Monday, October 20, 2008

Israel is looking for a signature red. PS can answer the call!

In discussing the history of grape varieties in Israel, the end of the article ponders a signature Israeli grape for new world table wine, as Shiraz is to Australia, Sauv Blanc to New Zealand, Tannat to Uruguay, Malbec to Argentina, Cabernet to Napa/Sonoma, and the Pinots to Oregon. One option for Israel is carignan(e), due to the Mediterranean climate. But the second red grape mentioned? You guessed it!
The next candidate is Petite Sirah, which has not been here for so many years (introduced in the 1970’s) and compared to Carignan, is a relatively new immigrant. Also this variety enjoys Israel’s hot Mediterranean climate. In contrast to Carignan, which is heavily planted in France & Spain, it is present in California and Australia, but is not heavily planted anywhere. Although its origin is France, it has almost vanished from there. However in Israel some old vine, low yield vineyards are now producing some very good wines. The Appellation Petite Sirah Old Vines, produced by Carmel Winery, from the Judean Hills, is a good example. [Vitkin's PS and Sea Horse's Munch are other examples; blends include some other wines from Sea Horse and Margalit's Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve]
Another article by the same author has additional details on PS's history and use in Israel.
However there are two much abused varieties – Carignan and Petite Sirah, which maybe do fit the bill to be considered as the potential national varieties of Israel. Both are undergoing a quality revival and creating a great deal of interest amongst wine lovers and connoisseurs. . . . Petite Sirah wines, on the other hand, will be an almost-black blockbuster, with intense tannins and an enticing aroma of black fruit and violets.
. . .

Petite Sirah, otherwise known in France as Durif, is another variety to be revived. It is a sometimes spelt Petite Syrah in America. It made aliyah to Israel in the 1970’s and was used for inexpensive wines. In the early 1990’s there were those who tried to mislead by marketing their Petite Sirah wines as Shiraz, which was derided because it was thought the Petite Sirah had nothing in common with Syrah. It was only in 1998, that the University of California confirmed that Durif was the result of a cross pollination between an old French grape Peloursin and Syrah. So they were related after all! In any event, Petite Sirah certainly makes distinctive wines – mainly in California , Australia and in Israel.

The first time Petite Sirah was seen as a quality variety was when Yair Margalit insisted it was an essential part of the Margalit Special Reserves. He considered the 5% to 15% of Petite Sirah as an important ingredient to the success of his flagship wine. Wineries like Yiftachel, Vitkin amongst the boutique wineries and Carmel and Recanati amongst the commercial wineries have also specialized in the variety. Recanati have won awards for their Petite Sirah-Zinfandel blend and Carmel’s Appellation Petite Sirah from old vines in the Judean Hills has also gained plaudits as one of the most interesting, characterful wines available.

Whatever happens to these varieties in the future will determine if they may, in future, be regarded as the national variety of Israel. The mission to revive Carignan and Petite Sirah should be supported by growers, wineries and consumers. It provides much needed variety, quality and the curious wine lover has an alternative to the all conquering Cabernet and Merlot.