Unlike many Varietals, Petite Sirah's origins are well known but its path to becoming one of the faster growing Varietals in California is less well known. A French Botanist, Francois Durif in the early 1880s brought it to light. In its native France, it is still called Durif although there is virtually no Durif plantings left in France because it is perceived to produce low quality wines. The name Petite Sirah was primarily coined and used in California until recently when other areas of the wine world jumped on the bandwagon. The US TTB still considers Petite Sirah and Durif to be different strains although UC Davis has proven that they are identical. Petite Sirah is often, and mistakenly spelled Petite Syrah, due to confusion with its parent, Syrah.
Petite Sirah is a hybridization of Peloursin and Syrah although whether it was an accidental discovery or a deliberate experiment is still open to debate. Those who espouse the view that Dr. Durif created the Petite Sirah on purpose, believe that he did so to help solve many of the problems associated with mildew that can plague Syrah in the Rhone. While it is far more resistant mildew, it was quickly discounted in its native Rhone region because it is susceptible to rot in the very humid Rhone region.
Petite Sirah traveled to California soon after its discovery with much better results due to California's dry climate. Other plantings also came to California still being called Durif, which has led to historical confusion. At the time of prohibition, Durif was one of the more widely planted Varietals in Napa Valley. After prohibition ended and the US began a half century love affair with the classic Bordeaux style wines, thousands of acres of Durif were either pulled out or cut back and grafted with the more "noble" Bordeaux Varietals.
The only thing Petite about Petite Sirah is the size of the fruit. Petite Sirah produces a big, inky, in your face wine with strong tannins and a high acid level, capable of aging gracefully for ten years or more. Generally, it has a very strong lead but can lack a finishing content leading wine enthusiasts to consider it a one-note wine. Many Petite Sirahs are now blended with strong finishers like Mourvedre to give it additional depth.
In its short 130-year history, Petite Sirah has arguably had more ups and downs than any other Varietal produced in the US. From a hopeful discovery to a derided experiment that failed in its Native France. In the US, it ranged from intriguing newcomer to widely planted Varietal to being considered a blending grape at best. Italy's only in the last 15 years that
Petite Sirah has undergone something of a renaissance growing from a cult following to a recognized mainstream Varietal.