varietal. “I get good consistency from year to year,” Gubler concluded.
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