The Israeli Petite Sirah - Israeli Wines - Pride of Israel (2024)

By: Adam Montefiore
Petite Sirah was a new immigrant to Israel in the 1970's.
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The Israeli Petite Sirah - Israeli Wines - Pride of Israel (1)
?By: Adam Montefiore

Petite Sirah was a new immigrant to Israel in the 1970?s. It came in a package ordered by Charles Loinger, the director of the Israel Wine Institute, from UC Davis. Partners in the same journey were French Colombard and Emerald Riesling.

The impact of those two white grapes on the Israeli market was initially far greater than Petite Sirah. Colombard became the largest planted white grape in Israel. Even though it is an underrated variety which grows well in our climate, it was mainly used to pad inexpensive in blends. Today, only Mony Winery, to my knowledge, produces a Colombard varietal and Tishbi produces a ?French Riesling?, a blend of Colombard and Emerald Riesling. Apart from this, Carmel uses it in a blend with Viognier and Chardonnay for its sparkling Private Collection Brut. It is a pity it is not more used, because Colombard has good acidity and good aromatics. However it is used as the primary distilling variety in Israel?s two best brandies, Carmel 100 Brandy and Jonathan Tishbi Brandy.

Emerald Riesling was the largest selling wine in Israel during the late 1980?s and 1990?s. Aromatic and slightly spicy, it performed a wonderful job of bringing new people to wine during this period. Liebfraumilch in Britain and Lambrusco in America were similarly successful in those countries, with the same resuilts. The biggest selling Emerald Riesling in Israel is still the Selected Emerald Riesling and the best are the Private Collection Emerald Riesling and Barkan Reserve Emerald Riesling. However the sales of wines from this variety are in decline as Moscato becomes more popular for beginners, and those wanting white wines prefer Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier. Many consumers have in any case reverted from white to red wines.

Curiously most of the varieties considered reasonably new in Israel, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, amongst the Bordeaux varieties, and Mourv?dre, Grenache and Carignan, amongst the Mediterranean varieties, were in fact planted in the 1880?s by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. So they are not new at all. However Petite Sirah was never planted in Israel before, and when it did arrive it began more humbly. It was only used in blends of cheaper wines, basically as an agent to provide color and body. It was even sold as Shiraz in Israel, before Shiraz was even planted here. The reason was that the European Community, confusingly recognized the word ?Shiraz? as a simile for Petite Sirah at that time. However it was neither as popular as Emerald Riesling, nor as heavily planted as Colombard.

The change in Petite Sirah?s fortunes began when Yair Margalit insisted in using 15% Petite Sirah in his rare Special Reserve. He insisted that this addition, to 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, was what made the wine ?special.?
However the main change in the fortunes of Petite Sirah came when Carmel decided to use certain old vine vineyards in order to produce high quality wines. This change of approach really symbolized the quality revolution at Carmel, because the same vineyards had previously been used for cheap redThe Israeli Petite Sirah - Israeli Wines - Pride of Israel (2)s. However by choosing a vineyard in the Judean Hills which is 40 years old (with thick trunked, low bush vines, almost on the ground) and drastically reducing yields to 300 kilo a dunam (20 hl/ ha), the results were quite frankly astonishing. The unfashionable Petite Sirah was found to produce wonderful wines, totally original, and thankfully different from the over produced Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots.?

The story of Carmel?s Petite Sirah was similar to their Carignan. The old vines existed, and when there was a desire to make quality wines and the expertise to identify which plots in which vineyards were suitable, it only became a matter of time before quality wines were produced.

Carmel?s Appellation Petite Sirah Old Vines 2004 was the pioneer. The Appellation Petite Sirah 2005 was awarded 4 stars by wine critic Stephen Brook in Decanter Magazine. It was followed by other wineries such as Vitkin, and more recently Avidan, Chillag, Ella Valley and Sea Horse. Recanati also have a good value blend which is mainly Petite Sirah, with a little Zinfandel. Carmel also use Petite Sirah as an important part of their new Carmel Mediterranean blend and their port style wine, Carmel Vintage, is also made from Petite Sirah grapes.

Despite its name, until the late 1990?s, Petite Sirah (sometimes spelt Petite Syrah) was thought to have nothing to do with Syrah. It was nothing more than the Durif variety, known but neglected in south east France. It was propogated by a Dr. Durif. However in 1997 its parents were identified by UC Davis as Peloursin and? Syrah!

Petite Sirah produces very dark, inky wines, with black fruit and a tantalizing aroma of violets, with a backdrop of black pepper. The wines are tannic, with a plummy, meaty flavor. As the Durif started life in a Mediterranean climate, it is no surprise that this variety is extremely well suited to Israel?s Eastern Mediterranean climate. It never succeeded in France, but Petite Sirah has a growing following in California, where there are no less than 275 wineries that make a varietal Petite Sirah. The best are Ravenswood, Fetzer, Stags Leap and Turley. It has also gained a following in Australia. Even Mexico produces one of the finest Petite Sirahs, made by LA Cetto.

However there is no reason why Israel should not become known for its Petite Sirah. I recently attended Enotria?s Annual Tasting in London. Sommeliers and retailers were lining up to taste Carmel?s Petite Sirah after hearing about it elsewhere in the hall. Now the duck has turned into a swan. Petite Sirah has already left Colombard and Emerald Riesling far behind, and yet it has potential to go far further. It made me think: if Israel is looking for regional identity, then Petite Sirah is a wine that is reasonably unique, the variety is perfect for our climate and the wines produced are original with strong regional character.


The Israeli Petite Sirah - Israeli Wines - Pride of Israel (2024)
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