Petite sirah used to have something of an identity crisis. Despite its name (and the fact that some wineries added to the confusion by labeling their wines as "petite syrah"), the grape isn't a diminutive version of syrah. To the contrary, wines made from petite sirah are usually inky-dark, full-bodied and sometimes very tannic.

Now the variety is better understood. It has gained enough of a following to have spawned its own fan club of sorts: P.S. I Love You. And acreage in California has been climbing steadily in recent years, rising to more than 8,600 acres last year. (Not exactly huge numbers -- there were 80,000 acres of cabernet sauvignon -- but healthy nonetheless.) Among the coastal counties, San Luis Obispo County is by far the leader, with more than 1,400 acres. And most of that is in Paso Robles.

Archives: David Viano, of Viano Vineyards in Martinez, pours a glass of his wine during the 10th Annual Arts, Wine & Jazz festival in Brentwood, Calif. on
Archives: David Viano, of Viano Vineyards in Martinez, pours a glass of his wine during the 10th Annual Arts, Wine & Jazz festival in Brentwood, Calif. on Aug. 27, 2011. (Sherry LaVars/Bay Area News Group Archives)

Petite sirah and Paso Robles seem to be a good fit. I recently judged petite sirahs at the Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles. Although the competition is open to entries from a number of counties, the vast majority of the 20 petites we evaluated were from Paso Robles. Judging a category of 20 big, often tannic reds can be an ordeal, but this group was actually pretty exciting. Sure, there were some duds -- too much tannin, oak or both were the most common complaints -- but most of the wines were good or even exceptional.

The top petite sirah was the 2011 Broken Earth Winery Petite Sirah ($22, but not yet released), from the winery's estate vineyard on Highway 46 East in Paso Robles. Although petite sirah can sometimes be big, bruising and a little one-dimensional, this one is spicy, floral and structured, with ripe black fruit, a note of lavender, some spicy oak and firm tannins.


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Chris Cameron, winemaker at Broken Earth, says he has worked with petite sirah for many years in other places (including Australia, where it's called durif), and he always found it to be a handy blending component. But he thinks that Paso Robles petite sirah is much more expressive.

Paso Robles, he explains, is able to produce grapes with concentrated flavors and high acidity to go along with their high sugars. "Petite sirah in Paso loves the dry heat and benefits from the much cooler evenings," Cameron says, "although 2011 and 2012 had relatively warm nights by comparison through ripening. This, I believe, has advanced the fruit ripening to be more in balance with sugar ripening -- hence the wonderful results. The variety is a bit of a juggling act but certainly worth the effort."

Another gold medalist was the 2009 Donatoni Petite Sirah ($25), which has lots of exuberant fruit, a note of dark chocolate and firm tannins. Hank Donatoni, owner and winemaker at Donatoni Winery in Paso Robles, says, "If you can't make wine out of petite sirah, you shouldn't be making wine. That and syrah are two of the easiest grapes to work with."

The final gold medalist was the 2011 Hearst Ranch "The Pergola" Petite Sirah ($25), also from Paso Robles, which will be released in July. It offers ample lively black fruit, a lovely floral note (not unlike the Broken Earth) and firm but approachable tannins.

Other standout petite sirahs, all from Paso Robles, included the 2010 San Marcos Creek Petite Sirah ($28), with its ripe, spicy black fruit, hint of tobacco and very firm tannins; the dark, glass-coating 2008 Frolicking Frog Petite Sirah ($32), which is lively and quite fruity; and the 2009 Hidden Oak Petite Sirah ($30), a wine with fresh, dark fruit, a note of cedar, and tannins that are more polished than what you find in many petite sirahs.

Hearst Ranch Winery Petite Sirah
Hearst Ranch Winery Petite Sirah (Contributed)

One interesting wine that we tasted displayed petite sirah's potential in a cooler climate -- in this case, Edna Valley, an appellation better known for chardonnay and pinot noir. The 2010 Phantom Rivers Petite Sirah ($28) is from Wolff Vineyard and displays some peppery, cool-climate character. It's also spicy and rich, with dark fruit and firm tannins. I've tasted several petites from Wolff Vineyards over the years, and it's proving to be a great spot for more savory versions of the variety.

This was the first year that wines from Contra Costa County were part of the competition. Two wineries scored impressive best-of-class wins for their dessert wines. From Martinez, the 2007 Viano Zinfandel Port ($17), a winner in the fortified category, offers sweet berry and dried fig flavors, accented by a hint of white pepper. The 2011 Cline Cellars Late Harvest Mourvedre ($32), from a vineyard in Oakley, was the top dessert wine; it's very well-balanced, with luscious, sweet berry, some raisin flavors and a hint of coffee.

The top wine of the competition was the delicious 2010 Bodegas Paso Robles Monastrell ($39) -- monastrell is the Spanish name for mourvedre. It was a dark, smoky wine that displayed notes of roasted meat and lavender and finishes with approachable tannins.

Contact Laurie Daniel at ladaniel@earthlink.net.