The California Syrah Tasting
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Last week two of us got together and tasted through recent vintage small production Syrah from all over the state of California. The wines were selected based primarily on tastings done in the last year, and also a few through recommendations.
The purpose of the tasting was to gather leaner style, quality examples of Syrah from throughout the state but all primarily from smaller production producers.
The wines were not tasted blind as part of the purpose was to gain insight from vintages and regional information. The wines were tasted initially in order organized first by vintage, and then by alcohol level. They were then re-tasted in varying arrangements over the course of the two days following.
While many of these wines showed quite well, the stand out of the tasting for me was the Wind Gap 2009 Sonoma Coast. Others that showed especially well are marked below with an * asterisk.
Following are notes on the wines arranged by region.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
One of the unique features of Santa Barbara County is the incredibly varied climate terrain of the region allowing for differing growing capacities within close proximity. From genuine cool climate along the coast to higher temperatures with large diurnal shift a bit inland, the region offers to a grape like Syrah a full range of potential styles.
The Santa Ynez appellation stretches all the way from the cool climate starkness of the Sta Rita Hills, through the proposed limestone banded Ballard Canyon, and into the warmer heights of the Happy Canyon AVA. As a result, Santa Ynez AVA showcases the fullest arch of growing conditions for the county.
Focus in Sta Rita Hills has tended towards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, however some producers are also growing Syrah for a cool climate expression of the fruit. Unfortunately, no wines from this area were represented. However, Zotovich, and Samsara are two examples from the area worth checking out.
Ballard Canyon is not yet recognized as a distinct sub appellation of Santa Ynez but it offers characteristics that merit the designation. While Santa Ynez Valley carries the East-West valley orientation unique to the larger region, Ballard Canyon rests in a mountain formation that buds North from the mainline of the valley, producing distinct climate conditions from the rest of the valley–not quite as windy as Sta Rita Hills, not quite as hot as Happy Canyon. Ballard canyon is also a mix of intensely sandy sites and limestone bands not common to the rest of the area.
* Casa Dumetz, Tierra Alta Vineyard, 2011, 14.5%
The lighter style of Casa Dumetz’s 2011 Tierra Alta Syrah offers feral edges to a pretty floral focus. The wine is juicy and quaffable with just enough drying grip to accentuate its flavors. The core carries dark stone fruit, with purple exotic flowers and spice all touched by earthy accents and a hint of toast. This is a very juicy, wild while pretty example of Ballard Canyon Syrah.
* Goodland Wines, Ballard Canyon Red, 2011, 14.7%
The Goodland Wine’s Ballard Canyon Red comes in with big shoulders on a deft frame. This is a whole lot of wine without being heavy. It opens into intoxicating dark fruit refreshed by citrus zest accents and touches of cardamom, carrying leather and hints of diesel all on a body of smooth tannin with long line juiciness. The 2011 Ballard Canyon Red is primarily Syrah with just a touch of Grenache.
Not yet recognized as a certified AVA, Los Alamos stands circled by mountains North of the Santa Ynez Valley, and South of its sister Santa Maria Valley — the three broadly distinct zones of Santa Barbara County. Locals are working on achieving appellation approval for Los Alamos. The area is another of the cool zones of the county as the winds from Lompoc lower temperatures. It also hosts the most planted vineyard acreage of the county, many of them under smaller ownership, with bigger companies coming in more recently.
Martian Ranch Red Shift Syrah, 2011, 13.5%
Martian Ranch Red Shift brings together Syrah with just under 5% Viognier for a lifted opening to the wine. With very little SO2 addition, this wine also shows the slightly pert elements that can come from such an approach. The combination gives a bright red top note integrated into a light touch presentation of red fruit, with accents of cocoa powder and cracked pepper, and hints of greenery through a long juicy finish. This is a distinctive, fresh focus wine, with quirky edges of interest.
Fess Parker, Rodney’s Vineyard 2010, 14.9%
The Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard draws on all estate fruit. It comes in as the richest style of the tasting, showing perfumed aromatics with potpourri, baking spice, and a touch of smoke ash on a full polished frame. This is a well executed example of a ripe style wine, reaching towards an expression like Zinfandel.
Big Table Farm, White Hawk Vineyard, 2010, 15.1%
While housed in Willamette Valley, Big Table Farm sources their Syrah from the historic White Hawk Vineyard of Los Alamos. The 2010 carries a rich presentation of flavors giving blackberry with chocolate liquor poured on top rolling into cinnamon, touches of cocoa and some tobacco. Bramble comes through on the long finish. The tannin is velvety, picking up through the finish. This is a rich wine that relaxes as it opens.
At the Northern part of Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria generates a unique flavor profile, tending to generate more fruit presentation than its siblings to the south. One of the older planted areas of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria also offers pockets of older and even own rooted vines.
Ojai Vineyard, Solomon Hills Vineyard, 2008, 14.6%
Ojai Vineyard‘s Solomon Hills Syrah offers a restrained expression of a ripe style, giving lots of flavor with a central focus. The juicy red fruit here couples with olive, savory herb, and Italian sausage showing smooth tannin, and a touch of heat on the palate, through a long finish.
The Foothills wine country of California reaches from El Dorado County into Amador and Calaveras carrying mountain fruit and high country spice notes and lots of rocky minerality. The region has proven especially good for growing Rhone grapes, with wineries beginning to house themselves there in the region more recently.
Northern most of the three counties mentioned above, El Dorado county has a high concentration of Rhone variety vineyards featuring both red and white grapes. The area hosts the large diurnal shift that ripens fruit while holding acidity.
* La Clarine Farm, Sumu Kaw Vineyard, 2011, 12.4%
The lightest style wine of the tasting, La Clarine Farm‘s Sumu Kaw Vineyard brings a refreshing, lifted approach to the grape giving one of the more distinct wines in the line up. The wine showcases a carbonic lift with refreshing accents of dill, touches of jalapeno, hints of mandarin and mixed olive, dancing with red fruit. The wine is strange, intriguing, and refreshing with wild edges and a long finish.
Skinner, El Dorado, 2009, 14.8%
The not yet released 2009 Skinner El Dorado is a well made, well balanced wine that wants time, and air to open. Though initially closed, by day 2 the wine had opened into an expression of subdued fruit flavored by pine forest, black tea, and spice with a long finish showing a healthy tannin, acid balance, and lift. Both of the Skinner Syrahs noted here are wines made for people that appreciate deft work with oak integration. I hope to taste this wine again with more age.
Skinner, Stoney Creek Vineyard, El Dorado, 2009, 14.9%
The Stoney Creek Vineyard gives a slightly more earthy focus to the Skinner profile. Not yet released, this wine will continue to evolve with age, and wants air to open and integrate. The wine offers subdued red cherry and red fruit with pine, and tobacco, giving hints of juniper and spice accents. The wine is well balanced, and well made with polished tannin, and balancing acidity. Again, this style is made for people that appreciate fine work with oak integration. I hope to taste this wine with more age.
A cooler zone of the central valley, Lodi offers the rich sun exposure of its valley location with cooling influence from the Delta breezes. The sandy-silty soils that dominate the Mokelumne River sub-AVA, combined with the temperature range of the area consistently generate present while softened tannin in its reds. The attention in Lodi tends away from Syrah with only a few producers bringing specific attention to the variety. Fields Family, noted below, and Kidder Family Wines are two examples of Syrah from Lodi to keep an eye on.
Fields Family Wine, Estate, 2011, 14.2%
The Fields Family 2011 Syrah carries sun kissed red fruit with red floral accents that open into saffron, light smoke notes, and distinctive spice hinting towards bbq. There is a hint of sweetness to this fruit, but not too much. This is a restrained expression of ripe flavored fruit that has smooth tannin and a long finish, with well integrated acid and alcohol.
Napa Valley has only a recent history with Syrah, as the valley’s history has been rooted in Petite Sirah, and more recently Cabernet. However, the valley offers a unique range of growing conditions for the fruit from hillside to valley floor locations. The wines focused on for this tasting come from the cooler zones in the Southern portions of the valley.
SOUTHWESTERN NAPA VALLEY
* Jolie-Laide, Phoenix Ranch, 2011, 13.8%
Jolie-Laide comes in with a strong focused palate on good structure and a nicely executed wine. The wine offers delicate aromatics with red-violet fruit focus and a grilled Italian sausage core accented by hints of smoke. There are nicely smooth tannins throughout with a pleasing juicy balance. The flavors here have traction on the palate coupled with good movement.
The cool climate mountain appellation of Mt Veeder is influenced by the cooling temperatures and breezes coming up from Carneros, and the rustic qualities of the sub-appellation’s soil and elevation.
Lagier-Meredith, Mt Veeder, 2009, 14.3%
The mountain fruit of Lagier-Meredith give the leanest profile of the Syrahs tasted, with a pretty nose showing refreshing canteloupe elements, coming in with dark fruit, pine forest, olive tapenade, and cracked mixed pepper on the palate. There is nice tannin presence here moving into a short finish. This is a polite, and pretty Syrah with strength and quick focus.
At the Southern end of Napa Valley, Coombsville benefits from the cool winds blowing from the ocean across San Francisco and San Pablo Bays before hitting the mountains at the Eastern side of the sub-region. Thanks to the lower temperatures, the area supports slower ripening periods for an expression unique to the Valley.
Enfield Wine Co., Haynes Vineyard, 2010, 13.7%
A pleasing focus for Napa Valley Syrah, Enfield Wine Co generates a savory expression of the variety coming in with olive, and bramble through a body of rhubarb, hints of blackberry, and a surprising spice melange. The wine is full of mid palate aromatics showing off dried rose and violet, and a touch of bark on the finish. This is a juicy wine with a long finish.
* Enfield Wine Co., Haynes Vineyard, 2011, 12.6%
The 2011 vintage of Enfield Wine Co bring a sharper focus to this already well made wine showing off pencil point tannins coupled with nicely balanced juiciness. This is a wine that excites me with its savory components that spin through with floral and red fruit opening into blueberry, and hints of cocoa powder. The lean opening, uncurl into mid palate aromatics, and move into a long lightly metallic finish.
One of the largest countries of California, and the largest of the San Francisco Bay region, Sonoma County offers massive variation. With the market focus on Pinot Noir, the truth is many of the sites that might grow Syrah quite well instead grow its cool climate companion from Burgundy. Still, there is a range of quality Syrah from the area, and Rhone grapes do quite well through many of its districts.
RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY
Two Shepherds, Saralee’s Vineyard, 2011, 13.5%
Saralee’s Vineyard is known for its cool temperatures and fog influence generating structurally focused reds and juicy whites. In the overall line-up, the Two Shepherds’ Syrah most clearly shows the challenges for ripeness generated by the cooler vintage of 2011 with the aromas and flavors of the wine showing as less developed, or under-ripe overall. The aromatics are a touch volatile with hidden fruit expression, while the palate opens to blueberry and blueberry leaf with touches of brown sugar all in a delicate, acidity focused presentation.
One of the largest appellations within Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast has come with controversy over its size. More recently, however, the challenge has been met with the generation of sub-appellations more expressive of the genuine sub regionality of the AVA. Examples include “West of the West” AVAS such as Fort Ross-Seaview and a proposed West Sonoma Coast AVA.
Bodega Rancho, Que Syrah Vineyard, 2009, 12.4%
Located at the far Western edge of Sonoma Coast, the Que Syrah Vineyard offers a genuinely cool climate focus for Bodega Rancho opening with a tidal wave of super juicy fresh blackberry and blackberry pie including faint accents of baking spice, alongside touches of olive brine and bramble through a medium-long finish.
** Wind Gap, Sonoma Coast, 2009, 12.6%
The “hey baby” of the line-up, it was difficult to take notes on the Wind Gap 2009 Sonoma Coast. I wanted to just sit and drink it. It’s drinkability surpasses its flavor profile. The wine comes in with savory juicy olive notes accented by bark and forest spice, moving with blackberry bramble, cherry skin, and fresh oregano. The wine has beautiful flow into super clean violets on an ultra long finish. Wind Gap wins.
Anthill Farms, Peters Vineyard, 2009, 13.5%
Anthill Farms Peters Vineyard hints at carbonic elements with opening accents of red lipstick, lifting into olive tapenade on the nose, followed by a smooth palate presentation of blackberry and bramble, wild berry flower perfume, and spice. This wine carries a nicely focused palate followed by a short finish.
Baker Lane, Estate Vineyard, 2009, 13.6%
The 2009 Baker Lane showed poorly in the line-up, with the wine presenting as chunky, falling apart in the mouth after opening. There were characteristics of tomato leaf, and delicate floral notes, with cherry pie spice and apparent tannin. Having had this wine previously, I am willing to assume bottle variation is the culprit here.
* Anthill Farms, Campbell Ranch, 13.9%
Anthill Farms Campbell Ranch showcases fruit from the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA giving violet and bramble focused aromas and flavors, accented by the same lipstick note of their Peters Vineyard, and touches of olive tapenade with spice. This is a well balanced, savory while pretty wine showing pretty top notes, a good tannin-juicy balance, and a long savory finish. Nice value here.
* Failla, Estate Vineyard, 2009, 13.9%
Also housed with the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, the Failla Estate Syrah showcases the strength of the Western Sonoma Coast character. The wine comes in with a lot of confidence without the puff ripeness of arrogance. A nicely subtle, well-balanced nose shows a touch of olive, mountain flowers, and forest floor, rolling into a big rocky palate with savory fruit, a touch of cigar, and a long spice finish. This is a wine that wants to age showing well executed structure of currently tight tannin.
* Arnot Roberts, Clary Ranch, 2010, 12.2%
Arnot Roberts draws on the restrained elements of a cool site in Clary Ranch and produces an alluring, slightly strange Syrah that wants a lot of air to integrate. This wine shows off the ingredients of Thanksgiving in the American Southwest — aromas of bramble and honey glaze ham with clove potpourri, moving into a palate of under ripe peppercorn, hatch chili, with ground black beans and a touch of sweet corn. Give this wine some time and it’ll pull you in.
Arnot Roberts, Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, 2010, 12.5%
Griffin’s Lair proves a distinctly different site for Arnot Roberts Syrah. The nose offers aromas of clay and wet soil, with red cherry blossom and pine bark, moving into wet cherry tobacco and smoke on the palate through a long finish and present tannin. This is a lean focused wine carrying earthy flavors.
Bedrock Wine Co., Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, 2011, 14%
Bringing in 11% Viognier and using 60% whole cluster, Bedrock creates a savory expression of the Griffin’s Lair VIneyard. The wine offers floral aromatics of cherry tobacco, alongside the savory-sweet spice of Italian sausage. They move strong into the mouth, and relax through the mid palate into a juicy finish with plenty of tannin.
Other regions not represented and worth checking out include Mendocino and Santa Cruz Mountains. From Santa Cruz Mountain, Martin Ranch Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah is a stand out.
The following wines were given as samples: Ojai Vineyard, Anthill Farms, Skinner, Fess Parker, Big Table Farm, La Clarine Farm, Jolie-Laide, Two Shepherds, Bedrock Wine Co., Fields Family, Goodland Wine.
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Thanks for taking the time to review the Syrah, and trying to be kind to a bottle, that its quite apparent to me was not itself. A winemaker knows a wine like his children, and this one was clearly having a bad day. I have tasted wine with you and know and trust your palate, so I have no doubt what you transcribed was what the bottle gave, but its also clear to me, thats far from its normal expression. I can assure you, I would have never put my name on it, as you know Syrah is near to my heart.
Its also been well received, reviewed and highly regarded by other writers, whose palates I also know and trust, and at July IPNC it was a huge favorite amongst a group of Oregon winemakers at a dinner, where we branched out from Pinot 🙂
I have observed it does appear to be quite sensitive, (especially to heat, more so than normal) and have had personal instances of bottle variation as well, odd because this was a vintage where I filtered.
While there is no doubt 2011 was a very challenging year for 2011, the end of vintage was modest, and allowed the syrah to hang until Oct 19th, when it was picked at 23 brix, so I think it did get sufficient ripening time.
The wine is now sold out, but I have kept some in stash for future pourings as I think it has excellent aging potential. Hopefully we can share a bottle together some day.
cheers and thanks for the love of syrah.
[…] Tasting California Syrah: a line up of 24 wines from across the state … […]
[…] Tasting California Syrah: a line up of 24 wines from across the state … […]