WHAT: Petite sirah is a largely misunderstood wine that deserves more attention. It is big, bold, full of ripe fruit. You can drink it when it’s released, or set it aside for a few years to mellow it out.
I have enjoyed petite sirah for years, but realized I’ve only written about it a few times during the seven years I have been writing this column. I’ll try to make up for that oversight in the coming months because there is a lot of good petite sirah our there. The Frank Family petite sirah is one of the best.
This is the first release of the winery’s Napa Valley petite sirah. Their first reserve petite sirah was released in 2008, selling for about $60. The grape often is used as a blending grape, so maybe that is why they waited so long to release it as a varietal. It was worth the wait.
The wine is characteristically purple in the glass, with aromas of blackberries, vanilla and licorice. The flavors are rich dark fruit, especially plums, blueberries and blackberries. Silky tannins with a hint of vanilla lead to a long, full finish. It is a hearty wine that doesn’t blast you away with oak.
The grapes are 100 percent petite sirah, with 96 percent coming from Chiles Valley and four percent from Rutherford. The wine spent 20 months in 33 percent new French oak barrels and 67 percent in once- and twice-used French oak barrels.
This is a great wine to sip while sitting by the fire, but it gets even better when you pair it with food.
The name petite sirah is misleading. There is nothing petite about this wine, though DNA testing shows it is related to syrah. It’s origins are somewhat obscure. It could be that it got called petite sirah because the grapes are so small compared to syrah. Winemakers love small grapes because there is a great ratio of skin to juice, and a lot of the flavor and color in a wine come from the skin.
Many California vineyards in the 1800s were planted with a field blend of various grapes. Later testing showed that at least four different grapes were called petite sirah: durif, syrah, peloursin and a durif-peloursin combination. DNA testing has shown that petite sirah is the result of a syrah-peloursin crossing.
With only about 11,000 acres planted worldwide, petite sirah is found mostly in California.
Though not as popular as other varieties, petite sirah usually has more complexity, more fruit and a longer finish than other American red wines. I have enjoyed several petite sirah from my cellar that aged 8-10 years. The wine seems to get mellower with age without losing the full fruit flavors.
WINERY: Founded in 1992, Frank Family Vineyards is owned by former Disney Studios President Rich Frank, and his wife, Leslie, an Emmy Award-winning television journalist. Winemaker Todd Graff has been with the winery since 2003, creating a varied portfolio of wines from the family’s 380 acres of estate vineyards in the Napa Valley.
Graff was just promoted to general manager and will continue as winemaker. Over the past 13 vintages, he has crafted some outstanding wine, expanded the portfolio and oversaw construction of the new winery.
Frank started visiting Napa Valley from his Los Angeles home in the 1980s and eventually bought the historic Larkmead property in Napa Valley. The old Larkmead building, which dates back to 1884, is on the Registry of National Historic Places, but the winery is new. It opened a new tasting room in 2008 in a 1930s Craftsman home. The tasting room has been one of the most popular in Napa Valley for years, and won the reader’s choice award from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2010 and 2011.
The winery also is a great place to have a picnic. When people ask me where they should go for a wine country visit, this is always my first choice. There are several tasting rooms and several levels of tasting at the winery. Every time I have been there it has been fun.
The winery makes a range of varietals, including zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, sangiovese, chardonnay and some incredible sparkling wines. I opened a Frank Family Rouge sparkling wine for Thanksgiving, and it drew raves.
Rich Frank now also runs his own entertainment company, Prospect Park, which is developing television projects.
Frank Family also is certified Napa Green for both its vineyards and its winery in the Napa Green Certified Winery and Napa Green Certified Land programs. The program is designed to conserve and improve the quality of the environment through vineyard-specific programs. Certification also means the winery has minimized energy and water use, waste and pollution.
GOES WITH: With the weather turning cooler a few weeks ago it seemed like a good time to start making chili. I love eating chili on cold winter days, and even though some people like beer with chili, I think a hearty red wine is better.
Many red wines pair nicely with chili, but I particularly liked this petite sirah. It was bold enough to stand up to the spices, but also loaded with fruit to make all the flavors of the meal more complex. And if the chili is too spicy, it can put out the fire in your mouth.
The chili is a time-consuming recipe, but it produces great flavor. I cook bacon, then brown ground beef (or tiny beef cubes) and Italian sausage in the bacon grease. I also brown garlic, chopped onions and chopped bell peppers in the bacon fat.
I add beef broth, some canned tomatoes and tomato paste, green chiles, kidney beans and a load of spices that include bay leaf, chili powder, cumin, celery seed, paprika, oregano and cayenne. It changes each time I make it because I change the amounts, or add a few other things.
I usually serve it over macaroni or thin spaghetti like they do at my favorite Chicago-area chili parlor, Bishop’s, which has been around since my mom and dad were youngsters, some 90 years ago. They introduced me to Bishop’s and I try to stop there when I get back to Chicago. Bishop’s started in Pilsen, my old neighborhood, and then moved farther and farther west. It is now in Westmont.
I started by trying to recreate the Bishop’s taste, but later added more spices and the tomatoes.
The chili is best served in a deep bowl, topped
with cheese, chopped
green onions and oyster crackers.
This Frank Family petite sirah also would go well with most any meat on the grill, game or roast lamb.