Syrah Seminar at Rhone Rangers 2016

Recently, at the Rhone Rangers event in San Francisco, I attended a Syrah Seminar. A Syrah Seminar, a whole event dedicated to Syrah! Needless to say, I was excited.

There are inherent difficulties in a Syrah panel. Syrah is a bit of a chameleon making it difficult to come up with a common thread that runs through all the wines offered considering the various regions where they are grown and the decisions that the winemakers make.

I’ve been to two other Syrah-based seminars and they worked well because they had a well-defined theme. The first one, at the West of West wine event a few years ago, was essentially a blind tasting in which we tried to guess if the Syrah was old world, new world or cool-climate or warm climate. It was a fascinating tasting. The second one was a Ballard Canyon Syrah tasting, also compelling because it explored the different interpretations of one specific place.

This Syrah seminar was equally fascinating but more because of its diversity than anything else. The wines poured at this seminar geographically and stylistically represented the differences that this grape variety can express.

syrah seminar

The lineup (round 1) and a Hawaiian shirt.  Thanks William Allen for providing these tech sheets too.

I’m not going to score these wines because I like to get to know the wine with more than just a small taster in order to give it a score. I don’t think scoring based on this tiny snapshot does anyone any favors. I will give it one, two, or three stars based on how I think it represents the type of Syrah that I like to drink, which as you know is generally more savory, fresh, and energetic. Take these star scores with a grain of salt as they represent my quick impressions about the wine.

Tenet Wines, 2014 The Pundit Syrah Columbia Valley 14.5% ABV $25 10,000 cases

Mostly neutral oak, some whole cluster and some extended maceration. This is a Syrah grown on poor soils on the eastern side of the Cascades in the Columbia Valley. The area sees little rain so the vines are irrigated. The wine is made in a partnership with Chateau St. Michelle and Southern Rhone winemakers. Meant to be a fresher version of Syrah, in the style of a southern Rhone Vin de Pays, it is picked earlier and fermented with the stems to give more structure and to temper the exuberant fruit that’s typical of Washington state. Ten thousand cases are made. A ripe wine, not too oaky, nice tension and structure. ***

Westwood 2014 Estate Syrah Annabel Gap, Sonoma County. 14.5% ABV $40 500 cases

From Australian winemaker Ben Cane, who, inspired by French Syrah wanted to make fresh and multi-dimensional wines in Sonoma’s cooler Annabel Gap area between Sonoma Mountain and Hood Mountain. 30-45% new oak with some whole cluster to add structure and freshness to that juicy California fruit. This wine also had a small percentage of Roussane added to the co-ferment as the winemaker feels that brings some interesting aromatics and some texture to the wine. An open Syrah with big fruit and big tannin, rather simple at the moment but with some interesting stem aromas, I would like to see how this wine ages. *

Crux 2012 Syrah Russian River Valley 14.5% ABV $36 90 cases

Besides Syrah this wine also has about 11% Petite Sirah and 5% Mouvedre. Winemaker Steven Gower uses 1/3 new oak and practices no stem inclusion. The wine goes through malo over the whole year of fermentation which Steven thinks develops more secondary aromas in the wine. To be honest, I didn’t get a whole lot of secondary aromas in this wine but it’s a nice, simple Syrah with a fresh finish. **

Terre Rouge 2011 Sentinel Oak Vineyard Syrah Shenandoah Valley 14.5% ABV $40 400 cases

Bill Easton has been making Syrah for a long time in California. The Sentinel Oak is the oldest Syrah vineyard in the Sierra Nevada, planted in 1982. The wine sees two weeks on skins in an open top fermenter with two or three punchdowns a day. No whole cluster, aged for 23 months in French Oak. This has a full, rich nose with lots of fruit and floral notes, a tad vegetal in the background perhaps revealing its cooler vintage. The finish is sweet and and not too tannic. **

Skinner 2013 El Dorado Syrah 14.2% ABV $28 240 cases

Co-fermented with Viognier in a Côte-Rôtie style which actually ripened at the same time as the Syrah. About 40% new oak and spends about two years in barrel. A little bit of Counnoise was used at bottling. No whole cluster in this wine. Candied nose, like the outside of an M & M, light and juicy on the palate, also not a whole lot of savory complexity on this Syrah. *

Bonny Doon 2013 Syrah “Le Pousseur” Central Coast 13.5% ABV $26 3,500 cases

This Syrah is mostly made up of Bien Nacido vineyard Syrah, which Randall Graham considers to be the only worthwhile Syrah clone in the New World, and Alamo Creek Syrah from various other vineyards from the Central Coast. No new oak, aged in puncheons and 50% whole cluster. This was the savory style of Syrah I’d been waiting for in this seminar. It’s black-olive, it’s almost like a vegetable stew but of course with blackberry and plum aromas to balance it out. It has good structure and supple tannins. ***

Wrath 2013 San Saba Vineyard Syrah Monterey County 14.7% ABV $39 147 cases

This wine was 33% whole cluster and aged in 66% new French oak barrels. Big, rich, full Syrah. I’ve had great Syrahs from Wrath, but this one tastes a little overblown for me. Big tannin and big alcohol drown out the other flavors but it’s still a wine that seems well-made and would appeal to those who like a bigger style Syrah with a fair amount of new oak. *

Caliza 2013 Estate Syrah Paso Robles, Willow Creek District 15.7% ABV $62 290 cases

Aged for 18 months in 50% new oak, this wine is grown on the western side of the 101 in one of the cooler areas of Paso Robles on limestone soils. Just can’t get past the big alcohol on this wine, it’s a rich, full, exuberant wine with chalky aromas on the nose and primary fruit but finishes hot. *

Qupe 2012 Sawyer Lundquist Vineyard Sonnie’s Syrah Edna Valley 13.5% ABV $55 200 cases

Northern Rhone wine inspired wines from Bill Lindquist grown in cooler climates. These are vines from the Alban clones, about 60% whole cluster, this one is aged in barrel for two years. Bill believes that beyond clone, beyond soil type, the climate is the defining characteristic of the Syrah that he grows. This wine was refreshing after the Caliza, it has a savory element and beautiful elegant red fruit. Energy on the palate and a nice lift on the finish. ***

Jaffurs 2012 Bien Nacido Vineyard Edna Valley Syrah 14.8% ABV $50 316 cases

Craig Jaffurs makes wine from Bien Nacido Vineyard but a bigger, riper version than Randall’s and most of the Qupe bottlings. The wine has 23% new oak and no whole cluster inclusion. The wine has fresh nose with ripe raspberry and strawberry but a rich mid-palate, it’s a big wine but has good structure and energy. **

Stolpman 2013 Estate Syrah Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon $30 3600 cases

Peter Stolpman talked about the wine from the newly minted Ballard Canyon AVA planted on limestone and sand soils. The most interesting thing about this Syrah is that 50% of the vineyard is own-rooted. The Stolpmans and winemaker Sashi Moorman believe in a fresh Syrah style aged in neutral oak puncheons and, surprisingly, all-free-run juice to limit the amount of tannins that tend to overwhelm the wine otherwise. The wine is fresh and structured with good acid and present tannin, not super savory but a nicely structured Syrah. ***

Rune Wines 2014 Wild Syrah Cochise Country Arizona 14.5% ABV $50 125 cases

An Arizona Syrah from winemaker James Callahan. As James intimated, this is probably the only wine that fit the descriptor of the seminar: Pushing the Limits of Syrah. Monsoon rains and higher elevation keep the climate from getting too hot for Syrah. The wine was aged in neutral oak barrels. A good wine but it didn’t taste that much like Syrah to me. Dark fruit and decent acidity. *

All in all, the tasting was very informative and for the most part confirmed my belief that Syrah grown in cooler climes, aged in neutral oak, with reasonable alcohol levels is my type of Syrah. The question of whole cluster is still one that I don’t fully understand but I think it’s fair to say that whole cluster helps to maintain structure and energy in a wine that is perhaps riper and higher in alcohol. So, I’m a fan.

Another question I’ve had and this seminar brought it up again, what does it take for a wine to be defined as cool-climate? Many of the representatives from the wineries claimed that their vineyards were cooler-climate but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that a Syrah can be cooler climate with alcohol levels into the high 14s and even 15s.

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One thought on “Syrah Seminar at Rhone Rangers 2016

  1. Fantastically thorough post! I find that Syrah can be really difficult to distinguish from other varietals in blind tastings – as you note, especially based on what region they are from. We grow some Syrah here in California – Napa and Sonoma – and they vary greatly in aroma and flavor. Check out and follow our Napa Valley wine blog: http://www.topochinesvino.com.

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