La Clarine Farm “Sumu Kaw” Sierra Foothills Syrah 2010 ABV 14.5% $23

The Sierra Foothills are a fascinating wine area for me.  Like most up-and-coming areas, its diversity of styles and varietals makes it hard to get a handle on.  That same lack of focus is also what makes it a place that’s teeming with possibilities for experimentation.  This is a place to explore and while most of the Syrah I’ve had from there are decidedly not cool-climate, this one looked intriguing.

The La Clarine Farm Sumu Kaw Syrah is one of those interesting wines that you keep hearing about and is somewhat difficult to get.  Anyone who follows wine people on Twitter has probably heard of Hank Beckmeyer’s wines and the praise he gets in the Natural Wine movement.  Alice Feiring wrote of Beckmeyer as one of the up-and-coming winemakers “who are forging forward with bravery, talent, and thoughtfulness.”  In an interview with Beckmeyer, Feiring asked Hank about his winemaking process, he replied,

“Specifically, I prune in the late winter (using a device called pruning shears), and then watch what happens.  After a time, I may go back into the vineyard to remove some excess shoots to allow some sunlight and air into the vine’s canopy.  I rarely remove any fruit.  Then I watch some more, and wait.  When the grapes taste good, and they still have very nice acidity, I pick them, stomp on them and let whatever yeasts are around do the alcoholic conversion.  When that is complete, I press the new wine into tanks or some old barrels, and leave them alone.  I do taste the wines occasionally, just to see where they are ‘at’.”

As you can imagine, this is not the type of answer you get from many winemakers these days.  In a sense, it epitomizes the romantic idea that many of us who are not winemakers have about making wine but one that you rarely hear among UC Davis-educated winemakers who’s craft is firmly rooted in science and technology.  Suffice to say, Beckmeyer takes a hands-off approach.  This approach is what Alice Feiring and other proponents of the Natural Wines movement believe in because it gives you wines that are “outside the box” and  unique in aroma, flavor, and even texture.

The Sumu Kaw is fermented with native yeast, goes through whole cluster fermentation, which Beckmeyer believes tempers the often over-exuberant fruit in the Sierra Foothills with some acidity and complexity.  The wine is crushed by foot.  All in all, he’s making Syrah similar to how it was traditionally made in the Northern Rhone.

Beckmeyer also believes in using only a small amount of sulfur to stabilize the wine before bottling.  Many wineries add sulfur earlier in the process and add more at bottling to stabilize the wine, to prevent natural yeast fermentation, and in the vineyard even to protect the vines themselves from fungi.  Natural wine-makers believe that too much sulfur doesn’t allow their wines to express their own uniqueness and therefore limits the wine’s expressiveness based on its terroir.

The wine:  On first smell, this wine had the unmistakable smell of pickle juice —  not the most enticing aroma.  Apparently, this is NOT a wine to pop and pour. I’m not sure if it’s because of the Natural Wine-making process or what, but this wine definitely needs some time to open up.  I let the wine breathe and it began to develop more appetizing aromas; there are cherry and high-toned gravel aromas in this wine.

Unfortunately though, I continued to get some other aromas that weren’t so appetizing, namely, Jaegermeister.  Now, I don’t usually get Jaegermeister in wine but suffice to say, when I do, it’s generally not a wine that I like.  I think the Jaegermeister aromas in the Sumu Kaw spring from a very present licorice aroma mixed with a presence of too much alcohol.  Those gravel and stone aromas carry over to the mid-palate, which is round and sweet.  The finish does have a fair amount of acidic lift.

All in all though, that sweetness on the mid-palate is a too sweet and alcoholic for me.  Granted, it’s not the oaky, cloying sweetness I would associate with many California wines but there’s a sweetness on the mid-palate that reminds me of liqueur and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth.  It’s not exactly what I would call varietally correct for Syrah and it’s a shame because this wine has some elements (the gravel aromas and acidity on the finish) that I would normally really like.

Part of the problem I’m having could be is due the fact that there’s also 16% Mouvedre added to this wine.  It’s hard for me to pick out the Northern Rhone characteristics that I would love to have seen in this wine because the Mouvedre might be masking them.  Now, I like Mouvedre for its acidity and meaty aromas but something is a little off with this wine for me and it simply does not work together with the Syrah here.

To be clear, I’m not sure if it’s the Natural Wine-making process that I’m just not used to, or if it’s the Mouvedre, but something just isn’t quite up to snuff for my palate.

It’s an intriguing wine, but not quite up my alley. I hope in the future that the Sumu Kaw vineyard will produce Syrah that’s worthy of being its own 100% bottling.  That’s a Syrah that I’ll be waiting in line to buy and revisit in hopes that my Natural Wine epiphany is simply yet to come.

2008 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah ABV 12.1% $30

Wind Gap Wines is a name that has become synonymous with cool-climate Syrah. Pax Mahle began his career at Pax wines and actually was one of the first producers to make wine from Laytonville’s Alder Springs vineyard.  He later had a fallout with his business partner Joe Donelan and went in a different direction to make even more extremely cool-climate wines.  Donelan has continued to make wines from the same vineyard sources that Pax used, some of which are cool-climate examples that I will soon be tasting for this blog.  The amount of press that Wind Gap has gotten for their Syrah is somewhat surprising given the general lack of interest that Syrah is getting in California.  I would say the most-mentioned names in the California cool-climate Syrah world are Wind Gap, Arnot-Roberts, and Peay.  So, out of that holy Northern California Syrah trinity, this is the producer that I’ve been missing.

So, I have a confession. I’ll admit that I started this blog with a strong understanding of what I liked about California Syrah but not quite the knowledge base of Northern Rhone Syrah that I should have had.  Now, don’t get me wrong — I’ve tried a fair amount of cool-climate Syrah from the wine motherland but if you put me on the spot and asked me exactly what the differences between a Saint Joseph, a Crozes Hermitage, an Hermitage, and a Côte-Rôtie were, I would not have been able to tell you.  Granted, I’m not writing about those regions, but I probably should have had a little more background on the birthplace of Syrah before I started writing about its New World cool-climate iteration.

With that sudden realization I quickly started drinking all the French Syrah I had in my wine fridge in order to have a better historical knowledge and now I can say, based on my recent research, with great authority that this Wind Gap Syrah is a dead ringer for a St-Joseph Syrah.  St-Joseph wines are known to be a little more rustic and a little less age-able than the other regions of the northern Rhone but are delicious and transparent examples of Syrah fruit.  St-Josephs are 100% Syrah, unlike the Côte-Rôtie (which has a percentage of Viognier), and traditional producers make Syrahs with decidedly cool-climate characteristics.  This Wind Gap is as close to a French style as I’ve had, it’s not straddling an imaginary line between California and French styles, it simply tastes French.  And that’s a good thing.

At first, the nose on the Wind Gap is all savory aromas of black olive, gravel, and smoke.  But, as the wine opens up, there are fruit aromas here too of unripe blackberries and fig.  The mid-palate is full and juicy and the finish is pure pomegranates and blackberries, with some serious acid lift.  This is a wine that I could have aged for a while more, and probably should have.  This is pure unadulterated and delicious Syrah; it’s a varietally correct wine that anyone interested in cool-climate Syrah should try.  It’s a wine that obviously makes me thirst for other examples of Wind Gap Syrah.  This wine is a blend of fruit from Clary Ranch, Nellessen Vineyard and Armagh Vineyard, fermented with 100% whole clusters and aged in neutral oak.

Joseph Swan 2005 Trenton Estate Russian River Valley Syrah 14.6% ABV, $20

Joseph Swan is an archetypal California winery.  It’s been around forever (in California time), it’s rustic in all the right ways, it’s steadfast in its practices and its beliefs are consistent.  It’s a winery that’s been known for its higher acid wines and for sticking to the conviction that California wines can age and be food-friendly.

It’s hard to say if Joseph Swan is more known for its Pinots or its Zinfandels.  The Pinot was planted after Joe Swan bought a property full of old Zinfandel vines off of Trenton Road in the Russian River Valley in 1967.  The Pinot clone that he ended up planting actually became the same clone that much of the Russian River Valley is planted with and is now known as the Swan clone.  Yet, its Zinfandels are also well known for their brightness and ageablity — words not usually associated with most CA zinfandels.  One of the more interesting things about Joseph Swan is that it always seems to have a lot of library wines available and occasionally these wines show up in the retail market and are fun to try.  Although Syrah is obviously not their main focus, it’s still a varietal they’ve made for many year and deserves attention.

This wine is fabulous on the nose.  It has that pure bright plum fruit and black pepper that’s characteristic of Syrah grown in the climate.  It also has nice floral aromas. For a wine with 14.6 percent alcohol it is not over-extracted, it’s a wine with nice acidity and lift on the mid-palate, and the finish could be a touch hot but it has nice hints of black olives and licorice.  It’s full and well-rounded but not too rich and it’s definitely another example of Syrah as a food-friendly wine.

The Russian River is quickly presenting itself to me as a region where Syrah can thrive as long as the vineyards are just cool enough.  I’ve had a few wines from there that are over the top with fruit and heat, which is not the style that I enjoy so much.  But many others are a perfect balance between warm and cool climates; they get that amazing aroma profile from the cool climates but the mid-palate is a tad richer and the finish a tad fruitier than other wines from vineyard sites that I would consider to be cooler in general.  My not-totally-informed opinion is that the vineyards that are lower in elevation hold the fog and coolness longer into the morning and therefore get more of those cool-climate characteristics, whereas the vineyards that are higher and more exposed, are cleared from fog earlier in the day and the resulting wines take on warmer Shiraz-like characteristics.

I’ll find out more about Russian River Valley Syrah as I taste more wines for this blog but in the mean time, I’m going to finish my glass of this perfectly balanced wine.