Petite sirah? Or petite syrah? Are they the same grape? Are they different from syrah? Where does petit verdot fit in? Confusion reigns, says Wine Adviser Paul Gregutt.

LABELING WINES with the name of the principal grape (e.g. chardonnay), rather than the name of the place they are made (e.g. Chablis), has made consumers quite familiar with such popular varieties as chardonnay, riesling, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But what about petite sirah? Or petite syrah? Are they the same grape? Are they different from syrah? Where does petit verdot fit in? Confusion reigns.

The word petit (or petite) is French, of course, which leads to further consternation. Should that pesky final “e” be there or not? If you’ve studied any romance language, you know that nouns are either masculine or feminine, and the adjectives follow suit. Petit(e) simply means small, and for whatever reason, sirah/syrah is feminine, while verdot is masculine.

A California-based organization named PS I Love You (www.psiloveyou.org) does a fine job of promoting petite sirah. Check out the website’s excellent timeline for a historical overview of the grape’s rise to fame. Die-hard fans love it for its blustery, bold, tannic, occasionally rustic flavors.

Most experts agree that California’s petite sirah is the same as a French grape called Durif. Syrah is different, though a historical relationship exists. (Durif is a cross between syrah and peloursin, another obscure French grape.) When you drink syrah, you are tasting a petite sirah parent. Syrah and shiraz, as it’s known in Australia, are identical. Syrah is considered a noble grape because it has the capacity to express exceptional complexity as well as to improve with age. I’ve tasted both petite sirah and syrah on countless occasions and petite sirah, pleasing though it may be, is no syrah.

Petit verdot is a different grape entirely. One of the officially approved blending grapes of Bordeaux, it rarely comprises more than 3 or 4 percent of the finished wine. As a stand-alone varietal bottling, it is still rare, even in this country. It began to be planted about 20 years ago, in order to improve our own Bordeaux-style blends. As more grapes became available, some winemakers experimented with petit verdot as a solo offering. In its pure form it can be delicious, a mix of floral aromas, sappy berry flavors and somewhat herbaceous tannins.

You’ll have to do some hunting to find many of these wines, but here are some recommended California, Oregon and Washington producers who occasionally make them:

Petite Sirah: Alexandria Nicole (Mr. Big); Angel Vine; Animale; Del Rio Vineyards; Dusted Valley; Guenoc; Hess; J. Scott Cellars; Latah Creek; Thurston Wolfe; Vina Robles.

Petit Verdot: Gifford Hirlinger; Januik; Kunde; Le Chateau; Mercer; Rasa Vineyards; Roza Ridge; Saviah Cellars; Seven Hills; Sineann.

Paul Gregutt’s blog is www.paulgregutt.com. Email: paulgwine@me.com.