Every other week, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 joins us to talk some Serious Grape. Here's the latest.
Before Sideways, did you buy lots of Pinot Noir? Or did it take the film and its famous line about Merlot to get you off the ubiquitous red wine of the 1990s in favor of something a bit lighter on its feet?
Wine grapes have as many promising upswings and dismal downward trends as your stock portfolio. Whenever two or more wine enthusiasts are gathered in a room, sometime after the second glass of wine the conversation inevitably turns to crystal ball gazing and trying to figure out what the next big grape will be. Which grape will capture the public imagination like Pinot Noir?
There is a surprising amount of consensus when it comes to the next big red. Most of us think it will be Petite Sirah.
Don’t let the name fool you. This is a big tannic grape variety that is actually a French cross between Syrah and Peloursin. It never bowled anyone over in its native country, where it produced very low yields, but give it some hot California sunshine and you have a wine that tastes like a very-berry Zinfandel that walked through a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard with a dark chocolate bar clutched in its fist.
Drinkable when young, wines made from Petite Sirah have the potential to age beautifully for ten years and more. Some of them are silky, others have a heart of darkness at the core. They pair with the same rich and robust foods that you would serve with a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel, yet have expressive blackbery, coffee, and cocoa flavors that are unlike anything else. Some of my favorite Petite Sirahs made in this country come from Enkidu, Four Vines, Judd’s Hill, Michael-David, and Twisted Oak. If you visit these sites you will see that winemakers dedicated to Petite Sirah are a bunch of mavericks, who love thinking outside the box and pushing the envelope.
These excellent, age-worthy Petite Sirahs have suggested retail prices of $24 to $35. While they aren’t the cheapest red wines in the market, they are priced well below Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons of comparable quality. That’s because the buzz is still building. If you like your reds big and have the space to store a few bottles and drink them over the next decade at holiday dinners and other special events, I think you’ll find that the wine in your stash will deliver far more than you paid for it in flavor and enjoyment.
The Next Big White?
While Petite Sirah is poised for a leading role as the next big red, what about white grapes? That’s a lot harder to predict. Chardonnay has been the dominant white grape variety for decades, and though U.S. drinkers have flirted with Pinot Grigio (ah, the 90s!), and are now dabbling in Riesling, I’m not sure either will emerge as America’s new favorite white. And the likeliest alternatives—Viognier and Albariño—still have a ways to go if they are going to take a star turn. Both have the body and style to draw wine drinkers’ attention.
But at a time when most Chardonnay drinkers are turning to unoaked versions because they’re tired of their wine tasting like toothpicks, Viognier producers are putting their juice in barrels to make them taste more like Chardonnay. This doesn't seem like the right decision from where I stand. And we’re still in the earliest days of Albariño production here in the U.S. so we’re not sure what the grape is going to be able to do over here—although recent bottles from Bonny Doon and Bokisch suggest that there may be some tasty surprises in store.
If you want to get in on Petite Sirah before the stampede starts and the prices rise, check out the wines mentioned above and visit the Petite Sirah advocacy site, P.S. I Love You to find out more about the grape and for a complete list of member wineries who grow the grape in the United States. If you have your own predictions for the next big grape—red or white—leave them in the comments. We’ll check back in a year or so to see how our predictions are faring.