2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah

What has now become a winery known mostly for its high-acid, true Sonoma Coast Pinot and Chardonnay, began its story with Syrah. A move up north and an appreciation of cooler-climate styles shifted winemaker Carrol Kemp’s focus toward burgundy and away from the Rhone.  Fortunately for me, Red Car’s Estate Syrah is one that’s sure to stay in their lineup and it’s one of the better California cool-climate Syrahs that I’ve tried, so as long as they keep this one around I’ll be a happy camper.

red car

The 2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah $55

Salty licorice, savory nose, has a meaty character there too. There’s fresh plum and blackberry that reminds me of summer fruit. This Syrah is very floral too, even though there isn’t any Viognier added. There’s great minerality and tension on the nose, with bitter chocolate aromas. The palate is fresh and light with great lift and the finish is not overly tannic or bitter to my palate.

The Fort Ross Seaview appellation is a relatively new appellation, it’s a subsection of the Sonoma Coast appellation and the beginning of a break-up of that gargantuan appellation into smaller subsections (soon to come…The Petaluma Gap). It’s a northerly coastal appellation that generally produces cooler-climate style of wine but the hilltop vineyards are often above the fog so some of them get more heat. The Red Car vineyard sits at about 1000 ft. above sea level in the hills above Fort Ross and is positively cool-climate because of its proximity to the cooling fog and breezes of the Pacific Ocean.

The wine is aged for 18 months in 27% new oak and the balance in neutral barrels. 2011 was a cool vintage and the resulting wine comes in at only 12.7% alcohol. It’s not lacking for stuffing though, also a wine to revisit in a few years.

Donelan Family Wines: Benchmark Sonoma Syrah

I love checking in with Donelan Family Wines, they’ve been making Syrah for years now, both under the Pax label and now with the Donelan Family label. And they’ve stuck to their guns, sure they make a few Pinots here and there, and some nice whites, but they are decidedly a Syrah house. They’ve had some of the same vineyard sources for over a decade so it’s fun to see how the wines develop and how the new vintages evolve.


Tasting with Joe was a treat. 

The winery recently changed winemakers. Joe Nielsen took over the reins from Tyler Thomas in 2013. He had been assistant winemaker for 4 years so he was very prepared for the transition. I met with Joe in early July to go over the latest releases. Unfortunately, all the following wines (except for the Cuvee Christine and the Walker Vine) are sold out. I include them here for you fellow Syrah geeks so that you can keep track of what’s going on with Donelan and get super excited for the 2013 bottlings.


The lineup.

The 2012 Cuvee Christine 14.1% ABV $48. This wine is meant to be a postcard of Sonoma Syrah, kind of like a journey through the different sides of Sonoma. On the one hand, it’s savory-gravel and fresh but on the other hand it’s fruity and broad with smoky tannins and blackberry and plum flavors. There’s a brightness to the wine that I didn’t expect.

The 2012 Walker Vine Syrah, 13.7% ABV $65, is a richer, rounder, fuller wine but with good acid structure in the mid-palate. It tastes fully ripe and expressive but that mid-palate structure keeps it from being jammy or over the top. 2013 is the last year for Walker Vine Syrah which marks the end of an era for the Pax and Donelan iteration of that vineyard. It will be missed.

The 2012 Kobler Family Green Valley Syrah/Viognier, 13.5% ABV $60. This is my type of Syrah, It’s floral and shows the cooler side of variety. The Viognier is really showing here, elevating the floral aromatic complexity. After that floral on the nose, I get the salted plum aroma that I love on Viognier-added Syrah, there’s crushed rock on the palate and something meaty and smokey there in the background.

The 2012 Obsidian Knights Valley, 14.7% ABV $105. The Obsidian is, of course, Donelan’s flagship vineyard which they, in fact, have recently purchased. This is a big meaty Syrah, and somewhat more blue fruited than the others and sees a little more new oak. It’s a brighter wine than I remember from the last vintage I tasted and has some nice freshness to counteract those big notes of fruit, oak, and tannin.

The 2012 Cuvee Keltie, 14% ABV $90, is a wine that Donelan winemakers have referred to as a “winemakers’ wine. It’s a blend that, as Joe said, develops its singularity from the decisions that the winemaker makes rather than the vineyard. The idea for this blend is to really play up the savory side of Syrah by using whole cluster fruit and aging it in neutral barrels. The result for the 2012 vintage is a rich wine but with a mineral backbone and a meaty side. There’s a fair amount of tannin there too because the blend was made with grapes from smaller berry lots. It’s an impressive wine and one that I’d like to revisit in a few years after some bottle age.

The Kobler Family is Donelan’s most elegant Syrah and, as you can imagine, my favorite because it displays so much cool-climate character. But that’s not to say that the others aren’t elegant and, as you can see from my notes, all the wines possessed a freshness and modest alcohol and oak treatments that I feel lets the vineyards shine. After barrel tasting the 2013 wines, I”m confident Nielsen has the same deft hand with the different vineyard sites that Donelan has made famous through the years.


What I’m always struck with when I visit Donelan is the intense devotion from the winemakers, be it Tyler Thomas or Joe Nielsen, to leaving no stone unturned in order to make the best wines. For example, Joe told me that in 2013 they separated the Walker Vine vineyard into thirteen different lots which they picked at different times. These guys are not messing around and their attention to detail is borne out in the elegant and site-expressive Syrahs in their impressive line up.

S.C. Pannell Adelaide Hills 2013 Syrah

s.c. pannell

Australian Shiraz/Syrah you ask? How could it be cool-climate? Well, after years of hearing about a cooler-climate style of Syrah from Australia but never actually being able to find any, I’m happy to report that it exists! And it’s delicious!

The S.C. Pannell Syrah has cool-climate character in spades. It’s got minerality on the nose, mixed with underlying fresh strawberry and blackberry and an intriguing dark-chocolate note. The palate is full but with good lift (it’s not a cloying wine at all), and it finishes fresh and not-too-tannic. It’s a beauty and I’m happy to have found it. Interestingly, the winemaker calls it Syrah, to differentiate it in style from other Australian Shiraz and to connect it more with the Northern Rhone. There’s an elegance and freshness that I just haven’t tasted in an Australian red and it makes me excited and hopeful that there are other examples of Australian Syrah like this.

The wine is grown on granitic soils in the Echunga vineyard of Adelaide Hills appellation about 1300 feet above sea level. It has 2% Viognier and it’s fermented with about 20% whole cluster. The wine was aged in 25% new oak puncheons and vats for about 12 months. The resulting wine is 14% abv.

It won the Jimmy Watson trophy recently. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s ok, neither had I. Apparently, it’s a huge honor in Australia. Not only is it an honor for the wine and the folks behind it, but I can’t help think that it’s a validation for wineries in Australia who are leaning towards a more restrained style of Syrah.

Domaine Durand 2012 Saint Joseph Les Coteaux and Domaine Durand 2012 Prémices Cornas: Recommended

Domaine Durand has been around since 1996 when two brothers teamed up to take over their father’s estate. Their St. Joseph comes from steep vineyards near the village of Chateaubourg. All the grapes are de-stemmed and macerate in concrete vats for a length of time decided by the quality of the vintage. Most of the wines are made with native yeasts and are aged for about a year in large oak casks and a smaller percentage aged in concrete. The Domaine is made up of two brothers: Eric and Joel. Most of their Cornas plantings (at least for the Prémices) are from the late 1990s, with a few dating back to 1994. Eric and Joel make their Syrah in a style that is meant to drink young, due to the fact that they are working with younger vines.

Durand st. joseph

2012 Domaine Durand Saint Joseph $30

Perfumed honeysuckle/rose/violet nose with hints of pepper and gravel. Pure, balanced, fresh on the mid palate with sweet plum, black pepper and good lift but not overly tannic on the finish. This is what St. Joseph should be, food friendly and not too in your face with the tannins. Just pure pleasure to drink but with enough complexity and energy to make it interesting. And the price isn’t bad either.

Durand Cornas

2012 Prémices Cornas $30

This wine was surprisingly open and full with beautiful sweet floral aromas. It also has that salted plum aroma that I can’t get enough of in cool-climate Syrah. There isn’t much savory on the nose but the fruit aromas are fresh smelling. I was also surprised by the richness on the palate and even got a hint of heat on the back end, with some rich oak mixed in. Not as tannic as I would have expected for a young Cornas. It’s a very enticing wine but perhaps a little too open and rich for my palate. I have to admit the bottle went pretty quickly though, so it’s hard to find anything to seriously complain about. I let this hang out on the counter overnight and it had more savory elements and the acidity seemed higher than the night before. It might be a good indication of where the wine is heading. It’s hard to conceive that a Cornas could be available for this modest price and I can only imagine it’s because the Cornas vines they are using are relatively young (for Cornas) so they aren’t charging the same that an older vine expert like Clape is. They also make the wine in a style that emphasizes fruit and is meant to drink young.

These are great wines that don’t break the bank. As I mentioned, these are not the rustic, classic styles of Northern Rhone Syrah that I generally like the most but they are delicious, fun wines to drink and more than accessible even at their young age.

Thanks again to my indispensable copy of John Livingston-Learmonth’s exhaustive text, The Wines of the Northern Rhone for helping me with this post.

Wine Blog Awards 2015


I’ve been nominated as a finalist for a Wine Blog Award in the category of Single Subject Wine Blog! For those of you who follow this space, I’d appreciate it if you’d head over to this survey and vote for me. It feels great to be recognized for what’s now over three years of blog posts about the variety that I love so much. Thanks so much and thanks for being a loyal reader all these years. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about the best cool-climate Syrah from around the world.

Here’s the survey link:  www.surveymonkey.com/r/WBA2015

Thanks again!



Three Vintages of Halcón Alturas Syrah: Highly Recommended Cool-climate CA Syrah

halcon bottles

I’d been holding on to a 2011 Halcón Alturas Syrah while waiting to find a time to meet up with Paul Gordon, the owner, and when I was able to find a 2012, I decided to do a post on the different vintages. Paul and I met up and I was also able to taste the recently released 2013.

The 2011 really impressed me right out of the gate. There’s intriguing fig, pepper, brambly blackberry, cranberry aromas and something on the edge of herbal. This is a delicious-smelling wine, it just keeps you coming back for more. And it delivers on the palate too, good structure and energy on the mid-palate. Almost like biting into a fresh piece of fruit. The tannins on the finish are present but they’re approachable.

This wine reminds me a lot of the impressive 2009 Halcón Alturas I had, but I think I even like it more. It’s just a beautifully enticing, and delicious Syrah.

The 2012 is equally as pleasing, perhaps a bit more open and full but it still has a savory element, this time it reminds me of mushroom soup, and those enticing fruit aromas are there too with possibly a little more oak coming through at the moment.

Halcón Alturas’s 2013 wine is also delicious if not more than a little different in its aroma and textural character. This is the first year that the Halcón has used about 1/3 whole cluster on their Syrah and it’s given the wine a structure and ageability that may not have been there in its previous iterations. With vine age they’ve finally felt that they’ve started to get the first real lignification(maturation) of the stems which allowed them to consider using whole cluster.

With that structure and mouth feel comes a little bit of a downside in that the 2013 at the moment that I tasted it was less expressive and open than the other wines. I got a peppery spiciness mixed in with some brambly-bright blackberry and plum but the wine seemed a little reticent. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a spectacular wine, while not totally complete at the moment, that will develop into something even better with a little more age.

Of the wines so far, the 2011 version is probably my favorite but the 2012 and the 2009 are close seconds. I have a feeling that the 2013 will develop into something brilliant and I look forward to that progression.

I think there’s something special about Syrah grown in the Yorkville Highlands, it seems to be the perfect combination of cool and warm climate that produces Syrah with intensely aromatic qualities and full, round mid-palates. In my opinion,  are really making the wine with the right recipe, unfined, unfiltered, a little bit of new oak from large puncheons and, at least in the 2013, just the right amount of stem inclusion.

paul and jackie halcon

Paul and Jackie talking about whole cluster inclusion on the 2013. 

Paul Gordon and Jackie Bracey are the masterminds behind Halcón and the ones who decided to plant Syrah in such an unlikely place. Scott Shapley is the winemaker at the Roar facility which is situated in a rather mammoth warehouse in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. Paul and Jackie have ideas to eventually move up to their vineyard in the next few years and will eventually take over the winemaking themselves.

The vineyard itself lies in the western edge of the Yorkville Highlands Wine Region which begins west of Cloverdale on the way to the Anderson Valley. Most of the wine in the area is, somewhat strangely, planted to Bordeaux varieties but it’s a spot where Syrah really shines, especially at the higher, sunnier (read: above the fog line) elevations. And at 2500 feet this is one of the higher elevation vineyards in all of California.

It’s a special place and one that deserves more attention for Syrah. I was lucky to be able to get a sense of how the wines are progressing through the vintages as the vineyard matures and I think I can say, without any reservation, that good things lie on the horizon for Halcón Vineyards and I’ll be there waiting for the next glass.

2011 Sol Rouge Syrah

Sol Rouge Syrah
My wife is the adventurous one.  I’m kind of the home body.  But, it was her birthday so after a delicious lunch at La Mar Cebicheria in San Francisco, when I mentioned that there were a few wineries out on Treasure Island I could see that gleam in her eye.  Yes, I knew we’d be stuck in traffic on the way home and I had planned on having a glass of wine in the back yard but traffic be damned, I decided to give in to adventure. My son was of course on board because, hey, there’s got to be some treasure on Treasure Island right?
The winery there that I’d heard of the most  was La Vie because they make a Las Madres Syrah.  Right away I was surprised by how much wine has become a part of what Treasure Island markets to tourists.  As you come off the exit and down the hill you’re greeted with a huge sign from Winery SF painted onto a warehouse facade.
The real surprise of the visit was Sol Rouge. I hadn’t heard of the winery but, after tasting the delicious wines at Vie, we took a chance and stopped next door at Sol Rouge.  I say chance, because I hate tasting at wineries that aren’t any good.  If they have Syrah, it’s always awkward when the pourers ask me what I think and I have to try to say something nice.  Thankfully that wasn’t the case at Sol Rouge, not by a long shot.  I took a bottle of Syrah home and enjoyed it immensely.
The 2011 Sol Rouge Syrah does have a little of that primary fruit California thing but it’s also really elegant and lithe on the palate.  On the nose, there’s plum, aromas of mushroom and good minerality and energy with just a touch of oak.  I get a bit of a savory, almost soy saucy aroma too.  That savoriness carries over to the mid palate and makes for a delicious wine that keeps you salivating for another glass. Beautiful acidity to match and a not-too hot-finish.  This is good stuff.  I’m so glad I gave in to a little unplanned adventure and stopped by Treasure Island and Sol Rouge.
Bryan Kane does the winemaking at Sol Rouge and this particular day his assistant winemaker Marc Ventre was pouring the wines.  Bryan is the mastermind behind a lot of the Treasure Island Wineries, both Winery SF and Vie are his projects.
The fruit from Sol Rouge comes from a steeply-sloped estate in the Red Hills appellation in Lake County that Bryan owns.  It’s all planted with a high-density protocol that Bryan believes minimizes grape cluster production on each vine, therefore concentrating flavors.
The 2011 Syrah was vinified in a hands-off style and aged in 20% new oak.
I enjoyed the other wines I tasted at Sol Rouge also, they have a mostly Rhone focus which is right up my alley.  They also sell wine by the glass and there’s even a bocce court.  It’s definitely a place we’ll head back to if the weather ever warms up again here in the Bay Area.