2009 Matello Fool’s Journey Deux Vert Vineyard Syrah 13.8% ABV $30

This is my first Oregon Syrah for this blog, I have nothing against Oregon Syrah but, so far, the blog has been very California-centered, mostly because these are the cool-climate Syrahs that I’m closest to and are getting the most buzz around here (at least, what buzz there is).  But Oregon intrigues me, especially Syrah grown in cool-climate areas that are mostly associated with Pinot.  In an SF Chronicle article a few years back I remember hearing about how some of the Pinot growers in Oregon are experimenting with some Syrah plantings to see if the grape will ripen.

These are the same types of characters who are attempting Syrah in the Anderson Valley and other cool climes.  It takes some bravery to make these wines in Pinot country.  On a recent trip to Anderson Valley I was told by many of the tasting room personnel that, if anything, Syrah is being further relegated to the backburner as many vineyards are being pulled out in favor a surer bet, Pinot Noir.  Yet, Syrah still exists, it hasn’t been completely subsumed by Pinot yet, and it is my hope that Syrah is on its way back.

According to my Oregonian friend who sent me this wine to try for the blog, this is a wine that is made intermittently only when the grapes ripen — and there’s simply no guarantee that they will.  Syrah aficionados who make Syrah like this have usually been to the Northern Rhone, they’ve usually tasted and enjoyed wines from that region that, when made traditionally, are more similar to Pinot than the fruit-forward Shiraz and California Syrah from Lodi, Napa, and parts of Santa Barbara.  They come back to California energized and convinced that they can follow in the footsteps of giants.  And many do.  The wines produced from these cooler climates are aromatic, elegant, and delicious.  They’re often ageable and food-friendly in a way that many North American wines are not.

The Matello Syrah is made in the Cote Rotie style with a pretty high percentage of Viognier at 17%.  It’s aged for two years in neutral oak and it goes through whole-cluster fermentation, and crushing by foot — all methods associated with Cote Rotie.

Day 1:  Upon opening this wine, I was immediately struck by how savory it is.  I mean there’s really not much of fruit at all in this wine, right off the bat.  It’s all briny and floral goodness.  There’s a little bit of plum but even with that and those floral components there’s really no getting around the fact that this wine needs some serious time to open up.  It’s all savory mixed with tannins and high acidity at the moment.  It has a lighter color than some of the bigger-style Syrahs.  It reminds me of a wine that would be made in France — it’s lighter, more elegant, more floral, and would be absolutely amazing with food, especially salty food that would bring out the fruit that’s hiding there.  There’s really no brawn in this wine, just pure light elegance, yet without the fruit.

Day 2:  I left this wine corked on the counter to see how it would taste a day later.  This wine is still anything but fruity, it’s savory and possibly more floral than before.  On the palate the wine has definitely calmed down, it’s less tannic and the acidity has relaxed a little, it’s smoother and rounder.  It’s a delicious wine that in the end really reminds me of salted plum, which just happens to be one of my favorite flavors in the world.

This is a wine that’s intriguing also because of how it might actually differ from vintage to vintage, which is something that can’t often be said for California wines (with the exception of the vintages of 2010 and 2011). Any wine made in this extreme location where it’s possible that the grapes might not even ripen one year is definitely going to see some vintage variation subject to weather’s capriciousness.

It’s definitely a food wine and after some research I noticed that the wine is on the wine list at Nostrana, one of Portland’s high-end Italian restaurants.  This, to me, is proof that the wine is a different kind of North American Syrah.  This is a wine that can proudly hold its own next to Italian wines that are known for their food-friendliness.

I’ll also admit that it’s also a wine that because of its lack of fruit forwardness might be a tough sell for a newcomer to cool-climate Syrah but for someone who is interested in what this varietal can do in cooler climes, this is a wine for you.

Von Holt 2008 Syrah Sonoma Coast Old Lakeville

I was definitely excited to try the Von Holt Old Lakeville Syrah after the Neyers Lakeville Syrah that I tried a few weeks ago.  This wine has lots of plum, some slight hints of meatiness, and lots of strawberry deliciousness on the nose.  In fact, this wine is flat-out delicious smelling on the nose.  The strawberry aromas carry over onto a round and firm mid-palate.  And the finish… well, actually, the finish at first left a little to be desired.  Upon opening I got a lot of alcoholic heat and an acrid taste on the finish that was totally out of balance with the rest of the wine.  As the wine opened up and sat for a bit in the decanter that sharp and acrid finish dissipated and became more integrated with the wine to make it much more pleasant and drinkable overall.

I would say that this wine is a little bit warmer example of a cool-climate Syrah.  It does have some similar characteristics to the other Lakeville Syrahs that I’ve had because it’s richer and rounder than some of the other cool-climate vineyards.  In trying to pinpoint why I think that it falls into a slightly warmer style of Syrah camp, I would say that it’s more fruity (strawberry) and a little less savory.  That being said, this is definitely not Shiraz, and the wine finishes with a nice acidic lift that denotes its cool-climate origin.

The Von Holt winery has an interesting story.  The winery is basically made up of Chris and Pamela Von Holt, a couple who are newcomers to the wine business.  They have been long-time wine connoisseurs and decided to take the plunge into winery ownership.  As of now, they both have day jobs and they don’t yet have a winery location that you can visit.  In my short conversation with Chris Von Holt when I picked up their wine, he told me that their day jobs are still paying for the winery, a situation he hopes will be remedied as the wine starts to take off.

Their winemaker is John Fones who is also the assistant winemaker to Ed Kurtzman who makes wine for the Roar, August West, and Sandler labels.  Their website claims that the winery has a cool-climate focus. As Chris states on their website, as a former secret service agent, he tasted lots of wines throughout the world and found that he was most interested in wines with high acidity and food friendliness.  The first fruit they bought was from the Old Lakeville Vineyard and the ‘08 is their first vintage. This wine was made in the Northern Rhone tradition with 80% whole cluster inclusion and native yeast fermentation.

In our short conversation on Chris’ stoop, he admitted that their Syrah has been much tougher to sell than the Pinot.  I’m sure the Pinot is delicious but this is a solid wine and I hope they continue their cool-climate focus.  I can’t wait to taste their next Lakeville vintages.

Copain 2008 L’hiver Syrah

The L’hiver used to be one of my favorite wines.  It was my go-to wine when I wanted to get that cool-climate Syrah flavor and aroma for a reasonable price.  It was delicious, it was cheap, it’s the California wine that I always wanted, and apparently it was unsustainable.  The wine was discontinued after the 2008 vintage, so you can imagine my surprise and delight when I found it at my local Whole Foods for less than $20.  I’ve missed this wine.  The Copain Tous-Ensemble is a decent replacement but it’s a little more rustic and a little more wild and sometimes misses a bit on the delicious factor.  This wine is pure unadulterated deliciousness.  It’s got that pure Syrah bright fruit that I love so much and it’s ultimately very drinkable.

On the nose this wine has a lot of gravel, plum, and black olive aromas with a tiny underscoring of leather.  On the mid-palate it’s smooth for a millisecond and then quickly transitions to a bright and dry finish.  It’s definitely a food wine, much like all these cool-climate Syrahs that I’ve been writing about.

I’ll confess, I’m not sure where the fruit in this wine is from.  It’s hard to glean much information about it on the Internet because the wine has been discontinued.  Suffice to say I want Copain to bring this wine back!  I know they’ve cut back on their Syrah production and become more of a Pinot-focused winery but the wine maker at Copain, Wells Guthrie is an unabashed Syrah-lover.  In fact, his twitter handle is @Gentazrulz which is a reference to one of the most famous and sadly defunct Syrah producers in the Northern Rhone.  I know he wants to make more Syrah and I know that he has an amazing touch with the grape.  Bring it back!

We need this kind of Syrah to help people get a sense of the cool-climate possibilities of the grape but without the high price-points of many of the wines that are available.  How can California show the wine world what it’s capable of doing with Syrah in cool climates if the new wine drinkers will simply gravitate to Aussie Shiraz?  Although I love Qupe’s entry level Syrah and Andrew Murray’s Tous les Jours, they don’t quite represent what the grape can do in truly cool climates.  L’Hiver does that.  And it does it in a way that can make us cool-climate Syrah aficionados proud to introduce it to our skeptical friends, and all that delicious pure Syrah fruit at a price point that won’t scare them away.

Anthill Farms 2009 Sonoma Coast Peters Vineyard Syrah

I’ve already tried the Campbell Syrah (which I loved) for this blog so I’ve been looking forward to trying the Peters, which comes in at a little higher price point.  Right off the bat, I can tell this wine is a decidedly savory example of cool-climate Syrah.  The nose has hints of smoke with pure, bright blueberry mixed with aromas of earth and rocks.  The mid-palate is full with a touch of lean sweetness.  It’s not a rich wine, which makes me think that the oak is much less pronounced.  Come to think of it, there’s really not even a hint of oak on this wine.  The mid-palate transitions to a nice, smoky finish with an acidic lift with few tannins.

As the wine opened up, I was still struck by the high acidity in this wine and I got a little less smoke on the nose and more gravel.  There’s also a nerviness with this wine which I’m tempted to call minerality.  I confess, I still don’t know what minerality is, or even if it exists; but if it does, this wine has it.  I’ve heard the venerable Randall Graham describe it as a nervy combination of dryness and lift on the palate, which describes this wine perfectly.

Just like the Campbell Ranch Syrah, this wine feels like it needs a rich cheese, and I wish I had a big hunk of triple cream to pair with it.  I could also see it being perfect with a roast chicken and veggies, something that I might normally pair with a Pinot Noir.  This is a great food wine.  The lack of oak lets the fruit and savory elements sing and it begs for food.

In fact, this is a wine that, like Pinot, is actually very light on its feet.  It reminds me of a ballet dancer, and it seems, in essence, to be very feminine.  It’s not a brawny Syrah and it’s definitely not a wine I would call big or rich, which is something that I might venture to say about the Neyers Lakeville I recently tried.

The grapes for this Syrah come from the Peters Vineyard near Sebastopol.  It’s at the northern edge of the Petaluma Gap and the grapes were planted in a low and foggy section of the vineyard.  Anthill Farms believe in low-impact wine making that exemplifies the fruit most of all and lets the vineyard sing.  This philosophy has led them to take a low profile as winemakers.  The consequence of this for my purposes here is that there’s very little information out there about the wine making process.  Suffice to say, whatever they’re doing is a good thing and I hope they do more of it.

Neyers 2008 Syrah Old Lakeville Road Sonoma Coast

I’ve wanted to try a Lakeville Syrah for a while now.  It’s one of the vineyards that is most often associated with cool-climate Syrah and technically it’s in Petaluma, which is not exactly the town that one associates with good wine.  To me, this makes the wine all the more interesting.

Like many cool-climate Syrahs, there’s a purity of fruit on the nose that’s impressive.  Again, I get that text-book black olive aroma with some sweet plum mixed in.  This wine is rich and powerful and full on the mid-palate — rounded, and a little sweet. The mid-palate transitions to a savory, tannic, and dry finish that begs for food.  Even though this is an ’08, I think this wine could last a long time due to the acidity and tannins evident on the finish. I’ve heard the ’09 is even better so I’ll be looking forward to cracking the one I have in my wine fridge soon.

Neyers is perhaps most known for their Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay.  In fact, Syrah makes up only about 10% of Neyers production but they try to make it in a Northern Rhone style by using minimal intervention, stem inclusion, and they even crush the wine with their feet.  And most importantly for my palate, they don’t mask the pure fruit aromas and flavors by aging the wine in too much oak.

Based on this version of the Old Lakeville Road Syrah, (and I know that one wine is not a fair sample size), I’m guessing that many winemakers who blend grapes from this vineyard use them to give cool-climate Syrahs some backbone (tannic firmness) and richness.  As I taste more of these wines, I hope to get a stronger sense of what each cool-climate Syrah vineyard is capable of and also how different winemakers use the grapes.

Possibly the only knock on this wine is that it’s a little simple.  I don’t get much of that meatiness or pepper on the nose that I associate with some other cool-climate Syrahs.   It’s simply not as complex as some of the previous wines I have tasted (the Peay for example).

All in all, this is another great Syrah and I continue to be impressed with the high level of Syrahs that are available in California for around $30.

A side note

I had a high-end boutique Cabernet this weekend that was a gift (retails for over $50) that was so over-oaked and boring that I am imploring you to get out of the Cabernet box and try something new.  This Cab had a taste and aroma profile not much different from Cabs for which I’ve paid a lot less money and it had nowhere near the complexity of any of the Syrahs that I’ve been tasting in this blog.  Now, I know that Cabernets can be really good, and I’ve actually had amazing Cabs from this same wine-maker but I’ve yet to have a high-end California Cabernet that offers the complexity and interest that Syrah can give you.  For my money, cool-climate Syrah in California is still the best bet for wines. Why spend over $50 for wines that taste like oak, vanilla, and jam when you can get wines for under $30 that offer so much more?