Syrahs in a season of discontent

Another outstanding Hospice du Rhône – America's premier Rhône style wine festival, taking place each spring in Paso Robles, CA – has come and gone this past April 28-30, and thus another good reason to stop and assess the progress of the quintessential Rhône style red: those made from the syrah grape.

First things first: there were some startling beauties at this year’s HdR. The 2007 as well as the 2008 Jonata La Sangre de Jonata Santa Ynez Valley Syrah, for instance, seemed larger than life, swollen with perfumed, raspberry liqueur-like syrah concentration; the ’07 tinged by wild scrubby and toasty components, and the ’08 even more specific with roasting meats (what many call “bacon”), wild thyme intensities.

On a seemingly opposite end of the scale, the 2008 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah was velvety smooth and finesseful – for all the world, pinot noirish in gentility (is this a compliment or insult?) – despite carrying 14.2% alcohol weight; flashing piercing violet perfumes and earthy undertones suggesting sprigs of rosemary and browning forest leaves. The 2009 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah was even prettier – shrouded in lacy silk and flowery fragrances, yet crisply centered, with roasted meat/animal qualities that made you blink and think “Crozes-Hermitage."

A barrel sample of the Biodynamic® grown 2009 Qupe Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Edna Valley Syrah echoed the ’09 Baker Lane’s silk and lissomeness, with achingly ardorous perfumes of violet, licorice and winter savory. The roasted, chocolaty, coffee-spiced 2008 Stolpman Originals Estate Santa Ynez Valley Syrah and framboise-like 2008 Stolpman Hilltop Estate Santa Ynez Valley Syrah echoed the Jonatas in enormity – sensuous flesh draped over musclebound bodies – and gravity defying sense of scale.

Epoch winemaker Jordan Fiorentini
Then there was an obscenely opulent 2008 Justin Paso Robles Savant (cassis-like syrah amplified by 22% cabernet sauvignon); a barrel sample of blustery, fisticuffing, French sausage-spiced 2009 Red Car Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah; a wild scrubbish, smoky, compellingly lavender/violet/cassis scented 2007 Halter Ranch Block 22 Paso Robles Syrah; an unrepentantly black, concentrated, pumped pectoraled 2008 Epoch Paderewski Vineyard Block B Paso Robles Syrah; and a powerfully pungent, beefy and black cherryish 2009 Jaffurs Larner Vineyard Santa Barbara Syrah. All these wines, among numerous others, underlining the point in defiance of oft-heard criticisms: American syrahs are heckagood, even great, by any standard of the grape, past or present.

For as serious a wine syrah can obviously produce – most wine cognoscenti would rank it with cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling among the five most important Vitis vinifera cultivated around the world – the grape has been much maligned during the past year or two by, well, that very same cognoscenti, for various reasons of discontent, depending upon the pundit:

• They say that syrah is grown in too many of the wrong places outside the Northern Rhône Valley; especially in parts of California and Australia where warm climates yield wines of overripe flavor, excessive alcohol, or both.

• They say American consumers, in particular, have not responded to the growing number of syrahs on the market either because they are “confused” by a plethora of styles or simply because they are disappointed by the overall quality (re the aforementioned reason).

• More seasoned market observers are saying that the dearth of syrah sales (entailing American, Australian as well as French produced wines) has more to do with the age-old issue of supply exceeding demand, exacerbated by the recent international economic woes and glut of wines, made from any and all grape varieties, in general.

One thing we do know: truly good, to great, syrah costs as much or more to grow and vinify as truly good to great cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling; and if anything, in recent years the majority of consumers haven’t exactly been in the mood to spring for $25 to $50-plus bottles of new or unproven brands or varietals. For $8 to, say, $18 bottles of new or unproven brands or varietals: yes, they’ve been more than willing to take the plunge. But as mind blowing as a $100 Jonata may be, we know this is a far less palatable proposition for the everyday Joe or Aunt Gladys than, say, a big, luscious, Lodi grown Brazin Zinfandel or !ZaZin – 14.5% alcohol and all, culled from 40 to 100 year old vines yet retailing for less than $20.

Hilary Clarke (left) of Harrison-Clarke Vineyard (grenache & syrahs to die for) at 2011 HdR
Insofar as the premise that consumers are confused by variations of syrah styles: that seems implausible, since syrah as a wine varies no more – and in fact, considerably less – than varietal wines of perennial popularity, like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel. Consumers aren’t that dumb.

Is the perceived indifference due to the facts that many syrahs are overripe, too high in alcohol, or just not very good? The problem with those assumptions: whether moderate or high in alcohol, sweetly fruited or moderately fruited, the quality of syrahs grown outside the Northern Rhône continues to rise rather than falter – as you would expect in a situation where producers continuously improve in skill and experience – and anyone who says otherwise probably has a hole in the head rather than a palate. In any case, refined, multi-faceted syrahs like the '08 Baker Lane make a mockery of the current preoccupation with alcohol: surely, one of the dumbest non-issues going down today.

As a matter of fact, the 2011 Hospice du Rhône was also a great opportunity to compare French grown syrahs with American ones, as there were over 90 producers or importers representing the Rhône (Northern and Southern) pouring alongside some 130 American producers. What true blue syrah lover doesn’t enjoy a good Cornas? No doubt, HdR traditionalists enjoyed the earthy, brothy, pungently gamey 2008 Clape Renaissance Cornas, whereas I was duly impressed by the less fecal-like, flinty, muscular, marvelously compact and black pepper inundated 2007 Alain Voge Les Vieilles Vignes Cornas.

Clos Selene's Selene & Guillaume Fabre
But honestly: could anyone with half a working nose and palate really step back and say that what we are tasting from France these days is still truly head and shoulders “better” or “preferable” to one of now many American grown syrahs of reasonable quality – like the precise and peppery spiced 2006 Alban Reva Alban Estate Edna Valley Syrah, the decidedly rambunctious, deep, ponderous 2009 McPrice Myers Les Galets Arroyo Grande Valley Syrah, or the dramatically high toned, framboise and licorice laced 2009 Clos Selene Hommage à nos Pairs Paso Robles Syrah? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so.

On the other hand, one interesting observation made by a Frenchman – Michel Gassier of Château de Nages in Costières de Nîmes (where blends of grenache, carignane, mourvèdre and syrah rule the roost) – in a HdR seminar sponsored by the trade council, Côtes du Rhônes Wines, was that young vignerons tend to “start off with a primal scream... you want to produce wines that are too ripe and too extracted, and you think too much of a good thing is a good thing.” Only when a winegrower matures does he begin to understand terroir – “accepting some truths that cannot be explained” – until he reaches a third stage, what Gassier calls “an age of reason... when you view things holistically and are more open to change, and finally begin to make wines from grapes grown in harmony and balance with the environment.”

That final phase, according to Gassier, often entails the embracing of organic or Biodynamic® practices, although this is less important than simply developing a thought process engendering wines of more “soul,” reflecting a “a partnership of terroir and winemaker.”

Gassier’s comments became all the more insightful during the HdR seminar following immediately after, called Find Your Mojo, showcasing the syrahs of two American brands of some prestige (especially among the 100 point score circuit), Santa Barbara’s Tensely Wines and Sonoma’s Bedrock Wine Co.: syrahs, as it were, that generally seemed over-extracted, obsessively black and heavy, tilted more towards ultra-ripe fruit and sweet spices derived from oak as opposed to subtleties of texture and varietal character. That is to say: not all the American wines at HdR were impressive in comparison to the French. To a large extent, there is still a lot of immature winemaking going on in the U.S.

Tardieu-Laurent's Bastien Tardieu
The following week in San Francisco, I had a conversation with Bastien Tardieu, the 27 year old son of Michel Tardieu of Tardieu-Laurent, one of the Rhône Valley’s more acclaimed négociants. Having completed his Master’s of Oenology and Viticulture in Montpellier not too long ago, you would think Tardieu to be yet another vintner going through his phase of “primal screaming,” but in fact, wines like the exceedingly elegant, violet and wild mint scented 2007 Tardieu-Laurent Cornas and the only slightly rustique, fleshy yet fragrant and multi-faceted 2008 Tardieu-Laurent Vieilles Vignes Gigondas (grenache with 15% syrah) give a decidedly opposite impression: winegrowing far more obsessed with interplay of man, grape and terroir, rather than extraction or the almighty 100 point score.

When asked how effective it might be to grow syrah in warmer climates, like the Barossa Valley (he has worked at Torbreck), California, and the Southern Rhône Valley, Tardieu opined: “yes, you can grow syrah in warmer climates, but it is still a question of balance. I prefer syrah grown in the Northern Rhône where the climate is cooler because there you get a wine that is finer, with more violet, more licorice, and more minerals like silex – the taste of two stones scratching together. In places like Châteauneuf du Pape and the Barossa Valley, we can get the jammy taste that is common to warm regions, but we completely miss all the aromatic complexity we get in the Northern Rhône – the characteristics that make syrah syrah.”

I found Tardieu’s thoughts to be all the more intriguing because in between HdR and our meeting in San Francisco, I also sat for a Cold Climate Syrah Seminar taking place at Spring Hill Ranch, located in the middle of the Sonoma Coast’s Petaluma Gap. There, along with 40 sommeliers gathered from around the country, we tasted 8 syrahs grown in cooler sections of California’s North Coast; where syrah grapes picked closer to 22° rather than 25° Brix is a norm (resulting in potential alcohols closer to 12% rather than 15%).

Eric Sussman, Ehren Jordan & Carroll Kemp pouring syrahs for sommeliers

One of the presenters during this cold climate summit was Carroll Kemp, winemaker/partner of Red Car, whose Sonoma Coast syrah had wowed me a few days earlier in Paso Robles. According to Kemp, “the style of syrah popularized in previous years is the antithesis of the styles of syrahs now coming from marginal sites along the Sonoma Coast.” Failla’s Ehren Jordan added the point that “many people have a distorted view of syrah, especially from Northern Rhône. I found out fairly quickly, after moving there to work earlier in my career, that ‘roasted slope’ does not mean 90° or 100° temperatures like it does it California. It means more like 80° at the most, and I’m still wearing sweaters in the middle of the summer. If you pick at 21.5° Brix in Cornas, it’s the ‘vintage of the decade!’”

As it were, the unanimous favorite among the sommeliers seemed to be Jordan’s 2009 Failla Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah – hugely, lusciously concentrated with wild blackberry and exotic tea spices and undertones of wild scrubby herbs, yet as lithe and compact as a Nadia Comaneci. Also in this limber, un-Sprockets style: the 2008 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah portrays the flowery side of the grape, with a cassis-like silkiness and suggestions of caramelized game and blueberry; and the 2008 Arnot-Roberts Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah is super spiced and perfumed, with mildly feral and sandalwood spice nuances.

Failla's Ehren Jordan
In this tasting in Sonoma, winemaker Stephen Singer reprised his finely balanced 2008 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Estate Syrah, with its densely sweet concentration of violet, black/red berry fruit, and, earthy, brushy undertones, hinting at the sauvage typical of wines resulting from wild yeast ferments fostered in cool climate microbiology. There was also extravagantly spiced (cracked pepper, sandalwood, evergreen), if somewhat toasted oak lavished, 2007 Ramey Rodgers Creek Sonoma Coast Syrah; and Eric Sussman showed off his woodsy, tightly wound, savory 2007 Radio-Coteau Camp Cherry Sonoma Coast Syrah.

Ah, but is this the future of American syrah? Personally, I would withhold judgement; especially if you have yet to encounter some of the more fascinating growths of Southern Oregon; like the elegantly scaled, sweetly violet scented 2008 Cowhorn Reserve Applegate Valley Syrah (also Biodynamic® certified). Or better yet: the flowery, raspberry, flint, lavender and rosemary scented 2009 Quady North Steelhead Run Applegate Valley Syrah, draped in swaths of velvet; or the grandly full, judiciously savage and purple mountained 2008 RoxyAnn Rogue Valley Syrah.

The experience of grandly rendered syrahs is not nearly as rare as you may think, and exhilarating examples are being grown in new and different ways outside the Rhône Valley. As to which are the most legitimate: it’s become clearer by the day that saying Sonoma Coast or Southern Oregon grow syrahs of greater validity than Paso Robles or Santa Barbara is as foolish as saying the only great Northern Rhônes are those of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage and not Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage or Saint-Joseph.

The sooner the better, when we can all learn to appreciate terroir related qualities; not ones differentiated by artifice or concepts as inane or useless as numerical scores.

Cowboy at Paso Robles fairgrounds


Dave said…

Great running into you again this year at HdR, and many thanks for your recap of the event and insight into the different styles and regional variations. Most enjoyable reading.


Dave in Fresno
I really enjoyed your blog. Thanks for sharing. :)
Jackie said…

Don't know if you'll remember me. We met at Jerry Mead's Celebration of Life. (Still miss that guy.)

I am relaunching and the WineBoard. We now have a blog and I was wondering if you'd care to be a guest blogger there from time to time. We do get a big audience.

I love your writing and love to get in touch again. My email is webmaster AT (don't forget the S).

Thanks & hope to hear back from you.

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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.