At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara I had the privilege of attending a Syrah tasting that introduced the wines of the recently approved Ballard Canyon AVA to the blogger community. I feel like a kid in a candy store at these kinds of events. It’s rare that Syrah gets its own seminar and, much like last year’s Syrah event at the West of West tasting in Sebastopol, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
Patrick Comiskey moderated the event. Patrick is writing a book on Rhone varieties in America and I’ve been wanting to meet him for a long time. His opening remarks were a reprise of his recent talk at the Syrah conference up in Walla Walla. He’s an expert on Syrah, and, in general, his ideas about what is going on with Syrah are right on. You can find the full text of his Walla Walla talk here. To summarize, Patrick blames the declining state of Syrah in America on the fact that it has been planted in areas that haven’t embraced its inherent wildness. When Syrah isn’t wild it simply isn’t good. It’s dull, jammy fruit and oak, and rather non-descript.
To me, Syrah expresses its wildness best in cool climates. In recent years I’ve had some good examples of “wild” Syrah planted in warmer climates but, in general, I still say that Syrah does best with cooler climate influences that accentuate its wild, savory side.
And that brings us to Ballard Canyon. The recently approved AVA is one that will be mostly dedicated to Syrah. Peter Stolpman, as the elected head of Ballard Canyon, represents an unparalleled collective of Syrah-based wineries. While not an extreme cool-climate site by any means, its area, like many parts of Santa Barbara County, has a lot of maritime influence. Comiskey has called it, “a warm spot in a cool place.” According to geology buff Michael Larner, of Ballard Canyon’s Larner Wines, the soils of the area are mostly sand. The sand has the effect of stressing the vines which leads to an intensity of fruit. Beneath the sand lies a chalky limestone soil that lends complexity and interest. This combination of soil influences, along with windy maritime afternoons which keep temperatures from rising too high, makes for a Syrah of power and elegance.
The following are my notes from a tasting of six wines that the Ballard collective chose to represent the new AVA. Forgive my lack of detail for some of the wines; I was so blissed out by all the talk of Syrah that I didn’t take the greatest notes. Hopefully, they will give a sense of the uniqueness of Ballard Canyon.
The first three wines poured and waiting.
This is a new project, not yet released, from long-time vineyard manager for the area, Ruben Solorzano. The wine had some cool-climate character but verged a little too much into the warmer style. Good energy on the mid-plate though, with a nice bitter chocolate finish. As in all of these wines, a good combination of concentration and energy.
Beckman is a name that’s synonymous with Syrah in Santa Barbara county. Their Ballard Canyon Syrah is 2012 La Purisima Mountain Syrah. I have found most of their Syrah bottlings to be a little too ripe and too big for me and the La Purisima was no exception but it did have good energy and acidity.
Steve Beckman referred to the wine as a combination of cool and warm climates and I think that’s a fair description. It had some cool-climate character but embraces warm climate while maintaining the structure and acidity of a cool-climate wine.
The 2012 Stolpman Originals Syrah ranged a tad more into the cool-climate style than the previous two. It had beautiful fruit but also this untamed, meaty element that revealed its true Syrah character. A great wine to represent Ballard Canyon.
The 2012 Rusack Reserve Syrah was a nice wine and many of the people at the tasting liked it but for me it simply had too much new oak. I got some chocolate aromas and it did have that characteristic of concentration and acidity.
The 2010 Cuvee Charlotte Syrah was a bigger wine but maintained some good acidity. These wines all have a complexity and acidity behind the big fruit but this was a tad too big.
The 2010 Larner Estate Syrah was too big for me, also. A warmer and somewhat extracted style for sure. Again the characteristic of concentration and ripeness was there.
The 2010 Sangre de Jonata Syrah was my favorite of the bunch and, unfortunately, at $125 is probably a wine I’ll never purchase. It had the most elegance of the bunch and had a bit of green character that I like. Most of the people I talked to disliked it because it had that leafy character. I appreciated its lift, purity, and elegance.
Overall, Ballard Canyon impressed me with the concentration and energy on the mid palate, though I would like to see that dialed back a bit, possibly by picking the grapes earlier. These are great iterations of Syrah and will do well in the marketplace. They’re a wonderful ambassador for Syrah because of that unique combination of warm and cool climates. I look forward to seeing how this AVA develops. It’s a step in the right direction for planting Syrah firmly back into the landscape of California wine.
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