Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
December 12, 2013 | Randy Caparoso

Why Petite Sirah kills with drunken pot roast (with peppercorns and juniper)

Petite Sirah harvest in Lodi’s Vinedos Aurora estate

Petite Sirah harvest in Lodi’s Vinedos Aurora estate

We're on a roll, so we're going to continue our culinary ruminations on Lodi grown wines.

A lot of wine lovers are not so partial to Petite Sirah in warm months, and who can blame them? Red wines made from Petite Sirah – a grape technically known as Durif (named for the French scientist who crossed Syrah and Peloursin grapes to develop his namesake variety at the end of the nineteenth century) – are pretty much the opposite of "light" or "breezy." Not the easy-going type of wine normally associated with summer.

Red wines made from Petite Sirah, in fact, are invariably big, heavy, even clumsy or plodding in terms of body (i.e. alcoholic weight easily exceeding 14% or 15%) and tannin content. Tannin – derived from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes – is the component in red wines that gives dry, bitter, sometimes astringent sensations; and since Petite Sirah is an exceptionally thick skinned, deeply pigmented grape, it is capable of producing a pretty tough red wine. Lots of girth, guts, and leathery texturing. But if you happen to like a tough wine, then Petite Sirah is right up your alley.

Petite Sirah (Michael David’s Phillips Farms)

Petite Sirah (Michael David’s Phillips Farms)

Which is why Petite Sirah lovers can be a crazy bunch. They even have their own wine club, called P.S. I Love You, where presumably they get together to discuss… and enjoy copious amounts of their fave-rave red.

While the grape has a tendency to come across as gentle as N.F.L. linemen in tutus, one thing you can say about it: it tends to be tremendously flavorful. Your typical Petite Sirah is pungent with nostril tingling aromas and flavors suggesting hot spices, like fresh cracked black peppercorn; plus lush, compelling blueberryish fruit, veering towards blackberry and Santa Rosa plum.

In other words: a near-perfect red wine for cold, wintry days and nights, when you have the hankering to sit by a fire, cuddle up with a loved one or bare your soul with a trusted mate.

Another thing you can say about a red wine like Petite Sirah: in certain culinary contexts, heavy, rough-cut tannin, as well as super-high alcohol, actually comes in handy, making certain dishes taste all the better. What kind of dishes? For one, dishes that utilize slightly bitter, hard spices like peppercorns and juniper berries, such as the recipe below for a drunken pot roast ("drunken" on Petite Sirah, that is).

The abiding organoleptic principle is not exactly complicated. Basically, the longer a specific taste sensation – be it the bitterness of tannin in red wine, or from the peppercorns or juniper berries in a dish – touches the palate, the more the brain begins to register, sort, and absorb the sensations, as strong as they may be. This is why, for instance, a chile pepper can taste painful when you first bite into it; but when you take a few more bites, your palate becomes accustomed to the pain, and the chile pepper can even start to taste pleasant.

River bottom soil: source of Ironstone’s Kautz Farms Petite Sirah

River bottom soil: source of Ironstone’s Kautz Farms Petite Sirah

When you taste a high tannin red wine like Petite Sirah, at first the tannin sensation might strike you as being a little tough or coarse, and the wine seems unbalanced. Your palate can adjust to the tannin level after a few sips; but if you drink it with a dish that also has bitter, peppery sensations, the tannin in the wine starts smooth out all the more quickly, and come across as entirely balanced and appropriate. By the same token, strong peppery spices in the dish begin to taste even more pleasing and complex in the context of a big, spicy red like Petite Sirah. Winner, winner, pot roast dinner!

In another recent blogpost (Growing Passion for Petite Sirah), we talked about some of the top Lodi grown Petite Sirahs in more detail: including the big and blustery Michael David Earthquake; the equally musclebound, pepper spiced Mettler Family; the dense yet elegantly sculpted McCay Cellars; the thick smoky-spicy Viñedos Aurora; and the somewhat lighter, smoother but pungent and flavorful Ironstone.

Finally, it's only natural to wonder: is Petite Sirah the same as Syrah? No, they're two different grapes. As it were, though, both varieties produce deep, dark, full bodied and spicy red wines. Syrahs tend to be finer in texture, and have more of a floral, violet-like perfume. You find more blueberry notes in Petite Sirah, and usually a little more aggressive peppercorn spice (although some Syrahs can be quite peppery).

But because of the similarity in body and tannin, Syrahs can serve many of the same culinary purposes as Petite Sirah. Therefore we wouldn't hesitate to recommend substituting some of Lodi's finer Syrahs – such as Klinker Brick's Farrah. Fields Family, and Michael David's 6th Sense – for Petite Sirah, to cook and enjoy with this ideal food match:

Juniper berries and peppercorns

Juniper berries and peppercorns


2-3 lbs. beef, for pot roast
¾ lb. onion
2 stalks celery
1 cup Petite Sirah
1 cup beef stock
2 slices bacon, thick
1 tbsp. stone ground mustard
1 tsp. juniper berries
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. black peppercorns, rough crushed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tsp. salt


Rub the beef with salt and roughly crushed peppercorns, then spread a thin layer of mustard. Set this spiced roast aside to soak in seasonings. Meanwhile, rough-chop onion. Cut celery into finger length slices. Slice the thick bacon into quarter-inch strips.

Warm heavy cast iron pot or large Dutch oven on stove. Add vegetable oil, and sear pot roast on all sides. Remove beef to separate dish. Brown the onions, celery and bacon in the same pot. Reduce heat to keep from burning.

Add Petite Sirah to pot, along with bay leaf and juniper berries. Bring to simmer and add beef stock. Lower the beef into the pot; cover, and set the heat to its lowest level to slow-cook. After an hour, turn the meat. If the liquid reduces too much, add a little more wine (or water). After another hour, the meat should be tender. If not, cook a little longer – you want the pot roast to be tender, but firm enough to slice.

When ready, remove pot roast, wrap in aluminum foil and let it rest. Use a slotted spoon or small colander to strain the vegetables; then discard. Strain sauce through chinois or fine sieve; then reduce in a saucepan until it reaches the consistency of a light gravy. Season with salt, pepper and maybe a touch of mustard, according to taste; and serve in gravy boat with pot roast.

Slice the roast into thick serving pieces, ladling over sauce to warm on serving platter. Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes or celery root mash, and your preference of mixed vegetables (suggestions: heartier winter growths such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, kale, Brussels sprouts, sunchokes, wild mushrooms, or winter squash).

"One pot" oven roasting (alternative to stovetop style): After embedding pot roast in wine and beef stock with bay leaf and juniper berries, cover Dutch oven and roast at 300° for 2 hours. Turn meat, and add chunks of potatoes and/or chosen vegetables to pot; cover again, and roast an additional 30-45 minutes, or until beef and vegetables have reached desired tenderness. When done, remove vegetables and pot roast, letting it rest in aluminum foil. Strain and reduce sauce from the pot, and serve in gravy boat with pot roast and vegetables.

Phillips Farms Petite Sirah at Lodi Grape Festival

Phillips Farms Petite Sirah at Lodi Grape Festival



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