There is nothing “petite” at all about Petite Sirah (spelled with an “i,” not a “y”), as it is indeed one of the Big Reds. The “petite” refers in part to the compact size of the grapes, and in part to its position as an offspring of Syrah.
The Petite Sirah grape originated in the 1870s in France’s Rhône region, the result of a cross between Syrah and a less well-known Rhône variety, Peloursin. Named after the French nurseryman Dr. François Durif, who created the cross, the “Durif” grape (also known as “Petite Sirah”) was created in hopes of giving Syrah a better ability to resist mildew. However, the resulting grape’s tight clusters replaced one problem, the susceptibility to mildew, with another—the susceptibility to grey rot in the humid Rhône region.
California’s climate is drier, and the tight little grape does relatively well there as long as the rains aren’t abnormally heavy and frequent. According to http://www.winepros.org/wi
The Petite Sirah grape was planted here and there in California for more than a century and was/is often used in blends, thanks to its deep color, intense tannins, and un-jammy flavors. It tones down, yet adds complexity, to wines that otherwise are heavily jammy, raisiny, and brown sugary.
The WinePros.org Petite Sirah page continues, “Most plantings of Petite Sirah were made before the 1960s, when vintners were mainly concerned with producing copious amounts of flavorful blends of generic ‘Burgundy.’ Field-blending was the norm during this time, with many varieties often interplanted. As a result, few vineyards identified as Petite Sirah are ‘pure.’ Vineyard blocks are often peppered with vines of Alicante Bouschet, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, the aforementioned Peloursin, or Zinfandel. The reality therefore is that wines from these vineyards labeled ‘Petite Sirah’ to at least some degree are [field] blends, accidentally if not purposefully.
“Just over 3,200 acres of grapes identified as Petite Sirah were planted in California as of year 2000. Although only a portion of these vineyards have been surveyed, recent DNA evidence from research led by Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis has confirmed most plantings to be the same grape as Durif. About 10% however, is Peloursin, which, observed in the field, is practically indistinguishable from Durif .… In April, 2002, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) announced they will forthwith consider Petite Sirah and Durif synonymous for use on wine labels.”
Petite Sirah produces dark, inky wines that can stain your wine-glasses blue. (My kind of tie-dye!) Because the grapes are small, the skin-to-juice ratio is high, which means the wines can be quite tannic. It’s often delicious by itself as a varietal, and we can also fully understand their charm and usefulness in blends.