At the Wind Gap tasting room in Sebastopol I tasted the 2012 Syrah. I love this Syrah. At the time I thought it was the best Syrah I’ve had so far from the 2012 vintage. I bought a bottle to taste at home over a couple of days. It more than lived up to my first impression.
This is a decidedly cool-climate Syrah, it’s almost as if Pax Mahle made a carbon copy of a savory Northern Rhone Syrah. It’s got that tobacco, pepper and bright plum thing going on big time, there’s a green element reminiscent of celery and it’s all couched in fresh plum and blackberry fruit. All of that carries over to the mid-palate which has great acidity and juicy freshness. The tannins are present but the wine doesn’t completely dry out the palate. A great wine with food but also very drinkable on its own.
The most striking thing is how little oak influences the wine and how little it tastes “Californian”. I know California is known for ripe fruit and it’s not as if we shouldn’t embrace that part of this great wine-growing state but I think there’s a place for cool-climate Syrah here and this is one of those. I put it into the group of the Peay La Bruma, Failla Estate, the Arnot Roberts Clary Ranch, the various Ant Hill Syrahs, MacLaren Wines Judge Family Vineyard, and the recent Red Car vintages for being a textbook examples of cool-climate Syrah.
On day two the wine is a little more open and some of that savoriness has given way to rich plum, although the celery and pepper is still right there in the background. The mid-palate is softer and fuller and the finish a tad less tannic and reminiscent of fresh blackberry. This is a wine that I think will age beautifully and I wish I’d bought a few bottles to put down.
Pax doesn’t often make wines from the Nellessen Vineyard that end up with their own bottling, the grapes are usually mixed in with others and added to his Wind Gap Syrah but I’m guessing that in the abundant 2012 vintage the fruit was begging for its own vineyard designation.
It’s such a pleasure to drink a wine that is so true to the Syrah’s motherland in the Northern Rhone and it’s further proof that California’s diverse climate is a proper home to all of Syrah’s diverse permutations.
It’s time to highlight one of the stars of California Syrah. Steve Edmunds has been around for a long time in California and he’s always made wines in a rather low alcohol, “European” style. He never succumbed to the big, rich, oak influenced (read Parkerized) craze of the mid 90s and mid 2000s. He therefore missed out on perhaps a decade of publicity. As the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward a more terroir-driven style of Syrah, Edmunds St. John enjoys favor among the cognoscenti. For followers of Syrah in the New World though, Steve Edmunds’ Syrahs never really went away, they’ve always been wines to enjoy for their pure, unadulterated character.
Edmunds makes wines from the Sierra foothills (among other areas) and the truth is that it’s been a little hard for me to put a finger on Syrah from this appellation. Sometimes it seems cool-climate and sometimes it seems to produce rather big and bulky styles of Syrah. In fact, some of the biggest Syrahs I’ve ever tasted have been from this region. Luckily with Steve’s wines I don’t have to worry about that dichotomy, he prides himself on letting the vineyard speak for itself and his grapes are picked at a time that retains their freshness and, once fermented, they aren’t subjected to any new oak.
The wine: Green peppercorn on the nose with some blackberry, plum, and honeysuckle aromas in the background but that peppercorn is unmistakable. It’s a warm and inviting smell for me because it invokes memories of mom’s cooking and home. This wine definitely benefits from time open in the bottle, like all cool-climate Syrah. It seemed a little thin yesterday after first opening but after a day on the counter the mid-palate had really fleshed out and the finish is less abrupt and more full. The tannins are in control and the acidity is present but nicely integrated. The finish tastes of strawberries and balsamic. A really delicious wine that makes me feel very happy and privileged to taste it.
By the way, if you’d like to learn even more about Steve Edmunds, perhaps more than you ever wanted to know, check out Levi Dalton’s excellent podcast.
I was able to get hold of a few older Copain wines from K and L the other day and I thought it would be interesting to see how they are holding up. The winemaker for Copain, Wells Guthrie, had something of a change of heart in the mid 2000s resulting in a subsequent change in the level of ripeness in his wines. I wanted to see how the wines were holding up, especially after my tasting with Fred Swan in which we tasted the 2002 Broken Leg and the 2002 Eaglepoint Ranch. I thought then that they were holding up well. Yes, they had a higher level of alcohol (around 14.5%) than his current wines but they weren’t overly ripe by any means. In fact, I thought they were rather fresh and structured for ten year old wines. The following wines were tasted over a period of a few days.
2004 Copain Hawks Butte Syrah 14.3% ABV
On first opening this Syrah was completely closed down and for a second I thought it was corked because of the lack of aromatics. But the wine opened up and, although still not exactly super expressive on the nose, it’s got a rich mid-palate, not jammy but a little stewy, not exactly a fresh fruit profile. I did get some aromas of blackberry, dust, oak and milky vanilla.
This is not the balanced, elegant style of Syrah that Copain is known for nowadays or, after a decade of age, it’s not showing that way. It’s got very present oak and a glycerine richness that I wouldn’t expect from a Wells Guthrie wine of the present. There’s a tad bit of alcohol coming through on the finish also.
I can sense a balanced wine in there somewhere but it’s not quite there in the 2004 version of the wine. It makes me wonder if this is what Guthrie noticed when he tasted through his wines and had the epiphany to change his style to a more “old world” Syrah style. If it was, then I think he made the right choice because this wine just doesn’t have the structure and freshness that I would have expected and the oak is simply too present.
2001 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah 14.4% ABV
This wine is definitely more balanced than the Hawks Butte. It has a text book cool-climate kalamata olive character mixed with some nice floral and meaty aromas. Yes, there’s some blackberry, bright cherry and salty plum fruit there but it’s in the background and it’s the savory aromas that really take center stage. The mid-palate has some nice juicy acidity and the tannins are relative smooth in the background. This is a wine that begs for cheese or salty snacks. It’s my style of Syrah and again makes me wonder what happened to Eaglepoint vineyard and why there are very few vineyard designate Syrahs coming out of there.
It’s hard to make a generalization based on two bottles of wine from different vineyards but it’s easy to imagine that Guthrie saw that the mid 2000 versions of his Syrahs simply weren’t holding up well over time. Newer vintages of Guthrie’s Syrahs are coming in under 13% ABV so you can see that he made a substantial shift in style. I also question how much new oak was used on the either the 2001 or the 2004 and how much that affected the structure of the wine over time for these two bottles. I would guess the 2004 Syrah saw more new oak. It could also be that the natural acidity of the Eaglepoint Ranch wine that gave it more structure and cool climate character. As seems typical with wine, after tasting these vintages more questions were raised than answered.
These wines were sold back to K and L by a private party from a personal collection. It was a rare opportunity to taste the older vintage Syrahs and I’m glad I pulled the trigger when they popped up.
It’s no secret that this blog has been mostly focused on California, a few years ago I started writing about Syrah from other parts of the world but, probably because I live in California, that Golden State focus has endured. I believe that wine is really more interesting when you know its context and although I enjoy wines from the Northern Rhone, I have yet to make a trip there. I definitely want to go in the near future and make that pilgrimage to Syrah’s birthplace. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying the gorgeous French wines available here in the States and hope that will provide enough interest for these posts.
St. Joseph is the lighter more playful side of the Northern Rhone. The wines go with lots of different types of food (even fish). They are generally less tannic, less big, but perhaps just as serious as wines from Hermitage, Cornas, or Côte-Rôtie.
2010 Saint-Joseph Domain Courbis ABV 13%
Beautiful honeysuckle aromas on the nose mixed with some earthy tobacco aromas. There’s a sweetness on the nose that translates to a very dry mid-palate. This is what I love about St. Joseph. It has floral aroma but great acidity makes it super food friendly. We had it with some homemade carne asada tacos and it worked well. The finish is not too tannic but there are tannins there.
The Courbis grapes are de-stemmed and the wine is aged in neutral oak casks.
2010 Etienne Becheras Saint-Joseph Le Prieure d’Arras, Rhone, France ABV 13%
Again, an elegant wine that smells sweet but finishes dry. Not as dry as the previous wine but also has beautiful acidity on the mid-palate. There’s just a gorgeous sweet plum aroma on the nose that is so cool-climate Syrah. The tannins are there but they exist in the background and this makes the wine, like most Saint Josephs, very versatile with food. This Syrah would pretty much go with anything you’d serve a Pinot with. It’s light and easy to drink but it’s not an insubstantial wine, it has a lot of complexity and interest, again very similar to Pinot.
This wine is made with indigenous yeast fermentation and aged in various sizes of neutral oak barrels. The grapes are de-stemmed.
If you like Syrah, you need to check out wines from St. Joseph. They are often in the lower price range (both these wines retail for under $30) in comparison with the other star appellations in the Northern Rhone but they are beautiful, elegant expressions of Syrah. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to pining for a trip to Syrah’s ancestral home.
I’ve been meaning to stop by Steve Law’s new tasting room in Sonoma for quite a while so, on a recent trip to Sonoma to visit my mom, I made it a priority.
I love to talk Syrah with Steve, he has first hand knowledge of the Northern Rhone having lived there for years for his work. He’s also committed to making Syrah in a restrained style that’s food friendly.
Steve’s at home and happy in his new tasting room right off the Sonoma Plaza.
Steve generally has a few lower alcohol styles of Syrah that are right in my wheelhouse but he also has a couple of bigger Syrahs from warmer sites. Even those are made in a restrained style.
Although I tasted all of Steve’s Syrahs that day I’ve decided to highlight my absolute favorite:
The Atoosa’s Vineyard Bennett Valley Syrah (ABV 12.7%)
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve made some recent forays into slightly bigger styles of Syrah. Although these have been delicious wines, with their full mid-palates and rich fruit, I must admit that I’ve been excited to write about a wine that is truly cool-climate. Well, I found one in the Atoosa’s.
I was a bit worried when I found out that Steve was no longer making one of the best California Syrahs that I’ve tasted, the Judge Family Syrah, but the Atoosa’s really fills the void. It has that same savory Northern Rhone character that the Judge has. I’d say this one tends a little less towards St. Joseph and a little more towards Cornas because it’s a more reserved and slightly more tannic version of Syrah (although it’s not really that tannic).
As many of you know, cool-climate Syrah isn’t the type of wine to reveal all its charms upon first opening. It’s reserved and needs some time to open. With some time in the glass it revealed beautiful aromas of sweet plum, pomegranate, black olive and tobacco. On the mid-palate the best way I can describe this wine is that it’s crunchy. There’s this sense of a crunchy pomegranate or a crunchy apple with a nice lift of acidity on the finish. There are some tannins on the finish too but they’re integrated and not harsh.
I LOVE this wine and I’m so glad that Steve found a good replacement for the Judge. If you love Syrah and you haven’t had any of Steve’s you owe it to yourself to search them out.
Steve’s other Syrahs are equally delicious, if not exactly my style. I’ll discuss them briefly from my tasting notes on the day of my visit:
The Syrah lineup.
The 2011 Samantha’s Vineyard (ABV 13.5%) is a Russian River hillside site. It’s a nice Syrah with a fuller mid-palate but still good acidity. I got some cigar box aromas on the nose along with a bit of eucalyptus. Nice lift on the finish.
The 2011 Drouthy Neighbors (ABV 13.5%) is Steve’s Syrah blend from his different vineyard sites, 50% Samantha’s, 33% Atoosa, and 17% Stagecoach. It has a good core of acidity and lots of blackberry aromas. Again, the low tannins and high acidity make it super food friendly.
The 2011 Stagecoach (ABV 14.2%) is Steve’s biggest Syrah. It sees some new oak (20%) and therefore has some vanilla aromas on the nose. There’s a gorgeous mouth feel to this wine but it’s definitely a more blue fruited style, a Syrah that kind of fits that stereotypical Syrah and barbecue ribs pairing.
Except for the Stagecoach, all of these Syrahs see only neutral oak and are made with a technique that Steve learned from his time in the Northern Rhone that uses a lower pressure on the bladder press to minimize tannic extraction and make a more elegant style of Syrah.
Whatever your preference, Steve has a Syrah for you.