Tasting older vintages of California Syrah with Fred Swan

A couple of weekends ago I tasted some older Syrah with Fred Swan from NorCal wine blog. Fred and I have been Facebook friends for a while now but we had only met in person once. Last time we met at a Rhone Rangers tasting in Oakland we talked about our shared love for Syrah and how we should get together for a Syrah tasting. I had two bottles of Copain Syrah from the early oughts and we decided to do a tasting of Syrah from the early part of the last decade.

I showed up to Fred’s house with my two bottles of Copain and was happily surprised to see about 15 bottles of Syrah, all from the early 2000’s. Apparently Fred has a pretty big personal cellar and lucky me, he was willing to share.

The wines fred swan

The flights getting ready for take off

The most amazing thing about opportunities like these is that you get to taste wines that you never would have bought. Even though many of the wines were not my style I see them as part of an education and this was an enlightening day that confirmed my allegiance to cool climate Syrah.

We started the tasting with a flight of wines that included the two Copains that I’d brought. These wines were the most cool climate of the bunch, the Copains were from Eaglepoint Ranch and the Brokenleg Vineyard in Anderson Valley. I was especially interested in these wines not only because of their cool climate sites but also because of the change in style that Copain has gone through over the years. I was interested to see how they held up over the years as the style has changed. Based on what I had read and the alcohol level of these two wines, I was expecting them to be pretty big and rich but that wasn’t the case.

tasting set up

Empty glasses await

The 2002 Copain Broken Leg was a high- toned wine with savory aromas of olive, blood, and iron. There was also a rather interesting aroma of what I could only describe as insect or maybe insect spray, not as bad as you would think. Classicly cool-climate with a meaty mid-palate and a pretty big, tannic finish. Even after twelve years, this was a dry wine. To me, not a wine that was too big or lacking in any acidity. A beautifully made wine that’s in a good place.

The 2002 Eaglepoint Ranch was also a classically cool-climate wine. Gorgeous nose of dust and sweet plum, and aromas of meat and gravel with some red fruit. Also super dry, these are wines that I suspected would taste better the longer they were open, and Fred confirmed that was true.

The 2003 Nickel and Nickel Darien vineyard was in the same flight because of it’s slightly more northern and coastal bent. To me, the wine was a warmer style, more vanilla notes and blue fruit, although it also had a nice dry finish. I wouldn’t say it was over-oaked but you could tell the oak was a bigger influence. Surprising that the Eaglepoint and the Darien were the same alcohol level because they were very different wines making me think that oak usage and winemaking practice has just as much to do with how the wine will taste as anything else.

The next flight were wines from the Central Coast the first of which was the Qupe 2001 Central Coast Syrah. This was a fun wine to taste for me because it was a wine that I drank a lot of during the time of it’s release. I don’t remember exactly what it tasted like then, but I do remember it was a Syrah that always had a warm climate bent but with some good savory aromas also. The wine on first opening had an unbelievable aroma of barnyard. Nothing less than a horse’s ass in this case. The horse manure smell was slightly integrated and truth be told the wine was not all that bad. It has held up well over the years, especially for a wine that probably sold for under $15 upon release.

The 2001 Qupe Purisima Canyon smelled bretty, yet turned out to be corked. Unfortunate. I was looking forward to tasting this wine, especially after so many years of aging.

The next two wines were wines from Adam Tolmach at Ojai. These were benchmark Syrahs for years and years (and still are) and I was excited to see how they had aged. Like Guthrie at Copain, Tolmach went through a change in philosophy. He now picks his wine at lower levels of alcohol and with higher levels of acidity.

The 2002 Ojai Thompson had a great nose of blackberries and some meaty aromas and after those enticing aromas, I was excited to taste it. Unfortunately, the wine sort of fell apart on the mid palate. It just seemed flat and empty and just had very little acidity to give it balance. So, in my opinion, Adam made a great choice in picking wines at higher levels of acidity. Of course Fred made a great point in that few people age their wines 12 years these days. But still, to me, the wine just fell flat and it was hard to imagine that it would have had enough acidity in its inception.

The 2002 Ojai White Hawk was much the same. The wine had a pretty meaty nose but it just really fell apart on the mid-plate and had a lack of structure.

The 2002 Ojai Roll Ranch at 15% alcohol was really the biggest of the bunch. This wine to me was verging on a port-style wine with stewy fruit flavors that made me think of a liqueur. Again the line really fell flat on the mid palate and for me was eye-wateringly alcoholic.

The strange thing is that the first two wines in the flight had an alcohol level of 14.5% for the Thompson and 14% for the White Hawk. Not exactly over-the-top by any means, also right on level with the Copains. It’s a strange comparison that doesn’t quite fit in to the nice little box that I was hoping it would but, all in al,l I would say that as far as the wines’ aging potential I think Tolmach made the right decision to embrace more acidity in his wines to give them more structure in the mid-palate.

The next flight were Carneros wines from 2003 and 2004, these are also pretty big wines, the most instructive being the Nickel and Nickel Dyer vineyard Syrah. I liked this wine the best in comparison with the Nickel and Nickel Hudson vineyard and the Cline Los Carneros which I felt to be too big and blowsy. Yet, out of the other six people in the tasting I was the only one to like the wine, the others felt it was too sour and astringent. In my defense, I think I was just craving something with more structure on the mid palate after the accompanying wines fell flat.

For out last flight we moved into a realm of Syrah that for the most part I try to stay away from. These were some of the big bruisers of the Paso and the Central Coast. They weren’t actually as bad as I thought they would be but certainly not wines I would seek out.

The first wine was the 2003 Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah at 14.9% alcohol. To me it was not necessarily a bad wine but just too big and evoked stewed, cooked fruit rather than fresh fruit that I look for. For many at the tasting, this wine had a delicious factor that they liked, for me, it was just too one note and overly rich.

The 2003 Justin Paso Robles Syrah at 15% alcohol was a jammy wine that again seemed too big to me but not a wine that I thought was necessarily poorly made.

The last wine of the tasting was the 2003 Wente Nth degree Syrah from the San Francisco Bay AVA. If you like wines that taste like dessert, with the pastry and the dessert wine all mixed together then this is the wine for you. I had this pegged as the wine with the most alcohol at the tasting but it turned out to only be 13.5%. Surprising because it tasted like raisin liqueur and apple pie to me.

So what can be said in terms of generalizations from the tasting? First of all, I think that acidity really does play into how wines age if you believe they should have structure and freshness but alcohol simply cannot be the only indicator as to how a wine can age. The Copains with their 14% alcohol were way more structured and fresh tasting than the Ojais with the same alcohol level. Site differentiations that produce unique ph levels to balance out the alcohol may play into how the finished wine will bear out. But then, based on the subsequent flights I think there might be a point where no matter how much acidity the wine might have, if the alcohol level is too high it simply won’t have much backbone after a few years of age. Put more simply, wines from cooler climates or soils with high ph levels might have higher acidity levels that balance out the alcohol whereas wines with from warmer climates simply turn flabby at the same level of alcohol.

The larger point that Fred brought up as to whether or not anybody really cares about twelve year old Syrah is a pretty interesting one and the truth is he’s probably right. Most people drink their wine within a few hours of purchase so the reality is that Fred’s got a point. I still think that wines should be built to age regardless of when they actually will be drunk. That’s probably one of the main challenges for many California winemakers, to make wines that are both attractive to consumers who want to drink wine when they buy it and also can be aged with success. All of this also depends on the winemaker’s ethos also. I know that Wells Guthrie has said that he suffered from an exodus from the mailing list when he changed his philosophy and began picking at higher levels of acidity. (I think it’s since rebounded quite nicely.)

This was an instructive tasting and one I was happy to be a part of. As often happens when tasting and thinking about wine, as many questions were raised as answered. And that’s what keeps us coming back.

Fred and I

Many thanks to Fred and his wife Eva for their hospitality

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Three Vintages of Fields Family Winery Lodi Syrah

As a cool-climate Syrah enthusiast, I don’t often get many Syrahs sent to me from Lodi.  It’s not an area that many would say is known for cool weather but I did have an idea, based on some tastings at Bedrock Winery, that it’s possible to make restrained and elegant wines (in this case Zinfandel) from Lodi, especially from the Mokelumne river area.  So, when Ryan Sherman approached me offering to send samples, I accepted with only a bit of reservation.  I’m glad I did because these wines, if not exactly cool-climate styles of Syrah, are honest examples of the variety.
Fields Family wines

Fields 2010 Syrah 14.4% ABV $22:

On first opening this was quite an austere wine for Lodi, full of black pepper, savory aromas and a very present earthiness, which as you can imagine, got me pretty excited.  The wine did open up over the next hour and a half and started to exhibit some more warm climate characteristics, bitter dark chocolate, strawberry and cherry (but not jammy). Very little oak, great grip on the finish.  Very impressive wine, it has an energy on the mid-plate that I don’t often (ever) get in Lodi Syrah.

Fields 2011 14.2% ABV $22 :

On first opening the 2011 seemed more open and warm-climate character to me.  Still a tad high-toned but more of a slightly jammy style.  The jamminess disappeared rather quickly as the wine opened and it ended up smelling a lot like the previous vintage with that common theme of energy on the mid-palate.  Again there’s a fair amount of black pepper on the nose and that carries over  to the mid-palate mixed with some strawberry and blackberry aromas.  An elegant Syrah because of its lack of new oak.  The finish is nice and drying and makes you hunger for some savory food to accompany it.

Fields Family 2012 ABV 14.5% (not yet released):

The ’12 is an altogether more open Syrah, I wouldn’t call it a fruit bomb but it does have more of a fruit forward nose and palate right now.  This Syrah isn’t even scheduled for release until September of 2014 so it’s a little unfair to judge it at the moment, some more savory elements might develop over time.  Right now, the fruit on the nose isn’t jammy but more like slightly stewed fruit, maybe verging a tad into fruit compote.  It’s a little hot right now but again the alcohol might integrate more as the wine develops in the bottle.  Fields Winery was generous enough to send me a second bottle and I look forward to trying it again in a year or so to see how it’s progressed.  There’s good verve on the mid palate like the other vintages so that’s promising.  It’s a warmer style of Syrah but I like it because it’s honest and has very little oak to mask the fruit.

All of these wines were sampled over a period of three days with and without food.  I’m excited about this winery and the state of the future of Lodi.  The wines all had a similar thread of pure fruit unadulterated by oak and relatively modest alcohol levels.  They are all made from an organically farmed vineyard in the Mokelumne River AVA which is the coolest of the Lodi sub-AVAs.

Fields is a small winery with only about 1500 cases production in total. Ryan Sherman and Russ Fields are the brains behind Fields Family.  Ryan makes the wine from the eight acres of vineyards that Russ bought back in 2005.  Ryan had been making wine at home and took on the larger project while also taking classes at UC Davis.  The wine is made with native yeast fermentation, very little new oak, no filtering or fining.  All music to my ears.

There’s more Syrah on the horizon too, according to Ryan, with some projects made from Lodi and small lots in the Sierra Foothills.  All of these projects get me salivating about the future of Syrah in what has mostly been a forgotten region for the grape.  It’s further proof that anything is possible when grapes are in the hands of the right winemaker.

These wines were provided by the producer as samples for review.