The 2015 SF Bay Rhone Rangers Tasting

Those of us who are really interested in the past, present, and future of Rhone varieties in the new world excitedly await the annual Rhone Rangers event in the Bay Area. For the last two years the event has been held at the Craneway Pavilion in Point Richmond, California. It’s well attended but not overwhelmingly crowded. I was invited to attend the seminars this year and I was thrilled because one of the seminars was on how Rhone varieties aged over time and that’s always been a topic that interests me.

The first event was all about Rose and although I really enjoyed tasting the diverse Rosé wines made from Rhone varieties, I’ll focus on the Syrah.  Martin Redmond of Enofylz Wine Blog has written a nice post on the Rosé wines here.

The second seminar was about how Rhone wines age and featured some intriguing wines. The first was a fabulous Qupe Marsanne that we tasted from a 2005 vintage and a 2013 vintage. The 2005 had this beautiful honey and hazelnut aroma that I could have sat and smelled for days. The 2013 was all bright and acidic and ready to drink on a hot day. Which was, in the end, a valuable lesson about Marsanne, while nice and gulpable in its youth but rather one-dimensional, a few years in bottle makes it a complex wine that demands contemplation. Next time I get a Marsanne from Qupe, I’m going to stick it in the wine fridge for as many years as I can stand it.

But let’s get to the Syrah, this is why we’re all here after all.

The next flight was a 2002 Lagier Meredith Syrah and a 2012. Lagier Meredith wines are known for their balance and structure which theoretically should lead to wines that age  well. Carole Meredith mentioned that the 2002 vintage was one that for years was aromatically closed down and I’d have to agree on that. In her opinion the wine had come around but for me it was still lacking much of an aroma profile. I was impressed with its freshness though. I felt the 2012 to be more expressive with a little sweetness on the nose, some licorice, plum and a full mid palate with a big punch of tannins on the finish. The Lagier-Meredith Syrahs are elegant if a tad subtle on the nose.

Wines 5 and 6 were a 1998 Sentinel Oak Syrah from Terre Rouge and a 2008. These wines were familiar to me because I had written a post about how oak influence can lessen over time. Bill Easton believes in a new oak profile of 25% and it’s very interesting to see how the wines, which are basically made the same year after year, change over time in the bottle. In my earlier post, I had noticed that in older Terre Rouge wines the new oak had lessened over time and this same scenario played out with these two wines. The 1998 was fresh still with an herbal savoriness and no hint of new oak while the 2008 came across as sweeter, with a soft finish perhaps brought on by its time spent in oak. Both wines were beautiful on their own merits but I prefer the older because I felt like that the lessened oak influence had brought out the savory side of Syrah that I enjoy so much.

Wines 7 and 8 were from Silver Wines, which up until the seminar I had not heard of. Benjamin Silver is the winemaker and was a former assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa. The wines were Syrah from the White Hawk Vineyard in Los Alamos. I’ve had a couple of White Hawks in the past and I’ve been impressed with their aromatic intensity but it has seemed like a vineyard that allows for some bombastic styles of Syrah and that was certainly the case with Silver’s 2003 White Hawk, which smelled beautiful but seemed to lack any mid palate structure. The 2010 on the other hand was very nicely structured and had all that I want from a Syrah: good freshness, structure and a savory and earthy undertone. The 2003 had a higher percentage of alcohol (14.7%) due to 2003 being a very hot year. I think that may have lead to its eventual lack of structure. I looked at this phenomenon of older wines made in a ripe style having a hollow midpalate and finish in another blog post here (link). Benjamin agreed that the 2010 (13% ABV) had a minerality and savoriness that the higher alcohol version did not.

The following flight was a 2003 and a 2012 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel which is their Southern Rhone style blend. It’s mostly a Mouvedre-based blend but with a good amount of Syrah, Grenache and a little Counoise. The older version just seemed so knitted together and had developed an earthy and savory side. The 2012 was more linear, simpler, and more fruit forward.

The last two wines were a 2002 and a 2012 Lytton Springs Petite Sirah from Ridge, a winery known for producing wines that age particularly well. This wine to me was the most obvious in showing how well wines can age. The younger wine was rather one note. It had a little of the fruit-forward rather non-distinct California fruit thing with a big tannic punch on the finish but the 2003 had developed into a beautiful savory wine that was very balanced. Wow, get a hold of some Petite Sirah from Ridge and just leave it in the cellar for as long as you can stand it. I’ll do it and put it next to my Qupe Marsanne.

So, what can be generalized from this seminar? Rhone wines when picked at a balanced stage with the alcohol not being too great and with good acid structure, age very well. At least the ones in this tasting did. I haven’t really been a huge proponent of aging wines because you know, earthquakes and “seize the day”, but I have to admit that this seminar made me want to rethink my strategy. Almost without exception these were beautiful older wines and I think I might need to invest in a bigger cellar to accommodate some wines to age.
The Grand Tasting:

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First of all, I want to revisit some of my favorite Syrahs from the last year. Keep in mind that what I’m looking for at the Rhone Rangers event are Syrahs that have some freshness of fruit. I avoid wines that, in my opinion, were picked too late or lathered with too much new oak and have a gloppy, sweetness to them.

Last year’s favorites (you can see my tasting notes on last year’s wine here):

Kieran Robinson’s Vivio Vineyard Syrah: Kieran wasn’t pouring his wines at this year’s Rhone Rangers.

All the Terre Rouge Syrahs: Beautiful Syrahs meant for aging, consistent year after year.

Two Shepherds Syrah: William Allen didn’t bring any Syrah to this years tasting but you can check out my review of his 2012 Syrah here. I tasted through his other wines and they were tasting fresh and energetic, with a core of savory minerality. Just how William likes them.

Fields Family Syrah: The new vintage was tasting great, fresh fruit character with Lodi fruit. I also tasted a 100% whole cluster Syrah that was really good. Ryan is holding the wine back from the public but I think it’s one of my favorite wines he’s made.

Donelan Wines Syrah: Donelan did not pour at Rhone Rangers this year.

Qupe Syrah (these were my favorite from last year) I didn’t get a chance to check in with Qupe this year but these wines have been tasting great of late.

MacLaren Wines: Steve Law continues to impress me with his food friendly Syrah. The Atoosa’s vineyard and the upcoming release of his “Bonnie Glen” Syrah are my favorites from his lineup.

The Bonny Doon Bien Nacido X-block (all the Bonny Doon Syrahs have been delicious of late)

Lagier Meredith Syrah: I didn’t check in with Lagier Meredith this year (except at the aging seminar) but their Syrah is consistently delicious.

Skylark Wine Company 2009 Rodgers Creek Syrah: I’m kicking myself for not tasting their 2010 that was offered at the tasting! Don’t know how I missed it but it’s a wine I need to search out because I really loved the 2009.

Now here’s my list of some new (to me) Syrah wineries that fit my sweet spot for cool-climate Syrah:

Campesino Cellars

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This is a relatively new project of Macario and Griselda Montoya. They focus mostly on Rhone varieties with some Pinot thrown in. Their 2012 “Sangiacomo” Old Lakeville Vineyard Syrah is a site that’s situated right near Griffin’s Lair. There’s a delicious factor for this Syrah that can’t be denied. It’s all dark fruit and some powerful meatiness that’s characteristic of Syrah from that area. I look forward to trying more Syrah from Macario.

Pax Mahle Wines

Not exactly a new comer but Pax hasn’t poured his wines at Rhone Rangers for quite a while. He wasn’t there, unfortunately, but he sent an apt assistant who knew a lot about the wines.

Pax’s 2011 line up of Syrahs were quite intriguing. I prefer his more food-friendly and fresher style Syrahs from his Wind Gap label but these were also delicious wines. Although the alcohol level was high, I didn’t feel that the wines were cloying (except for “The Vicar” which is Grenache based). All the Syrahs see 100% whole cluster which may have attributed to my perception of freshness. The Griffin’s Lair was the star for me with its meaty character but I also enjoyed his Alder Springs. Both these wines really are hedonistic bombs with lots of tannin but I was impressed with their freshness.

Quady North

The big surprise of the tasting for me though was Quady North. Their 2011 Steelhead Run Vineyard Syrah from Applegate Valley in Oregon was a spectacular example of the type of Syrah that I like. Savory, with nice black olive character, pepper, and a structured, fresh mid palate. Their other wines were also delicious and they had a pleasant and well-priced rosé at the rosé seminar. This is a winery I will definitely visit on my next trip up the I-5.

Wrath

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The other winery that I was most surprised by was Wrath. I had tasted their wines the previous years and I wasn’t too impressed because the Syrahs seemed a little overripe. But on the a tip from the great Fred Swan of NorCal Wine I gave them another chance. I’m sure glad I listened to Fred. Their 2012 Doctor’s Vineyard Syrah was probably the most impressive of the wines, it had wonderful cool-climate character with an intriguing meatiness to it. I also liked the KW Ranch Syrah with its savory and earthy character. These are not exactly high acid, cool-climate Syrahs but rather rich and powerful with an elegance and a savory quality to them that I enjoyed. I’m glad I gave Wrath another chance.
I know I missed some great Syrah at the tasting but, based on my sample size at Rhone Rangers, I think there’s a cadre of high quality producers making Syrah in the food-friendly style that I prefer. It’s possible that I’m just getting better at weeding out some of the big, bruising, blocky style that seemed omnipresent a few years back. Or, could it be that the pendulum is swinging back towards more balanced Syrahs that celebrate the variety’s savory minerally side? Time will tell and, meanwhile, Rhone Rangers will continue to be the can’t-miss tasting event of the year for me.

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4 thoughts on “The 2015 SF Bay Rhone Rangers Tasting

  1. Interesting post. Sorry to have missed the event. I will be in Napa next Wed-Saturday and was wondering if you had any good recommendations for tasting? I didn’t get an email response back from Arnot Roberts in response to my request for an appointment. Thanks David Humphreys Humphreys Wallace Humphreys, PC 9202 S Toledo Ave Tulsa, OK 74137 918 747 5300 (x11) david@hwh-law.com hwh-law.com

  2. Wow, great write-up, it seems as though you were quite busy! I really need to get out to Fields Family more often–I visited last fall and all the wines were impressive. I also wanted to hit MacLaren this last time out, but just ran out of time….

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