Two exemplary new world cool-climate Syrahs

The good news is that these two wines are great examples of cool climate Syrah. The bad news is that… wait they’re isn’t any bad news! They’re also really well-priced wines.

Falernia 2010
Falernia Valle De Elqui Syrah 2010 14% ABV

This is the first Chilean Syrah I’ve tasted that decidedly moves into the cool-climate spectrum. It has lovely pepper and olive aromas, with just a bit of meaty aroma in the background. Very little oak, nice acidity on the palate and a bright finish.

Falernia is the project of Aldo Olivier who emigrated from Italy to Chile. The estate is in the northern-most wine region of Chile. Because the region is so far removed from the rest of Chile’s wine areas there’s an absence of phylloxera in the the vines, are all own-rooted.

maimai 2012
Maimai Hawke’s Bay 14% ABV

The Maimai Syrah is one that I’ve had previous vintages of and they were always good wines but this one is a cut above last year’s version.

Fresh blueberry nose, black olives, celery, bitter chocolate, tobacco, bright on the mid-palate, strong acidity and a bit of a tannic bite on the finish. This is a wine that begs for food and maybe a couple of years in the bottle. It makes you salivate for more.

Hawke’s Bay is a great place for Syrah. It’s also a great place for Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc which probably explains why we don’t see a ton of Syrah from there but this area has the goods and I’m always on the lookout for New Zealand Syrah that are easy on the pocket book.

Terre Rouge Syrah and a question of oak

At the 2014 Rhone Rangers event, I tasted wine made by one of the premier Syrah producers in California, Terre Rouge. Winemaker Bill Easton has been making Syrah in the Sierra Foothills for over thirty years and his wines are age-able, structured, and food-friendly versions of the variety I love so. One of the more interesting things about tasting the wines of Terre Rouge is that one can taste Syrah grown at differing elevations. Those “in the know” know about Terre Rouge.

I had an interesting discussion that day with Bill’s right hand man and tasting room manager, Doug Bellamy. Here’s what I discovered in talking with Doug. The least expensive version of Bill’s wine (Les Cotes de L’Ouest) is also the one that sees the least amount of oak. As the price and supposed quality of vineyard sources progresses, the wines see more oak until one gets to the highest level of Syrah that Terre Rouge offers, the Ascent, which sees 100% new oak. My question after the tasting was, if the fruit for the Ascent is so expensive and of such high quality, why would one want to mask it with so much new oak? Why not let the fruit shine through with neutral oak?

Bill’s comment was that the fruit from these higher level sites, like the Ascent because of their aromatic intensity, can handle some new oak and still shine through. As the wines are built for aging, the oak integrates over time adding complexity and body to the wine.

Now, it’s no secret that the subject of oak is controversial among winemakers and aficionados. I tend to come down on the side of neutral oak aging but I’ve had a lot of good Syrah that had as high as 30% new oak. So far, for my palate, I’ve found that Syrah from cooler sites with complex aromas and high levels of acidity seem to be able to handle more new oak than warmer sites. Wines with higher alcohol and less acidity and structure, combined with new oak, have a tendency to become flabby and overly jammy. The reverse, of course, is also true. I’ve had warmer style Syrahs with relatively high levels of alcohol that I’ve enjoyed (I know!) because they’ve had neutral oak.

The question of how oak integrates is also a controversial one, and I’ve heard vociferous arguments from both sides. Some people have said that oak simply does not integrate while others have argued that it most certainly does. In my own experience it’s been difficult to tell because I’m not tasting an older wine side-by-side with the earlier version, so it’s hard to see how it’s changed.

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Incidentally Terre Rouge has a beautiful tasting room.

Bill wanted to prove to me that the new oak used on his Syrah integrated over time so he invited me up to the tasting room near Plymouth, CA to taste some older vintages. Unfortunately the only weekend we were available Bill was not, but my wife and I were left in good hands with Doug Bellamy. Doug poured the 2005 and 2008 High Slopes Syrah and the 2005 and the 2008 Sentinel Oak. Both wines see 30% new oak and both vintages were bottled and picked in the same way. Each wine had an alcohol level of 14.5%.

I’ll start with the Sentinel Oak:

My first impression of these wines was that they are rich and restrained. I know it sounds like an oxymoron but that was the feeling I got. The oak lends a power to the mid-palate but the fruit has good acidity and tannin.

The 2005 was more of a cooler climate style, great acidity, and the oak definitely seemed more integrated. It was a tad drier and more tannic on the back end. Beautiful wine with classic plum and black olive Syrah character.

As the name implies, The High Slopes Syrah comes from more elevated vineyards in the foothills region. The 2008 was fuller in the mouth than the ’05 and the oak did seem a little too present for my palate. The 2005, on the other hand, was more my style. It invoked the Northern Rhone with its salty olive and tobacco character. Bright and fresh aromas of plum and apricot, mixed with gravel and hints of red meat. Fresh on the palate too, a lively finish with sweet but mouth-drying tannins and a tiny bit of heat coming through. Elegant and powerful. Oak is present but integrated.

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Thanks to Doug Bellamy for a very instructive tasting.

So, the answer to the initial question. Yes, oak can integrate over time (at least in the Terre Rouge wines) and if you are a winemaker who makes wines meant to age or to be held back upon release, maybe it makes sense to use some new oak to soften the tannins in Syrah and lend body to the mid palate. Most consumers don’t hold their wine back before consumption though so I’d argue, as much as I loved Bill’s wines, it seems somewhat of a esoteric approach if you don’t expect the wine to hit its stride for ten years. I admire that in Terre Rouge though and obviously with thirty years in the business it’s a model that hasn’t exactly hurt their bottom line.

I’d like to add one more wine to the discussion:

terre rouge les cotes de louest

The Terre Rouge Syrah Les Cotes de L’Ouest Syrah which is their least expensive and their Syrah that’s meant to be enjoyed earlier and sees no new oak. I love this wine. In fact, I love it just as much as the 2005 High Slopes but for different reasons. It’s fresh and smells and tastes of unadulterated Syrah. It has pepper and savory black olive aromas that are so cool climate Syrah. I love its lift of acidity on the mid-palate and its clean, fresh fruit profile.

So I guess the bottom line for Terre Rouge wines for me is, if you buy the upper echelon bottlings, WAIT. In the meantime drink a lot of their widely available Cotes de L’Ouest.

Two 2010 Central Coast Syrahs from Piedrasassi

I have to admit that I have a real soft place in my heart for Piedrasassi. I love their aesthetic, the distinctive little bottle, the simple labels, the rustic, yet modern, tasting room. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I could have sat talking to Melissa Sorongon, who’s the wife and partner of Piedrasassi’s winemaker Sashi Moorman, forever. With my favorite indie rock playing on the tasting room sound system, the mid-afternoon sun pouring through the windows, Melissa talking in reverent tones about cool-climate Syrah, I was in my happy place. And, just to put things totally over the top, Melissa also serves delicious homemade bread and olive oil with the tasting.
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Homemade bread, marcona almonds, olive oil, great conversation and great Syrah.  My happy place.  

Of course, none of this would really mean anything if I didn’t love the wines. They are, without question, up there in the echelon with the best Syrah I’ve had in all of California. This is my kind of Syrah; picked at the correct ripeness (for my palate), minimal intervention and neutral oak.

Piedrasassi is one of the many projects of Pinot and Chardonnay expert, Sashi Moorman. Melissa and Sashi set out to make California Syrah that could go toe to toe with the Northern Rhone styles of Syrah that they loved so.

On a recent trip to London to help Jon Bonné promote his New California Wine book the couple were pleased when wine-knowledgable Londoners remarked after tasting their wine, “You must love Cornas.” Melissa likened it to an aspiring musician receiving a compliment that invoked his biggest influence.

A few years ago, Rene Rostaing’s son Pierre was looking for an internship. He ended up at Piedrasassi and Moormon and Sorongon relished this new connection with one of the Northern Rhone’s famous wine houses. This new relationship also fueled a motivation for Moorman. He wanted to make a wine that he would be proud to present to the Rostaings. After the 2010 vintage, they had turned a corner in their farming, picking, and winemaking decisions that they feel has now allowed them to reach that pinnacle.

They are looking for wines that represent vineyard sites that have a concentration and depth but with a modest alcohol level, lift and energy on the mid-palate. They don’t want heavy wines but they also don’t want wines with overwhelming acidity. I guess the obvious word to use here is balance and it’s a cliche but that’s what they are really looking for, balanced wines with the concentration and power of wines from the Northern Rhone that are also food friendly.

But their wines are not without controversy. Some in the region think they are are undermining the very nature of California wine and its ample ability to ripen grapes, by picking too early. The naysayers see the wines as too lean, and too “old world” when they should be embracing the “new world”. I think there’s a place for all styles and that diversity is what California should embrace. For my palate, I will throw my lot in with wines that dance with lightness, acidity and verve on the palate and that’s what these wines offer.

piedrasassi 2010 central coast

The 2010 Piedrasassi Central Coast Syrah 13.9% ABV $42

Day 1:
On the nose, there’s some celery and bacon fat, sweet plum that verges into jam but virtually no hint of oak keeps it light and fresh on the palate. There’s a lot of energy here and fresh fruit blackberry flavors. The tannins are extremely integrated even at this stage but the acidity means it will age for much longer.

Day 2: Still retained some strong acidity after a night on the counter. Has a deeper umami character today, kind of mushroomy but still with the meaty, plum aroma. Really a gorgeous wine.

2010 piedrasassi rim rock

2010 Rim Rock San Luis Obispo County Syrah 13.2% ABV $65  (Yes, the bottles look exactly the same, you’ll have to take my word for it that the wines inside were different.)

Day 1: The Rim Rock nose bears a little similarity to the Central Coast with its blackberry, plum, and bacon profile but there’s also some green peppercorn, bright raspberry, BBQ smoke, and on the palate, a lot more acidity. No hint of alcohol. This wine is built for aging, the tannins are more pronounced.

Day 2: Well, even after a day on the counter the acidity is still there big time but it’s beautifully integrated into a wine that has become more open and inviting. Other than an intensification of the flavors and aromas, this wine really hasn’t changed a whole lot, it still has the same meaty and fresh fruit flavors, all mixed together with savory elements and no hint of alcohol or new oak to throw it off balance.

These are honest Syrahs and they are indeed wines worthy of standing up to the Northern Rhone. The aren’t dismissive of California’s ability to ripen fruit but they nod towards Syrah’s birthplace with their savory and lifted profiles. I can’t help but be excited for what’s on the horizon for the Piedrasassi label and I hope that they are but the beginning of a trend towards “balanced” Syrah on the Central Coast.