Domaine Marc Sorrel Hermitage

After a few fits and starts in France, specifically a sadly missed meeting with Domaine Clape, we were relieved to find Marc Sorrel’s cellars in the town of Tain L’ Hermitage rather easily. His little winery even had a sign in front (which is not as common as you would think in the Northern Rhone region of France), and he spoke English which made my wife happy as she did not have to attempt to translate.

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Monsieur Sorrel comes from a long line of public notaries in the village of Tain. He studied to be a notary and ended up becoming one for a short period until his father’s death. His father and grandfather had owned parts of Le Meal vineyard and some of Bessards and Les Plantiers and his father began making small amounts of wine in the 1970s. Marc Sorrel took over operations in 1984. He was also able to add the Greffieux vineyard in the mid 1980s by purchasing it on his own. He’s a bit reserved but opens up quickly and it’s easy to tell he has a lot of quiet pride in his winery and confidence in the quality of his wines.

Sorrel makes wine in a traditional way with a few nods towards modernity, he uses no new oak, generally 100% whole cluster (depending on the maturity of the stems) and ages his wines for two years in barrel. Yet, he uses outside yeasts and an automatic punchdown machine, which he’s quite excited about. He’s one of the small producers, a little island in an appellation dominated by Jaboulet, Chapoutier. and Guigal. In fact, according to Monsieur Sorrel only about a dozen producers make wine outside of the three big ones and they make it in small quantities. Hermitage is, after all, a small appellation.

Marc Sorrel talking about his punchdown machine and the barrel room which, rather than being downstairs, extends back from the tasting room/store front. 

Monsieur Sorrel makes a cuvee that he simply calls Hermitage Rouge ($55). Traditionally most Hermitage Syrahs were blends from various vineyards and this is still widely practiced today. The 2013 cuvee tastes of honest pure fruit with good balance and a backbone of acidity.

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The Greal ($85), so called because it is a combination of the Greffieux vineyard and the Méal vineyard, is his flagship red. It’s a richer style of Syrah and seems darker and fuller than the Hermitage Rouge but also defined by its core of pure fresh fruit.

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Monsieur Sorrel also makes a beautiful white Hermitage from Les Rocoules which is spectacularly rich and complex and a wine that I’d love to taste in 10 to 15 years.

These are impressive iterations of Hermitage. Although I would have loved to have purchased a Greal (and I’m still kicking myself for not having done so), I decided on an Hermitage Rouge and plan on putting it away for a few years to revisit and enjoy.

Franck Balthazar Cornas

cornas road sign

Our first stop in Cornas didn’t exactly start out as planned. The GPS in our rental led us on a wild goose chase that led to a dead end and also led to us being about a half an hour late for our appointment with Franck Balthazar.

Balthazar makes wine in a place that for all intents and purposes looks like a French version of a tract house from the outside. We approached timidly, wondering if this truly could be the right place. We rang the doorbell a few times and were about to turn away when a sleepy teenager opened the door blinded by the sunlight. She squinted at us and wordlessly led us around to the backside of the house where a tractor and a bunch of winery-looking tubing made us finally sure we were in the right place. She led us down a staircase below a large garage and that’s where we found Franck Balthazar.

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We also found that Franck had been using Google Translate to answer my email to him and that he really only spoke a little English. I had assured my wife that all the winemakers we were meeting with spoke fluent English so she wouldn’t have to call up the French she had last spoken 20 years ago during her college study abroad program. Well, surprise honey, not only do I need you to translate for me but I need you to translate a bunch of wine terms you’ve probably never heard in English. But Franck did his best and Emily did her best and we ended up being able to communicate pretty well.

Franck is a humble and self-effacing guy who makes wine in an understated winery.  But he makes world-class wines. They are traditionally-styled, basket-pressed, no new oak and aged in 600 liter demi-muid barrels. The wines are all 100% whole cluster. Balthazar makes a cuvee that is fruit made up of 80% younger vines (8 to 9 year old vineyards). It’s a floral Syrah with a full mid-palate and searing acidity. He also makes a Chaillot vineyard designate Cornas which was wonderfully perfumed and reminiscent of a combination of black and red fruit aromas. These are incredible iterations of Syrah and in this young stage are all freshness and acidity. I look forward to seeing how they develop in a few years. We tasted the 2015 out of barrel for both vintages and the wine had that not-ready taste to it that sometimes happens (fittingly, because they aren’t ready) when you taste wines out of barrel.

 Franck Balthazar’s two Syrah bottlings. 

 

Franck’s barrel cave and basket press.

Franck’s holdings in Cornas are small and he farms them with care and even uses a horse instead of a tractor to help with the ploughing. Given the tight rows in Cornas’ plantings a tractor is unfeasible anyway. Chaillot is of course Balthazar’s gem. All the wines he makes are from the old Cornas clone sometimes called “la Petite Syrah” because of its smaller berries.

Franck was a gentle, humble soul with a disarming smile, it was a pleasure to spend time with him. Our apologies for waking up his sleepy but accommodating daughter.

 

Cornas vines are on single posts, granitic soils, and tightly spaced rows. 

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We tasted with Franck in the cellar, (as we later found out would be the case in almost all the wineries that we visited in France).

 

Domaine Clusel-Roch Côte-Rôtie

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The affable and knowledgeable Brigitte Roch.

Meeting Brigitte Roch was one of the great pleasures of our trip to the Northern Rhone. She’s a joy to be around and we thoroughly delighted in our time with her. Clusel-Roch is a Côte-Rôtie winery that makes traditionally styled (employing some new techniques) elegant wines. Brigitte’s husband Gilbert Clusel’s family started in the wine business three generations back and Gilbert inherited a small portion of Côte-Rôtie’s Grandes Places vineyard from Gilbert’s father Rene and started making wine. They’ve secured other vineyards for fruit as the years have gone on. Gilbert and Brigitte’s son Guillaume also does a lot of the work in the winery. The day we visited father and son were out tying errant grapevine stalks to the triangular-shaped posts that are favored in Côte-Rôtie.

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The vines right behind the Clusel-Roch Domaine

Guillaume has also started a small project of making wine from the Coteaux du Lyonnais appellation that lies between Lyon and Vienne. Guillaume found an old abandoned vineyard of Gamay and has made a go at making a less-expensive wine that he’s been able to put his own stamp on. The Gamay was impressive and tasted just as good as many high end Beaujolais that I’ve had (although admittedly I haven’t had a whole lot of high end Beaujolais). Guillaume also made a pleasant rosé using the saignee method from the same grapes as the Gamay.

On to the Syrah and the real reason we came to see Brigitte. The Clusel-Roch Cuvee Classique is made with native yeast fermentation, gravity fed, punched down twice a day and basket-pressed after one month on the skins. It spends two years in barrel (20% new) and is bottled at the beginning of harvest usually in September.

The design of the winery allows the grapes to be brought in through the outside doors at the top level and then gravity fed into the tanks. 

The property that Gilbert and Brigitte own is all massale-selected vines from the original “Serine” clone of Syrah from Côte-Rôtie. They graft this variety from the original plantings from the Les Grandes Places vineyard. Not a whole lot is known about the origin of this “O.G.” clone of Syrah but there’s little doubt that it makes the best Syrah on the planet, or at least the Syrah that best fits the Côte-Rôtie appellation. According to Brigitte, the townships of the Côte-Rôtie area spoke a dialect before the Romans arrived that was called Serine, so the name goes back to the beginning of the region. Gilbert and Brigitte were instrumental in the 1990s in the push for more massale selection when many vineyards began to be planted over to clones. Brigitte thinks that the preservation of the Serine clone that is unique to the Côte-Rôtie is integral to the preservation of the tradition of exemplary Syrah for the region. She believes it’s a more complex and floral Syrah than the clonal varieties that were introduced and some experiments they performed in the winery bore this out. They’ve also found that the modern clones of Syrah are too vigorous for the tight spacing that Côte-Rôtie employs and tend to grow too quickly and aggressively for them to keep them in check. The Serine vines seem to fit the land.

Brigitte has also been instrumental in getting the region mapped out. In fact, before the region was officially mapped by the appropriate French authority, Brigitte drew it all out by hand. She even color-coded for soil type.

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Brigitte’s beautiful hand-drawn map of Côte-Rôtie.

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The famed schist in the soils of Côte-Rôtie.

The Clusel-Roch family are also proponents of organic farming. In Côte-Rôtie, being organic is not just a simple matter. The steep slopes make chemical weed spraying a difficult-to-resist temptation. But they noticed the negative impact spraying had on the soil and the vines so they decided to commit to plowing by hand and on the steepest slopes they use a winch to help pull the plow up the row as it is hand guided from behind.

We tried the 2013, 2006, and 2005 Classiques and the 2013 Vialliére and Les Grandes Places. The Vialliére and the Grandes Places are vinified similarly to the Classiques. All the wines were spectacular with bright acidity and lots of floral aromas. These are such elegant Syrahs with the structure to age for a very long time. I found them to be a little light in the mid-palate which might be something that fleshes out as the wine ages as the 2005 proved a tad richer than the other vintages. The 2013 Les Grandes Places was a special pleasure to taste as it had the structure and mid-palate richness that one expects from Syrah but also the unmistakable floral element of a Côte-Rôtie. Such a gorgeous wine. The Classiques were also hard to beat and we purchased a 2013 and a 2005 and look forward to tasting the wine again in a few years (or more!) and thinking of our time with the affable Brigitte.

Syrah Seminar at Rhone Rangers 2016

Recently, at the Rhone Rangers event in San Francisco, I attended a Syrah Seminar. A Syrah Seminar, a whole event dedicated to Syrah! Needless to say, I was excited.

There are inherent difficulties in a Syrah panel. Syrah is a bit of a chameleon making it difficult to come up with a common thread that runs through all the wines offered considering the various regions where they are grown and the decisions that the winemakers make.

I’ve been to two other Syrah-based seminars and they worked well because they had a well-defined theme. The first one, at the West of West wine event a few years ago, was essentially a blind tasting in which we tried to guess if the Syrah was old world, new world or cool-climate or warm climate. It was a fascinating tasting. The second one was a Ballard Canyon Syrah tasting, also compelling because it explored the different interpretations of one specific place.

This Syrah seminar was equally fascinating but more because of its diversity than anything else. The wines poured at this seminar geographically and stylistically represented the differences that this grape variety can express.

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The lineup (round 1) and a Hawaiian shirt.  Thanks William Allen for providing these tech sheets too.

I’m not going to score these wines because I like to get to know the wine with more than just a small taster in order to give it a score. I don’t think scoring based on this tiny snapshot does anyone any favors. I will give it one, two, or three stars based on how I think it represents the type of Syrah that I like to drink, which as you know is generally more savory, fresh, and energetic. Take these star scores with a grain of salt as they represent my quick impressions about the wine.

Tenet Wines, 2014 The Pundit Syrah Columbia Valley 14.5% ABV $25 10,000 cases

Mostly neutral oak, some whole cluster and some extended maceration. This is a Syrah grown on poor soils on the eastern side of the Cascades in the Columbia Valley. The area sees little rain so the vines are irrigated. The wine is made in a partnership with Chateau St. Michelle and Southern Rhone winemakers. Meant to be a fresher version of Syrah, in the style of a southern Rhone Vin de Pays, it is picked earlier and fermented with the stems to give more structure and to temper the exuberant fruit that’s typical of Washington state. Ten thousand cases are made. A ripe wine, not too oaky, nice tension and structure. ***

Westwood 2014 Estate Syrah Annabel Gap, Sonoma County. 14.5% ABV $40 500 cases

From Australian winemaker Ben Cane, who, inspired by French Syrah wanted to make fresh and multi-dimensional wines in Sonoma’s cooler Annabel Gap area between Sonoma Mountain and Hood Mountain. 30-45% new oak with some whole cluster to add structure and freshness to that juicy California fruit. This wine also had a small percentage of Roussane added to the co-ferment as the winemaker feels that brings some interesting aromatics and some texture to the wine. An open Syrah with big fruit and big tannin, rather simple at the moment but with some interesting stem aromas, I would like to see how this wine ages. *

Crux 2012 Syrah Russian River Valley 14.5% ABV $36 90 cases

Besides Syrah this wine also has about 11% Petite Sirah and 5% Mouvedre. Winemaker Steven Gower uses 1/3 new oak and practices no stem inclusion. The wine goes through malo over the whole year of fermentation which Steven thinks develops more secondary aromas in the wine. To be honest, I didn’t get a whole lot of secondary aromas in this wine but it’s a nice, simple Syrah with a fresh finish. **

Terre Rouge 2011 Sentinel Oak Vineyard Syrah Shenandoah Valley 14.5% ABV $40 400 cases

Bill Easton has been making Syrah for a long time in California. The Sentinel Oak is the oldest Syrah vineyard in the Sierra Nevada, planted in 1982. The wine sees two weeks on skins in an open top fermenter with two or three punchdowns a day. No whole cluster, aged for 23 months in French Oak. This has a full, rich nose with lots of fruit and floral notes, a tad vegetal in the background perhaps revealing its cooler vintage. The finish is sweet and and not too tannic. **

Skinner 2013 El Dorado Syrah 14.2% ABV $28 240 cases

Co-fermented with Viognier in a Côte-Rôtie style which actually ripened at the same time as the Syrah. About 40% new oak and spends about two years in barrel. A little bit of Counnoise was used at bottling. No whole cluster in this wine. Candied nose, like the outside of an M & M, light and juicy on the palate, also not a whole lot of savory complexity on this Syrah. *

Bonny Doon 2013 Syrah “Le Pousseur” Central Coast 13.5% ABV $26 3,500 cases

This Syrah is mostly made up of Bien Nacido vineyard Syrah, which Randall Graham considers to be the only worthwhile Syrah clone in the New World, and Alamo Creek Syrah from various other vineyards from the Central Coast. No new oak, aged in puncheons and 50% whole cluster. This was the savory style of Syrah I’d been waiting for in this seminar. It’s black-olive, it’s almost like a vegetable stew but of course with blackberry and plum aromas to balance it out. It has good structure and supple tannins. ***

Wrath 2013 San Saba Vineyard Syrah Monterey County 14.7% ABV $39 147 cases

This wine was 33% whole cluster and aged in 66% new French oak barrels. Big, rich, full Syrah. I’ve had great Syrahs from Wrath, but this one tastes a little overblown for me. Big tannin and big alcohol drown out the other flavors but it’s still a wine that seems well-made and would appeal to those who like a bigger style Syrah with a fair amount of new oak. *

Caliza 2013 Estate Syrah Paso Robles, Willow Creek District 15.7% ABV $62 290 cases

Aged for 18 months in 50% new oak, this wine is grown on the western side of the 101 in one of the cooler areas of Paso Robles on limestone soils. Just can’t get past the big alcohol on this wine, it’s a rich, full, exuberant wine with chalky aromas on the nose and primary fruit but finishes hot. *

Qupe 2012 Sawyer Lundquist Vineyard Sonnie’s Syrah Edna Valley 13.5% ABV $55 200 cases

Northern Rhone wine inspired wines from Bill Lindquist grown in cooler climates. These are vines from the Alban clones, about 60% whole cluster, this one is aged in barrel for two years. Bill believes that beyond clone, beyond soil type, the climate is the defining characteristic of the Syrah that he grows. This wine was refreshing after the Caliza, it has a savory element and beautiful elegant red fruit. Energy on the palate and a nice lift on the finish. ***

Jaffurs 2012 Bien Nacido Vineyard Edna Valley Syrah 14.8% ABV $50 316 cases

Craig Jaffurs makes wine from Bien Nacido Vineyard but a bigger, riper version than Randall’s and most of the Qupe bottlings. The wine has 23% new oak and no whole cluster inclusion. The wine has fresh nose with ripe raspberry and strawberry but a rich mid-palate, it’s a big wine but has good structure and energy. **

Stolpman 2013 Estate Syrah Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon $30 3600 cases

Peter Stolpman talked about the wine from the newly minted Ballard Canyon AVA planted on limestone and sand soils. The most interesting thing about this Syrah is that 50% of the vineyard is own-rooted. The Stolpmans and winemaker Sashi Moorman believe in a fresh Syrah style aged in neutral oak puncheons and, surprisingly, all-free-run juice to limit the amount of tannins that tend to overwhelm the wine otherwise. The wine is fresh and structured with good acid and present tannin, not super savory but a nicely structured Syrah. ***

Rune Wines 2014 Wild Syrah Cochise Country Arizona 14.5% ABV $50 125 cases

An Arizona Syrah from winemaker James Callahan. As James intimated, this is probably the only wine that fit the descriptor of the seminar: Pushing the Limits of Syrah. Monsoon rains and higher elevation keep the climate from getting too hot for Syrah. The wine was aged in neutral oak barrels. A good wine but it didn’t taste that much like Syrah to me. Dark fruit and decent acidity. *

All in all, the tasting was very informative and for the most part confirmed my belief that Syrah grown in cooler climes, aged in neutral oak, with reasonable alcohol levels is my type of Syrah. The question of whole cluster is still one that I don’t fully understand but I think it’s fair to say that whole cluster helps to maintain structure and energy in a wine that is perhaps riper and higher in alcohol. So, I’m a fan.

Another question I’ve had and this seminar brought it up again, what does it take for a wine to be defined as cool-climate? Many of the representatives from the wineries claimed that their vineyards were cooler-climate but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that a Syrah can be cooler climate with alcohol levels into the high 14s and even 15s.

Piedrasassi 2012 Santa Ynez Valley Syrah Sebastiano Vineyard $53, 95 pts

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I promised I would come back to these Piedrasassi’s and I think it’s time. These Syrahs are meant to age so it’s advisable to give them a few years in bottle.

The Santa Ynez Syrah from Piedrasassi is made of grapes from the Sebastiano vineyard in the Santa Ynez appellation.

Day 1: Not overly tight on opening, in fact a rather welcoming wine. Aromas of meat and integrated whole cluster mixed with fresh blackberry, soy sauce, and gravel. On the palate it’s a full wine and the tannins aren’t overwhelming. It’s an elegant Syrah and I think four years in bottle put this wine into a great place.

Day 2: More of the meaty aromas come out, it’s all umami, celery, and braised beef now with that gorgeous fruit and happy elegance.  It still has that round mid-palate and finish.

The Sebastiano vineyard is about 15 miles from the coast along the highway 246 corridor between Buellton and Lompoc and mostly (surprise!) is planted with Pinot. It’s these little patches of cool-climate Syrah planted among mostly Pinot vines that really intrigue me.

Piedrassasi’s Melissa Sorongon and Sashi Moorman are excited about Syrah in these spots too. A relatively young site, the Sebastiano vineyard was planted in 2008. 2012 was the first year they began to make it as it’s own vineyard designate. Prior vintages mostly went into their Santa Barbara Syrah blend. Along with Kessler-Haak, Pence, Presidio and now Duvarita, Sebastiano is one of only a few spots where small plots of Syrah are planted among all the Pinot and Chardonnay. They’ve found that the Sebastiano, as the vineyard aged, has developed some very interesting characteristics and they think more vine age can only help the Syrah from this vineyard be even more impressive.  In bottle the wines also develop, what has started out as an austere wine in the last two vintages has developed into something with more softness in bottle, more elegance, and more flavor complexity.

The Sebastiano is about 50% stem inclusion. Aged in neutral oak, and made with minimal additions in the cellar.

I’ll be breaking into their 2012 Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande Syrahs soon, so stay tuned.

Three Stunning 2013 Oregon Syrahs from Twill Winery

Steelhead Run twill

2013 Steelhead Run Vineyard 94 pts. $40,  25 cases made

Smells of whole cluster in a good way on first opening. Takes a bit for the fruit to develop but when it does it’s stellar. Fresh aromas of milk chocolate and plum mixed with salty and meaty notes. It’s just the type of Syrah I like. Not over-oaked, not over manipulated, a little whole cluster, and a whole lot of balanced complexity. The fruit here is from the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon next to the Applegate River and is also sourced by Herb Quady for his exceptional Quady North Syrahs.

Deux Vert Vineyard

2013 Deux Vert Vineyard Syrah 91 pts. Not-for-release. Two cases made.

Licorice and cola with a tiny bit of heat on the nose, this one smells more seductive. It’s savory, sweet, and meaty at the same time. I don’t smell whole cluster here. The mid-palate is a little short and the tannins more pronounced but it’s still a delicious Syrah that will delight those that love a meaty and brawny style of Syrah. Deux Vert is a Willamette Valley vineyard in the Yamhill Carlton AVA and the coolest site that Twill has worked with but unfortunately will probably not get to work with again. Much of this Syrah went into the Oregon blend.  Marcus Goodfellow of Matello and Goodfellow Family Wines also makes a Syrah from this Vineyard.

twill oregon syrah
2013 Syrah Oregon 93 pts. $27, 225 cases made

Minerally nose with a backbone of sweet plum and blackberry. There’s also a bit of umami aromas of mushroom and soy. Slightly fuller mouthfeel than the Steelhead perhaps owing to a tiny bit of new oak in this blend. Not as much whole cluster aroma as the Steelhead. Balanced and energetic on the mid palate with a light finish. Not tannic at all but with good acidity. The Oregon Syrah is a blend of Southern Oregon Syrah from Steelhead Run and the Belmont Vineyard in Bear Creek Valley, and the Willamette Valley Deux Vert Vineyard.

Twill is a new winery run by Chris Dickson who is winemaker and owners Darrell and Molly Roby who planted their own vineyard in the Willamette Valley back in 2000. Chris was the winemaker for their previous project called Ribera Vineyards. Twill is a new project for the three of them and represents an attempt to re-focus and fine-tune their overall vision for the kinds of wines they want to make. Besides Syrah, they also make Pinots and Chardonnays (this is the Willamette Valley after all). The new winery is more focussed on cooler sites and vineyard expression and Oregon fruit (the Ribera winery sourced their Syrah fruit from Washington).

Chris fell in love with Syrah from his time at Landmark Winery in Kenwood, CA and also worked with it in Washington and South Africa’s Swartland. He considers it the variety that speaks to him the most. He feels that it’s a variety with the perfect combination of resilience and transparency. Resilience to produce good wine even in extreme vintage variation but also has the transparency to let that vintage variation shine though.
The Twill team has planted more Syrah at one of their Pinot Noir sites in the Willamette Valley which they hope to get fruit from this coming fall. They’re continuing to keep Syrah at the forefront as they search for new vineyard sources in Oregon.

All the wines are aged almost two years in neutral barrel with the occasional new barrel mixed in over all the lots. The wines are made with ambient yeast and minimal SO2, 100% whole cluster and stay unracked, unfined, and unfiltered. Chris feels that the 22 months in barrel allow the wines to integrate and concentrate flavors and intensity.

Twill is a winery interested in the future of Syrah in Oregon and willing to experiment with cool sites. I’ve always thought that Syrah in cooler sites in Oregon has a chance to be transcendent. This is a project that I’m going to get on Twill’s mailing list for, their wines are made in a way that matches my taste and I’m excited to see how Oregon Syrah remains part of their future.

These wines were provided as samples for purposes of review. 

Jamsheed Harem La Syrah Yarra Valley Victoria $25 92 pts.

Jamsheed Harem

I watched a lot of cartoons as a kid and one of the ones I loved the most was Pinky and the Brain. Pinky (or was it Brain?) had a saying when an alluring mouse of the opposite sex came along, “Hellloooooo Nurse! “ Well, that’s the first thing that came out of my mouth when I tasted this wine. It’s just plain alluring and delicious. It’s one of those wines that before you know it, you’ve drunk more than you anticipated you would.

A little oak on the nose, a little earth, but also a rich and inviting aroma of fruit that’s reminiscent of blackberry pie. Now, normally, that’s not necessarily a Syrah that I’d be totally into but this wine is just so pretty on the palate. It’s got some savory and meaty notes and a little richness but also just a beautiful acidity that makes you want to keep drinking it.

It’s a vision of the future for Syrah in Australia. A touch of that oak and sweetness but good lift on the mid-palate to keep it interesting and savory. What a wine!

Jamsheed’s been around for about a decade and I kept hearing rumors of a cooler climate style Australian Syrah that was worth trying. They make a few single vineyard Syrahs that are higher priced. This one’s a blend of grapes from Pyrenees (80%) and Yarra Valley (20%) areas of Australia. It’s 80% whole cluster and spends time in big puncheons old and new.