The 2015 SF Bay Rhone Rangers Tasting

Those of us who are really interested in the past, present, and future of Rhone varieties in the new world excitedly await the annual Rhone Rangers event in the Bay Area. For the last two years the event has been held at the Craneway Pavilion in Point Richmond, California. It’s well attended but not overwhelmingly crowded. I was invited to attend the seminars this year and I was thrilled because one of the seminars was on how Rhone varieties aged over time and that’s always been a topic that interests me.

The first event was all about Rose and although I really enjoyed tasting the diverse Rosé wines made from Rhone varieties, I’ll focus on the Syrah.  Martin Redmond of Enofylz Wine Blog has written a nice post on the Rosé wines here.

The second seminar was about how Rhone wines age and featured some intriguing wines. The first was a fabulous Qupe Marsanne that we tasted from a 2005 vintage and a 2013 vintage. The 2005 had this beautiful honey and hazelnut aroma that I could have sat and smelled for days. The 2013 was all bright and acidic and ready to drink on a hot day. Which was, in the end, a valuable lesson about Marsanne, while nice and gulpable in its youth but rather one-dimensional, a few years in bottle makes it a complex wine that demands contemplation. Next time I get a Marsanne from Qupe, I’m going to stick it in the wine fridge for as many years as I can stand it.

But let’s get to the Syrah, this is why we’re all here after all.

The next flight was a 2002 Lagier Meredith Syrah and a 2012. Lagier Meredith wines are known for their balance and structure which theoretically should lead to wines that age  well. Carole Meredith mentioned that the 2002 vintage was one that for years was aromatically closed down and I’d have to agree on that. In her opinion the wine had come around but for me it was still lacking much of an aroma profile. I was impressed with its freshness though. I felt the 2012 to be more expressive with a little sweetness on the nose, some licorice, plum and a full mid palate with a big punch of tannins on the finish. The Lagier-Meredith Syrahs are elegant if a tad subtle on the nose.

Wines 5 and 6 were a 1998 Sentinel Oak Syrah from Terre Rouge and a 2008. These wines were familiar to me because I had written a post about how oak influence can lessen over time. Bill Easton believes in a new oak profile of 25% and it’s very interesting to see how the wines, which are basically made the same year after year, change over time in the bottle. In my earlier post, I had noticed that in older Terre Rouge wines the new oak had lessened over time and this same scenario played out with these two wines. The 1998 was fresh still with an herbal savoriness and no hint of new oak while the 2008 came across as sweeter, with a soft finish perhaps brought on by its time spent in oak. Both wines were beautiful on their own merits but I prefer the older because I felt like that the lessened oak influence had brought out the savory side of Syrah that I enjoy so much.

Wines 7 and 8 were from Silver Wines, which up until the seminar I had not heard of. Benjamin Silver is the winemaker and was a former assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa. The wines were Syrah from the White Hawk Vineyard in Los Alamos. I’ve had a couple of White Hawks in the past and I’ve been impressed with their aromatic intensity but it has seemed like a vineyard that allows for some bombastic styles of Syrah and that was certainly the case with Silver’s 2003 White Hawk, which smelled beautiful but seemed to lack any mid palate structure. The 2010 on the other hand was very nicely structured and had all that I want from a Syrah: good freshness, structure and a savory and earthy undertone. The 2003 had a higher percentage of alcohol (14.7%) due to 2003 being a very hot year. I think that may have lead to its eventual lack of structure. I looked at this phenomenon of older wines made in a ripe style having a hollow midpalate and finish in another blog post here (link). Benjamin agreed that the 2010 (13% ABV) had a minerality and savoriness that the higher alcohol version did not.

The following flight was a 2003 and a 2012 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel which is their Southern Rhone style blend. It’s mostly a Mouvedre-based blend but with a good amount of Syrah, Grenache and a little Counoise. The older version just seemed so knitted together and had developed an earthy and savory side. The 2012 was more linear, simpler, and more fruit forward.

The last two wines were a 2002 and a 2012 Lytton Springs Petite Sirah from Ridge, a winery known for producing wines that age particularly well. This wine to me was the most obvious in showing how well wines can age. The younger wine was rather one note. It had a little of the fruit-forward rather non-distinct California fruit thing with a big tannic punch on the finish but the 2003 had developed into a beautiful savory wine that was very balanced. Wow, get a hold of some Petite Sirah from Ridge and just leave it in the cellar for as long as you can stand it. I’ll do it and put it next to my Qupe Marsanne.

So, what can be generalized from this seminar? Rhone wines when picked at a balanced stage with the alcohol not being too great and with good acid structure, age very well. At least the ones in this tasting did. I haven’t really been a huge proponent of aging wines because you know, earthquakes and “seize the day”, but I have to admit that this seminar made me want to rethink my strategy. Almost without exception these were beautiful older wines and I think I might need to invest in a bigger cellar to accommodate some wines to age.
The Grand Tasting:

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First of all, I want to revisit some of my favorite Syrahs from the last year. Keep in mind that what I’m looking for at the Rhone Rangers event are Syrahs that have some freshness of fruit. I avoid wines that, in my opinion, were picked too late or lathered with too much new oak and have a gloppy, sweetness to them.

Last year’s favorites (you can see my tasting notes on last year’s wine here):

Kieran Robinson’s Vivio Vineyard Syrah: Kieran wasn’t pouring his wines at this year’s Rhone Rangers.

All the Terre Rouge Syrahs: Beautiful Syrahs meant for aging, consistent year after year.

Two Shepherds Syrah: William Allen didn’t bring any Syrah to this years tasting but you can check out my review of his 2012 Syrah here. I tasted through his other wines and they were tasting fresh and energetic, with a core of savory minerality. Just how William likes them.

Fields Family Syrah: The new vintage was tasting great, fresh fruit character with Lodi fruit. I also tasted a 100% whole cluster Syrah that was really good. Ryan is holding the wine back from the public but I think it’s one of my favorite wines he’s made.

Donelan Wines Syrah: Donelan did not pour at Rhone Rangers this year.

Qupe Syrah (these were my favorite from last year) I didn’t get a chance to check in with Qupe this year but these wines have been tasting great of late.

MacLaren Wines: Steve Law continues to impress me with his food friendly Syrah. The Atoosa’s vineyard and the upcoming release of his “Bonnie Glen” Syrah are my favorites from his lineup.

The Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-block (all the Bonny Doon Syrahs have been delicious of late)

Lagier Meredith Syrah: I didn’t check in with Lagier Meredith this year (except at the aging seminar) but their Syrah is consistently delicious.

Skylark Wine Company 2009 Rodgers Creek Syrah: I’m kicking myself for not tasting their 2010 that was offered at the tasting! Don’t know how I missed it but it’s a wine I need to search out because I really loved the 2009.

Now here’s my list of some new (to me) Syrah wineries that fit my sweet spot for cool-climate Syrah:

Campesino Cellars

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This is a relatively new project of Macario and Griselda Montoya. They focus mostly on Rhone varieties with some Pinot thrown in. Their 2012 “Sangiacomo” Old Lakeville Vineyard Syrah is a site that’s situated right near Griffin’s Lair. There’s a delicious factor for this Syrah that can’t be denied. It’s all dark fruit and some powerful meatiness that’s characteristic of Syrah from that area. I look forward to trying more Syrah from Macario.

Pax Mahle Wines

Not exactly a new comer but Pax hasn’t poured his wines at Rhone Rangers for quite a while. He wasn’t there, unfortunately, but he sent an apt assistant who knew a lot about the wines.

Pax’s 2011 line up of Syrahs were quite intriguing. I prefer his more food-friendly and fresher style Syrahs from his Wind Gap label but these were also delicious wines. Although the alcohol level was high, I didn’t feel that the wines were cloying (except for “The Vicar” which is Grenache based). All the Syrahs see 100% whole cluster which may have attributed to my perception of freshness. The Griffin’s Lair was the star for me with its meaty character but I also enjoyed his Alder Springs. Both these wines really are hedonistic bombs with lots of tannin but I was impressed with their freshness.

Quady North

The big surprise of the tasting for me though was Quady North. Their 2011 Steelhead Run Vineyard Syrah from Applegate Valley in Oregon was a spectacular example of the type of Syrah that I like. Savory, with nice black olive character, pepper, and a structured, fresh mid palate. Their other wines were also delicious and they had a pleasant and well-priced rosé at the rosé seminar. This is a winery I will definitely visit on my next trip up the I-5.

Wrath

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The other winery that I was most surprised by was Wrath. I had tasted their wines the previous years and I wasn’t too impressed because the Syrahs seemed a little overripe. But on the a tip from the great Fred Swan of NorCal Wine I gave them another chance. I’m sure glad I listened to Fred. Their 2012 Doctor’s Vineyard Syrah was probably the most impressive of the wines, it had wonderful cool-climate character with an intriguing meatiness to it. I also liked the KW Ranch Syrah with its savory and earthy character. These are not exactly high acid, cool-climate Syrahs but rather rich and powerful with an elegance and a savory quality to them that I enjoyed. I’m glad I gave Wrath another chance.
I know I missed some great Syrah at the tasting but, based on my sample size at Rhone Rangers, I think there’s a cadre of high quality producers making Syrah in the food-friendly style that I prefer. It’s possible that I’m just getting better at weeding out some of the big, bruising, blocky style that seemed omnipresent a few years back. Or, could it be that the pendulum is swinging back towards more balanced Syrahs that celebrate the variety’s savory minerally side? Time will tell and, meanwhile, Rhone Rangers will continue to be the can’t-miss tasting event of the year for me.

Gramercy Cellars 2012 Columbia Valley Syrah

Gramercy Cellars

(Big Syrah bottles make for big scratches from the wine fridge rack.) 

It’s all fresh, sweet fruit on first opening. Some rose petal, soy sauce, graphite there in the background and although not exactly a fruit bomb, this wine has a fruit character that jumps out of the glass and definitely separates it from the savory Syrahs of the Northern Rhone. It’s delicious though, there’s a sense of balance on the palate that makes the wine feel full and light at the same time.

Day two: The wine is still fruity but there’s an interesting meaty character coming through that I really like. It’s a beautiful wine and on day two doesn’t actually taste much different than day one and that’s not a bad thing.

Gramercy Cellars is the brain child of Greg and Pam Harrington who gave up their city life in New York to make wines in Walla Walla, Washington. As you’d imagine, if you’ve ever been to Eastern Washington, that involved quite a bit of culture shock. The move paid off though, as Gramercy Cellars enjoys a reputation as one of the better wineries in Washington state and is renowned for making some of its best Syrah.

The Columbia Valley Syrah is a new blend for Gramercy Cellars. At $40, it’s the least expensive of their Syrahs. It combines four vineyards, Minick, Olsen, SJR, and Stony Vine. It’s all neutral oak aged and comes in at 13.7% abv.

While this wine isn’t totally my style of Syrah, I can see why people fall for it. It has a delicious factor that can’t be denied. And its lack of new oak and judicious alcohol level allows that delectable fresh fruit character to fully express itself.

The Failla Fort Ross-Seaview 2011 Estate Vineyard Syrah

Failla 2011 Syrah

First opening: The wine hits you with a high-toned aroma of fresh plums and gravel, reminiscent of the Northern Rhone and the best of the New World Syrahs I’ve tasted for the blog. Right out of the gate, I can tell this is going to be my kind of Syrah. The palate is full and light at the same time. The mouth-feel is almost textured.

Day two, there’s a touch of the vegetal coming through right now because of the 100% stem inclusion. It’s integrated though and adds pleasant complexity. There’s a real savory side to this Syrah that’s intriguing. That plum is coming through now but with a black olive edge to it, and there’s a floral element also.

This is quite simply one of the best California Syrahs that I have ever had (which, frankly, at its $60 price tag is as it should be).

Failla is the brain child of former Turley wine maker Ehren Jordan who left Turley to start his own winery with his wife Anne-Marie Failla. The winery is Pinot and Chardonnay focussed but those who know Jordan also know that he’s a Syrah expert. He spent his early winemaking apprenticeship in the Northern Rhone and learned to appreciate cool-climate Syrah. Jordan’s become known for making Syrah that’s intensely aromatic with a cool-climate Old World bent but he’s not a cool-climate zealot. He believes Syrah should be full on the mid-palate and has been known to poke fun at cool-climate Syrah makers who make wine at under 12% alcohol. He’s not afraid of his Syrah being broad-shouldered in order to back up all that aromatic intensity.

This wine was made in a traditional Northern Rhone style with 100% whole cluster fermentation. It was crushed by foot, and aged in 30% new oak. It’s a wine that nods more to the Old World than the New, which is consistent with other Failla Syrahs I’ve had.

If you want to taste an elegant New World Syrah that tends toward the Old World, this is a wine to seek out.

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph Syrah?

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Gonon Saint Joseph 2011

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph, well here’s a good place to start.

There was a whisper among some of the Syrah geeks and winemakers about Gonon. Every once in a while when I mentioned Saint Joseph they would say that this was the textbook example, that this was the wine that most represented the appellation. They espoused its classic lightness on the palate and its savory minerality and I knew it was a wine I had to try.

The wine: Black olive, black pepper, pervasive gravel aromas, hints of something vegetal in the background, high-toned fresh plum. On first opening even with an aerator the wine was super tight. A day on the counter and it was much better but you could imagine it fleshing out even more over time. There’s a lot of acidity here but the tannins aren’t as pronounced as Syrah from other regions of the Northern Rhone. That’s in line with what I’ve come to expect from Saint Joseph and historically what the region has been known for, food-friendly reds that are versatile enough to go with steak, chicken, or even fish.

Gonon is an historic estate that Pierre Gonon gave to his sons Pierre and Jean in 1989. They’ve resisted the temptation of new oak and other modern techniques and focussed their energy on elevating the vineyard while maintaining the classic vinification process in the cellar. The result is that these wines are textbook examples of what St. Joseph has classically been and what it should always be; food-friendly, fresh wines, with a core of pure fruit, and savory aromas.

Twelve California Syrahs for around $25

A recent Levi Dalton interview with Bedrock Winery’s owner and winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson inspired me to write about CA Syrah priced at around $25. Morgan said in the interview (a fascinating listen) that he felt that it’s hard to find true CA Syrah with all it’s savory, peppery, and lifted quality at the $25 price point, and that’s keeping Syrah back in CA. People aren’t able to sort of play around in the category of California Syrah without having to fork over $40 or $50. I think that most of what Morgan says is true, it is difficult to find them but they’re out there. I’m going to help you find them. Here’s my list of twelve “around $25” bottles of California Syrah with true Syrah characteristics.

First a disclaimer of sorts: I do a lot of shopping at K and L Wine Merchants here in the Bay Area. Most of these wines are available there. Let it be known though that I am not a paid shill for K and L. We all have our favorite wine stores, I’m lucky enough to have K and L near my home so I can order from there and pick the wine up to avoid shipping cost. It’s as simple as that.

Spicerack Syrah ($19) : This was one of the first CA Syrahs that I found that really piqued my interest in cool-climate Syrah. It has a freshness and crunchiness that I just wasn’t finding in other CA Syrah. Judicious use of oak also helps the fruit shine through.

Andrew Murray Tous Les Jours Santa Ynez Valley ($13): Andrew Murray makes good wine, usually it’s a little on the ripe side but it’s well made. I have to admit this is a pretty obvious choice but I wanted to include it because it usually has some interesting meaty Syrah character that’s difficult to find in other wines at this price point.

Fields Family Estate Syrah ($24) : Ryan Sherman is quickly making a name for himself with his fresh and savory Lodi wines. His Syrah is one of my favorite wines and although it’s not exactly a Northern Rhone it has an earthy, peppery side that you just don’t normally find in Lodi.

Piedrasassi “P.S.” Central Coast Syrah ($19): Piedrasassi makes a less-expensive Syrah that has a lot of true Syrah character and a deliciousness factor that’s hard to beat. It also comes in like the coolest little bottle on the planet.

Terre Rouge Les Cotes de l’Ouest ($18): Bill Easton is known for his age-able old vine Syrahs from various soils and elevations in Amador County. But he also makes a widely available St. Joseph style Syrah meant for daily consumption. It sees less oak and it’s elegant and floral and has a pure, peppery aroma that Syrah should have. And from mostly Lodi fruit!

Bonny Doon Vineyard ‘Le Pousseur’ Syrah ($24)
: It’s the earthy, meaty, side of this wine that makes it such a treat. Randall Graham is a Syrah genius and this least expensive example is a winner.

Tolosa Estate Syrah ($24)
: Now, to be honest, I’ve only had the 2010 and 2011 which were the coolest vintages California had seen for years, so I can’t vouch for the ’12 as being a wine with Syrah personality but the ’10 and ’11 had it in spades.

Copain “Tous Ensemble” Mendocino County Syrah ($20): This Syrah’s always a winner. It has the elegance of Copain’s higher end bottlings but not the price. It has a core of minerality that you generally don’t see at this price point and a fresh fruit character.

Qupe Central Coast Syrah ($18): Like the Andrew Murray wine, I drank a lot of this when I was getting into Syrah. It’s always good, the 2011 was the best vintage I’d had in a while, a restrained and floral version of Syrah. Regardless of the vintage though, this is pure, delicious Syrah.

Anthill Peters Ranch Syrah ($27): Every time I have the Anthill Syrahs I pinch myself that they’re still in the $25 range. These are the best and most authentically Northern Rhone style Syrahs that you can get for this price.

Anthill Campbell Ranch Syrah ($27)
: The Campbell is a tad richer and fuller than the Peters but equally delicious. It has a memorable umami character that makes it a must taste.

Bedrock North Coast Syrah ($29): Well, I had to include Morgan’s own wine because it’s really, really good. It’s a blend from various Syrah vineyards up and down the Coast depending on the vintage but the wine always over delivers for the price. Morgan treats the fruit in a way that gives it a true Syrah character. It’s rich but peppery and with good acidity too.

So there’s my list. Please feel free comment on ones I may have missed and here’s hoping the future brings a commitment from other talented winemakers to true Syrah that doesn’t break the bank. If Syrah in California is to make the comeback that some say it’s making, Morgan’s right, we’ll need more Syrahs that get new wine lovers excited about the savory, meaty side of Syrah, without having to shell out the big bucks.

2011 Quarter Acre Hawke’s Bay Syrah

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There’s great potential in New Zealand for Syrah with cool-climate character and I’ve had some great examples. I’ve had others that have been treated with too much new oak in the cellar and the results have been less than impressive.  But the honest Syrahs that I’ve had have been transcendent and all for a really good price.

The Quarter Acre has a candied fresh red fruit and plum nose that transfers over to a smooth and full mid-palate.  There’s some savory here in the form of aromas of black olive and tobacco but this is not a northern Rhone style Syrah. What it is is a pure, fresh, new world Syrah with good acidity and honesty.  This is a delicious wine and pulls way more than its $20 weight.

Quarter Acre is the project of New Zealand winemaker Rod MacDonald.  Rod and his team aspire to capture the terroir of Hawke’s Bay with a hands-off winemaking approach and organic vineyard practices.  Rod said in an email, “The brief with the Quarter Acre Wines is that we want personality and funk if we can get it…as long as it tastes good.  We don’t need these wines to be perfect, that’s not us, we just want them to have soul.”

That’s my impression with the Quarter Acre; it’s a wine that has some funk and soul but also it’s just plain delicious to drink.

I don’t always drink Syrah but when I do… Here are the Five Best Syrahs I tasted in 2014

These are wines that I can’t get out of my head, they are all different in style but what unites them is that they’re memorable and well made for the style that they embrace. Here are the top five Syrahs that I drank in 2014.  Follow the links for the tasting notes from the original post.

The 2008 Barruol Cote Rotie: This is a Kermit Lynch selection from Louis Barruol’s St. Cosme label that really knocked my socks off, beautifully floral and elegant, just as a Cote Rotie should be. A great way to start off 2014 and a reminder to figure out a way to drink more Cote Rotie.

The 2009 Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-block: Yes, there is something special about Bien Nacido, especially when the grapes are picked at modest ripeness and the wines are vinified in a way that lets the fruit shine. This is one of those wines. Elegance, intensity and fascinating floral aromas mixed with a black olive and pepper character.

The 2001 Copain Eaglepoint Syrah: This wine was a fun find for me. I liked Eaglepoint Syrah from an early stage in my Syrah-drinking career and I’ve wondered here before why there aren’t more wines made from Eaglepoint Syrah. This wine confirmed my belief that Syrah from Eaglepoint Vineyard can be delicious but I’ve yet to learn the full story behind its lack of visibility in today’s marketplace.

The 2012 Nellessen Wind Gap: If you want to experience a California Syrah that has its roots in France, this is a great one to try. The Nellessen is all black olive and pepper, bright plum and intense acidity. It’s a dead ringer for a Northern Rhone savory Syrah.

The 2010 Piedrasassi Rim Rock Syrah: This Syrah tops my list. It’s a beauty, meaty, rich, savory with lots of structure that makes it built for the cellar. It’s fun to drink now though, especially after a decant or some time open when the wine rounds out and really sings.

There’s one more wine from 2014 that I would be remiss to not mention. I had the pleasure of meeting up with some fellow Syrah geeks and one of the dinner participants brought a 2000 Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillot. It was one of the best Syrahs I’ve ever had. I didn’t take notes but simply enjoyed the wine with the fabulous food at the Palace Restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco. It matched well with everything, even a delicate prawn dish. I’m not including it in my top five because I didn’t record it here on the blog but it should be in the list and it was a privilege to try.

My Syrah resolutions for 2015 are to drink more Northern Rhone Syrah, I’m still a novice when it comes to this region and I probably will be until I actually get a chance to visit the region but in the meantime I’ll keep drinking, learning, and writing it all down on this little blog.  Thanks so much for reading.