At the 2014 Rhone Rangers event back in March, I had the opportunity to have a little taste of this, as-of-yet un-released, Syrah. One of the best things about tasting William’s wines in the context of the big Rhone Rangers tasting is that they are usually such a distinctly different style from the other wines at the tasting. They stand apart because of their acidity and their lack of oak. They are refreshing wines with fresh fruit and savory character and an old world style that gives the wines a character and complexity often lacking in other Rhone varieties grown in California.
I got a chance the other day to sit down with a bottle of the 2012 Saralee’s Vineyard Syrah and revisit it. The wine had rounded a bit with some more time in bottle and it was drinking well, especially after some air.
The wine: There’s minerality here that one doesn’t often get from California Syrah, floral aromas, black cherry, a touch of cola. But also noticeable for what is missing, no vanilla, no oak, just pure fruit and savory elements that good Syrah should have. The mid-palate is full with a refreshing lifted quality and lots of mouthwatering acidity on the finish. Not too tannic. Just a beautiful, true and transparent version of Syrah.
If you get a chance to check out William’s wines I would highly recommend it. You can check in on his past vintage (with fancy photos too!) of Syrah that I’ve written about here. I still have a 2011 that I’ll write about again in a few years to see how it’s aged. I have a hunch that the acidity in that vintage and the 2012 will make them wines that can age for a very long time.
My love for the Central Coast’s Piedrasassi Winery is well documented. I won’t go too deeply into it here except to say that Piedrasassi is doing pretty much everything that produces the style of Syrah I like. They’re committed to cool climate Syrah and the wines are usually under 14% alcohol and aged in large neutral oak barrels with some stem inclusion. I stopped by the other day to talk with Melissa Sorongon, a partner in the winery with her winemaking husband Sashi Moorman, to check in on their 2012 releases.
The following are my initial notes on their four upper end Syrah releases. I’ll post more extensive notes on each of the wines down the road after they get some time in bottle and I crack them individually.
Piedrasassi’s least expensive of their upper-end Syrahs is a blend of three vineyards. Moorman went into his Syrah project with the idea that he would be mostly blending from different vineyards to make the perfect blended Syrah. Yet, as the project has developed, Melissa and Sashi began to see that some of the vineyards that they were sourcing had such expressive individual signatures that they just had to have their own vineyard designations.
The Piedrasassi Syrah at 13.5% alcohol is a blend from three vineyards, Presqu’ile, Harrison Clarke and Sebastiano. There’s still a bit of green character (not a bad thing in my opinion) on this wine at the moment, probably due to the stem inclusion. There’s a full mid-palate on this wine though, nice blackberry and plum and a brambly quality. Although it’s a full wine it has an elegance too. It’s a nice cool-climate Syrah but with a tad of California richness.
The Santa Maria Valley Presqu’ile Syrah is a tad higher in alcohol at 14% and has an energetic lift to the mid-palate with savory tannins and a beautiful elegance on the finish.
The Santa Ynez wine is from the Sebastiano vineyard. It’s bright and chalky with sweet plum aromas and sweeter tannins on the finish. Again, the mid-palate has a wonderful lively texture to it.
The Rim Rock Vineyard Arroyo Grande Syrah is more of a floral Syrah with a Cote Rotie elegance and a bit of Cornas heft. It’s a generous Syrah but tightly wound with a nice bright finish.
I asked Melissa why the wines, even though they are from individual vineyards, were named after the larger appellation from which they come. Melissa said that this was a conscious decision to bring more attention to the larger areas of Santa Barbara County rather than individual vineyards. She likened it to the story of the Bien Nacido vineyard which has become world famous but few people know that it comes from Santa Maria. Sashi and Melissa want people to know about Santa Maria as a whole, not just the vineyard sites.
All of these wines are elegant and bright and could last for many years. I have all three bottles in my “wine cellar” and I’ll be opening them in the next couple of years to give more attention to each wine in separate, later posts.
It’s just so great to keep in touch with an old friend. I try to get a hold of a Spicerack “Punchdown” Syrah in every vintage. It’s one of the first cool-climate California Syrahs that I tried and I love it so. Back when I was transitioning from bigger, richer wines to more elegant ones, the Spicerack (along with the Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah) had this zing of acidity and a sort of crunchiness that really turned me on. These wines were a direct contrast to the big Shirazes that I’d had from Australia—wines that I had liked initially but had grown tired of. The Spicerack was just the change of pace I needed and it began a love affair with cool-climate Syrah that is obviously raging on to this day.
The Spicerack is the project of Jonathan and Susan Pey who also make the Pey-Marin Pinots and the delicious and well-priced Forager Pinot. All their wines are made in a minimalist style, with the utmost attention given to the fruit in the vineyards.
Salty black olive and high toned aromas of lavender dominate this wine, with hints of meat and insect (yes, I know #keepsyrahweird) in the background. On the palate there’s a richness and fullness that belies it’s cool-climate tendencies and, in fact, there is some warmer climate fruit in there from the Alegria Vineyard in Santa Rosa. But it’s still full of great acidity and, like past vintages, kind of a crunchy mid-palate which probably comes from cooler Syrah vineyard in the Carneros region of Sonoma. The finish has just enough tannin to be balanced for drinking now. It’s a beautiful wine and one that I’m happy to revisit. It’s the perfect choice to introduce people to cool-climate Syrah but it also has the complexity to pique the interest of the true Syrah aficionado. And its acidity and tannin will allow it to age for quite a while.
The wine only sees about 10% new oak which in my opinion let’s the fruit and savory aromas really shine through.
Like seeing an old friend, it was really a pleasure to spend some time with the Spicerack and I’m glad to see it’s still doing so well. Just as I remember it, this is a wine that’s the best ambassador for California cool-climate Syrah.
If you know anything about Northern Rhone Syrah, you’ve probably heard of Auguste Clape. He’s a traditionalist in an era where modern wine techniques have reached even the stalwart traditionalists of Northern Rhone. And his wines are spectacular. The wines are aged in neutral oak foudres and cement, made the same way they’ve been made for years.
The Vin Des Amis is from de-classified fruit from the Clapes’ Cornas vineyards. The wine, from 40 year old vines, has all the Northern Rhone character you could ever ask for.
This is clean, totally unadulterated cool-climate Syrah. If you want to know what true Syrah smells like, get this wine. It’s a little pricy but worth it to get a sense of what Syrah is really all about. There’s a bit of celery, along with earth, minerals, pepper, plum, blackberries and olive tapenade. The mid-palate is light and smooth with a slightly tannic finish that dries out the mouth. No hint of oak at all. Just a wine that tastes and smells honest and simple. But simple in a good way.
If you don’t have the budget for Clape’s higher priced Cornas wines, you can still get a taste of the Northern Rhone in all its glory with Vin Des Amis.
Have I told you how I felt about Patrick Comiskey’s speech about the state of American Syrah at the opening of the Celebrate Walla Walla wine event in June of 2014? If you follow this blog or follow me on Twitter with any regularity, you already know, I loved it. Patrick really nailed something that I’ve been trying to put into words since I started the blog. He makes the point that at its essence Syrah, when grown in the right places, has a wild character. Its flavor profiles are weird sometimes and that’s how we need to think about Syrah. It’s exactly this dose of strangeness and uniqueness that the wine world needs. We are no longer craving overripe, overly smooth and inert Cabernet, we are craving wine that makes us think and makes us salivate to learn more and that’s what Syrah does. That’s what makes it so dang intriguing and why, after tasting Syrah on a weekly (usually more) basis over the last five years, I keep coming back for more.
Based on Patrick’s speech, Ryan Sherman of Fields Family Wines in Lodi came up with the idea for the hashtag #keepsyrahweird. I’m happy to say we’ve even had shirts made. I love the idea of embracing Syrah’s inner strangeness and twisting it on its head to make it positive.
It’s in the spirit of this embrace of cool-climate Syrah’s weirdness that I write about one of Samsara’s wines. Samsara is the brain child of Chad Melville of Melville Estates. He makes Pinot, Syrah, and Chardonnay for his family’s label but also has a side project devoted to cool-climate Syrah and Pinot from small sites. You only have to glance at the wall of empty bottles of Northern Rhone Syrah on the wall behind Samsara’s little tasting room in Lompoc to realize that Chad’s serious about making interesting new world Syrah.
Samsara’s winemaking is a very low-intervention style. The grapes are fermented with native yeasts and slowly and gently pressed, the resulting juice kept in French Oak Barrels for 24 months. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
The wine: There’s an herbal element in the background that reminds me of celery soup mixed with day old meat, sweet plum and tobacco. On the palate the wine has a combination of beautiful acidity and softness with lift on the finish and well integrated tannins. Weird, right? And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I urge you to check out the rest of Patrick’s speech here on his blog and of course to search out more examples of Syrah that embrace its wild and weird side.