Pax 2004 Kobler Family Vineyard Russian River Valley Syrah

This wine is co-fermented in a Côte-Rôtie style with 8% Viognier which I absolutely love and has some delicious floral aromas on the nose. Upon opening, there’s a little underlying funkiness – a little barnyard smell – that is not pervasive and adds a little interest. This wine smells so good that I could sit and smell it forever. It has a lot of black pepper on the palate. I also get a nice black olive aroma that carries through on the palate.

As the wine opened up I got some of that familiar Syrah plum and smoked meat/campfire aromas. In fact, all the familiar cool-climate Syrah flavors are there. It has a rich and somewhat round palate and seems to have a little more oak than some of the other cool-climate Syrahs I’ve had, but the oak is integrated and the wine finishes with a nice punch of acidity that lasts for days and makes you thirst for more. Even at eight years old, this wine is still young.

This is good stuff. I’m loving this Côte-Rôtie style that this wine, and the Cabot Kimberly’s Vineyard were made in. They are much better than the other American Côte-Rôties that I’ve had that seemed too rich and sweet. This wine and the Cabot have some nice savoriness that the other wines didn’t. Even at 14.6% alcohol this wine is balanced, also much like the Cabot with its high percentage of alcohol.

The Pax label unfortunately no longer exists — the co-owners Pax Mahle and Joe Donelan had a falling out and the label has now become Donelan Family Wines. Donelan Family Wines still make a Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah and have maintained many of the same vineyard contacts that Pax Mahle had before. Of course, Pax Mahle went on to form Wind Gap Wines which are piquing a lot of interest lately among cool-climate aficionados for their balanced wines. As soon as I can get a hold of one of their Syrahs to try I will. I’ll also be interested to try the Donelan wines because they seem to still be focused on making wines in a similar style to what Pax Mahle was doing and are especially interested in balance and cool-climate characteristics.

The Kobler Family Vineyard is located in a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley that gets a fair amount of fog because of its proximity to the coast. According to the Donelan website and a few other sources, this is one of the cooler vineyards in all of the Russian River. The wine shows that it has classic cool-climate characteristics and I’m glad that the Donelan Family will continue to make wine from this vineyard — I’ll definitely search it out if its not prohibitively expensive.

Although I found this wine at K and L Wines for $35, I think it originally sold for much, much more. The heavy bottle itself is a sight to behold, with its wax-dipped stem and a punt that you could lose your hand inside. Either the price drop happened because the winery failed or its simply another example of how the languishing state of Syrah in California is affecting wine prices. Either way, I’m glad I could find a bottle for under $40 and enjoy it as much as I did.

The Cabot 2007 Kimberly’s Vineyard Syrah, $25

I’ve been wanting to try the Cabot Syrah for a long time. I mean, it’s from Humboldt for god’s sake. As a native Northern Californian the only product that I have intimate knowledge of that comes out of Humboldt is definitely not wine. And just to make sure there are no mis-understandings, this wine does not have any marijuana in it. At least not in the aroma or taste profile.

The other reason I’ve been wanting to try it is the interview that John Cabot gave on Grape Radio a few years back. I hope you’ll listen to it but just to sum up: Cabot was exploring some vineyards up in Humboldt County (having gone to school up in Arcata) and realized that viable juice could be produced there. He first planted Merlot, Cab, and Zinfandel and the grapes did well in the first few years; then they hit the water table below the ground. Suddenly, they were growing like weeds and the fruit began to taste diluted.

Cabot didn’t give up and searched out hillside locations where the grapes wouldn’t be able to reach the water table below. On these locations he made the decision to plant Syrah, convinced that it could handle the Humboldt climate. The wine that I tasted is his flagship wine named Kimberly’s vineyard after his wife.

This is really good juice. It’s actually one of the more balanced wines I’ve had in a while (stay tuned, this balance question is important). It’s definitely ready to drink. On first opening I got some pomegranate aromas and the wine had a nice acidic lift on the finish. This wine also has floral aromas on the nose because it’s co-fermented in the Côte-Rôtie style with a little Viognier.

As the wine opened up, it really began to sing. It began to take on more fruit characteristics. The fruit is bright, but accompanied by a pervasive salty olive aroma. In fact, it reminds me of a certain salty olive that one can find at Whole Foods that looks all wrinkly, kind of like a large raisin. The olive tastes a little like a salted plum or a prune, in fact, and that’s what I kept getting on this wine.

All in all, I would say that this wine does not quite have the brightness and acidity of the other classic cool-climate Syrahs I’ve tasted on the blog, but it does have some nice characteristics and is decidedly not Shiraz-tasting. It tastes like real Syrah.

Ok, here comes the kicker — this wine is 15.3% alcohol! So, for those that don’t know, most wines that are classified as cool-climate are not anywhere near that percentage of alcohol. The reason being is that they simply don’t get ripe enough. The lack of ripeness usually translates to low alcohol because percentage of alcohol is proportional to amount of sugar in the wine, which is driven by the amount of sunshine that the grapes are exposed to.

And the opposite is also true, of course — wines from warmer climes often have a lot of alcohol because the grapes get so ripe and full of sugar. One would expect a wine with this amount of alcohol to taste over-ripe, extracted, and too sweet but that is simply not the case.

My question here, then, is how did Cabot Vineyards get a wine to be so balanced and to have what I imagine to be Côte-Rôtie characteristics with that amount of alcohol? There was not one time during my consumption of this wine that this wine smelled or tasted hot. In fact, if I had looked at the alcohol percentage before I bought the wine, I might not have bought it and definitely would have assumed that it didn’t have a place in a cool-climate Syrah blog. But this wine is good, and it’s balanced, and it tastes like real Syrah so I guess all my pre-conceived notions about alcohol have to be thrown out for now, unless there are some extenuating circumstances to this wine. Maybe there is some Humboldt kine in it after all?

The Cline 2010 Cool Climate Syrah Sonoma Coast

I really wanted to like this wine. First, there’s a soft spot in my heart for Cline. It’s the sort of the old-school Sonoma winery that sets my home-town apart from Napa. It’s homey, and they always have that sign out on highway 121 that has some sort of cute saying as you drive by. It’s also a pretty fun place to taste wine and the pourers are always friendly and down to earth.

Second, the fact that Cline decided to market this wine as a “cool-climate” Syrah seems like kind of a great thing for consumers. It begs an interesting question: Should cool-climate Syrah producers start to label their wines as such? Will a day come where there will be sections in wine shops where sections are devoted to cool-climate Syrah? I, for one, think this is ultimately a good idea and good information for the consumer.

Third, it’s a wine that comes in under $20.

The wine: So this wine definitely has some of the savory aromas that I associate with cool-climate Syrah. It’s actually got some serious funkiness. It smells a little like old meat mixed with blackberries. This is a rustic little beast. There’s some sweet blackberry fruit encompassing it but that core of meatiness really carries over to the mid-palate. There’s a salty olive taste on the finish with an acidic punch. Sound yummy? Not really.

The truth is it seems like this wine doesn’t know what it wants to be. It seems disjointed and ultimately not delicious. The finish is just simply too acidic (and I usually like a fair amount of acidity). There’s just a weird combination of fruit, saltiness, and acidity that doesn’t quite work. And it just doesn’t have the elegance that the other Syrahs I’ve tasted for this blog.

This wine is an interesting departure for Cline considering most of their other wines. Most of their wines are super fruity with soft tannins, and most of them are not up my alley. In my opinion, Cline does well because of they make wines for the lowest common denominator. Their wines can be found across the country and in every grocery store in Northern California, including Trader Joes. Some of their Zinfandels have a little acidity but most of them are pretty soft and juicy on the palate.

One wine they offer called the Cashmere tastes exactly as the name would suggest: soft and rich, but its rather pedestrian. On a recent visit (when I picked up the Cool Climate Syrah) I overheard a visitor talking about how he didn’t like tannins in wine and wondered what the pourer would suggest. I would have pointed him towards the door but instead the Cline employee offered the Cashmere.

Now, I know that wineries probably deal with questions like these from novices all the time but I think Cline does even more so just because of its location right off of the main road into Sonoma. And they know their audience and this dry and rustic Syrah seems like a little off message, which from my perspective is a good thing. Even though I didn’t love this wine, I hope Cline continues making it and hope they can tame some of the rusticity to make it more palatable, or possibly some bottle age will calm the wine down a bit. If they do continue to make it, I’ll keep coming back to taste the superseding vintages.

Cep Sonoma Coast Syrah 2009

I thought it would be interesting to taste this wine while the Peay La Bruma was still fresh in my mind. Cep is the second, more affordable label to Peay, and its Sonoma Coast Syrah uses some of the same fruit that doesn’t quite make the cut for its higher end wines.

I’m always a little suspicious about second labels. It’s hard to justify drinking something that the wine-makers consider second best. It makes you wonder why it didn’t make the cut. Is it flawed? Do the wine-makers not like it for some reason? Twenty bucks is still a lot to pay for wine. But, if I can find something good for around that price, I’m pretty excited. (I’m even more excited if it’s $10 or $15, which is why I almost bought a case of the Casaeda.)

I do get some of that plum and pepper on the nose mixed in with a some high gravel notes that I’m tempted to call minerality but won’t because it’s an elusive term. There’s also that same smoked meat mid-palate that I got in La Bruma and there’s definitely an elegance here that is similar to the more expensive Syrah. It’s also only 13.5% alcohol, which makes it simply delicious on the mid-palate while the finish still has some nice acidity and gravel flavors. The major difference I think are the aromatics. The Cep Syrah is slightly less interesting aromatically. I would also say that the Cep also seems a little richer, rounder, juicier, and more approachable whereas the La Bruma was more angular and needed more time to open up, the reward for which was substantially higher. The Cep might have a little more oak on it, which rounds out the wine but dims the flavors a little.

The Cep actually reminds me a little of a Beaujolais Village because it’s more fruity and drinkable than its big brother. It’s a weeknight wine. Yet, it’s a wine that gives you a sense of what Syrah can do at cool climates for a more affordable price. It leaves me wishing that La Bruma was $20 and that I could recommend that everyone try it to get to know what real Syrah should taste like.

The truth is that this wine is second best to La Bruma and maybe I don’t want it any other way — if it was better than Peay’s estate Syrah then I’d also have a beef for having paid twice that amount for La Bruma. This wine is good and I’m going to get some more of it. Probably a lot more. But I can’t help thinking that its not quite representative of what these Syrahs can really do. Suffice to say, I’m still looking for the $20 cool-climate Syrah that is really representative of what the grape is capable of in California. When that day comes, I’m going to buy a lot of it.

Peay La Bruma 2009 Estate Syrah Sonoma Coast

Day 1:

On first opening, this wine was seriously pungent.  As I poured it into my decanter (otherwise known as an old glass pitcher) I could smell the deep plum and sour cherry aromas.  On my first couple of sips the finish was a little harsh, but full of rich fruit and a little anise/licorice flavor.  Man. I can tell this might be the best one yet, it has a richer mouthfeel than the other wines I’ve tried, but it just seems really pure.

There was also a meaty sort of characteristic on the mid-palate.  I want to say bacon or beef or something like that.  This is good stuff, it’s dry but it doesn’t suck all the air out of your palate.  It’s bright but has some dark-earthy characteristics too.  It’s another cool-climate Syrah with that perfect balance of brawniness and elegance.

I let it breathe for a bit and revisited.  After about an hour this wine was even smoother, and I can see why people love this wine — it’s smooth and has an amazing “delicious factor” (thank you Gary Vaynerchuk) but its also got a lot of complexity and savory qualities that drive wine geeks to extreme adoration.  It’s the perfect combination.

Day 2:

After letting this wine sit on the counter for a day, it’s still vibrant and rich with fruit.  I’m getting some black cherry aromas now.  The mid-palate still hums with smoke and meat flavors.  It still has some tannic bite on the finish so I think this wine is definitely age-able, and, in fact, the Peays recommend cellaring this wine for five years or so.  Although I do agree that this wine could go for a while in the cellar, it is approachable now, it’s not as if you have to wait to drink it, although I’m looking forward to how it tastes in five years, and I have one in my cellar for that purpose.

Of course, there’s a price to pay for this quality of wine.  The Peay winery really does farm on the edge of the grape’s ability to ripen and some years when it’s been a particularly cool summer, their grapes simply don’t ripen and they have to skip the vintage.  Who does that in California?  Very few wineries.  It does happen in France, but not in California, in the land of sunshine.  Somehow the Peays (and for that matter, many other cool-climate Syrah producers) are finding places in California that are literally on the edge.

In their latest newsletter, Andy Peay explained, “We decided to farm on the edge with an awareness of the risks.  But, being here enables us to make wines from ripe fruit that nevertheless result in a harmonious balance of flavor, alcohol and acidity.  Wines that speak of a place.”  These guys are really pushing the envelope but the wines are their reward for their audacity.  I haven’t paid this much for wine except for very few instances but I have to say it’s a treat to drink it and I hope you search it out also.  Although it’s not a wine that’s priced at an introductory level, its balance makes it a great introduction to cool-climate characteristics without being too rustic.  It’s simply harmonious.

This wine was $47 (I’ve paid this much for a wine very few times) and I had to join the Peay Vineyards mailing list to get it.