I Love What It’s NOT: Lava Cap Petite Sirah Reserve El Dorado 2005

lava capPetite Sirah is a tricky wine. It can seduce you with its richness and voluptuous flavors, while it’s hitting you upside the head with over-the-top tannins and alcohol. Not that that’s a bad thing…

In case you’re not very familiar with the grape, here’s some background. Petite Sirah used to be very widely planted in California. It was bottled as a varietal and used as a blending grape when a wimpier wine needed some body and color. But then Merlot became all the rage. Growers couldn’t wait to rip out Petite Sirah and plant Merlot in its place. Let’s not mention that Merlot became overplanted just in time for Pinot Noir to become the sexy red grape, and push out all that Merlot acreage…

But back at the ranch, some California winemakers were still producing Petite Sirah. It’s by nature a big, fleshy, tannic wine, and it fit with the trend to heavier, higher-alcohol wines. Petite Sirah producers didn’t pull any punches: they let their wines climb to 15%+ alcohol, with a stain-your-teeth, knock-you-on-your-butt character. Petite Sirah became the Big Bruiser of California Reds.

That’s what I was expecting when I tasted Lava Cap Petite Sirah Granite Hill 2005. I knew it came from the Sierra Nevada Foothill region, and the El Dorado appellation. This area is known for big Zins, so I was expecting a ball-buster. But I got something much better…

First, let me point out that this Lava Cap was presented to me as a “Vintage Close-out.” That means that the winery was dramatically discounting the price to move inventory from an older vintage. That can be a good thing or a bad thing: often the wine will have gone “over the hill,” or be past its peak. But not this time…

The deep purple color told me right away that this thing was still in its prime. Then the nose was positively beguiling, with sweet boysenberry aromas, a hint of black licorice, and something floral on the end. But would the palate be too blocky?

Again, no. The first impression was of rich, soft, dark berry fruit, like blueberry or boysenberry compote. The mouth-feel was almost velvety, and that’s what I loved most about it. I didn’t have to chew my way through it, or pucker up from harsh tannins. Even though this wine clocks in at 15% alcohol, it’s not “hot” or heavy. I think the winery’s oversupply has given us a gem that’s got just enough age on it to be drinking beautifully, and for half the original price!

Lava Cap has been family owned and operated since the 1980′s, and the winemaker strives for “elegance with depth.” I think he’s really nailed it with this wine. I enjoyed it more with food than as a sipper: my Ravioli with Red Sauce turned out to be a pretty good pairing. If you can find this bargain in your area (down from $32 to $16) I suggest you stock up. And then enjoy some lovely red wine. Cheers!

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