2011 Crozes-Hermitage Alain Graillot 94 pts. $39

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A distinctive savory and earthy Syrah with aromas of mushroom soup and roasted vegetables. There’s some aromas of plum fruit here too but it falls into the background behind all that savory. The palate is super-minerally and fresh with some fairly intense tannin. A fabulous example of Syrah, if not a tad rustic. Perhaps it will mellow with a little more age and certainly it has the structure to last for a very long time. 94 pts
This is the best Crozes-Hermitage wines I’ve had. The Croze-Hermitage appellation generally is seen as a lesser appellation than the other Northern Rhone designations and deservedly so. The wines are generally less interesting and come from mostly flat plains and less-distinct soil types that surround the famed hill of Hermitage. But some producers, like Graillot, challenge the traditional paradigm by making distinctive wines that as, you can tell from the tasting notes above, embody Syrah from the Northern Rhone River Valley

Two well done $20 Syrahs from distant locales.

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Elephant Hill: Floral, plum, under-ripe blackberry, mostly a savory, meaty, tarry Syrah, which makes it up my alley. Great acidity, some new oak is coming through and not exactly integrated at the moment. Crunchy acidity makes it a wine that could go great with many types of food. Sweet tannins on the finish make it an easy wine to appreciate. 90 points

Elephant Hill is a Hawke’s Bay label, their Syrah is a blend of Syrah from their three vineyard sites: The inland Gimblett Gravels, Te Awanga, and Triangle vineyards.

New Zealand Syrahs, when made with a minimum of new oak, continue to impress me not only for their price point but also for their cool-climate character.

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Villa Pillo: A meaty, salty nose, fresh fruit aromas there too, with a distinct background note of currant. There’s something licorice-y in it that makes it seem Italian to me but it definitely has a Syrah nose. Nice acid, it’s a well made wine, balanced and delicious with an acid lift on the finish. There’s tannin there, for sure, but it’s not overwhelmingly mouth drying. 92 points

An Italian Syrah from the heart of Chianti? Yes, not your everyday occurrence but this one is stellar.

Two Vintages of Belharra Las Madres Carneros Syrah

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Belharra 2013 Syrah Carneros Sonoma Valley 2013 (sold out but some magnums available)

Plum, chocolate, mostly a fruity, not a lot of savory but a little black olive comes through with some time in the glass, not too much oak, a bit of heat coming through on the nose. Decent acidity on the mid-palate. A little spike of alcohol on the finish but it blows off with time. A big Syrah for sure but it reveals a little of the cool vineyard character of black olive brine and pepper. 90 pts Aged in neutral oak, no stem inclusion 15% ABV 50 cases produced

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Belharra 2014 Carneros Sonoma County $39

Stewed fruit aromas, almost a liqueur-like nose. Again, good notes of olive and a little more red fruit character than the 2013. Not exactly a super bright Syrah but I’m trying to branch out to appreciate bigger and richer Syrahs and this one is a good introduction. There’s freshness to the palate and the new oak isn’t distracting. My favorite of the two.  91 pts. Aged in 20% new oak in puncheons, no stem inclusion. 109 cases produced.

Belharra Wines is the project of Anne Fogerty and Camille Gaio. Both have other jobs in Napa while they search out vineyard sites from surrounding areas that allow them to launch their own brand. Fogerty is the cellar master for Outpost Winery on Howell Mountain in Napa Valley. Gaio is the assistant winemaker for Julien Fayard in Napa.

Gaio is an avid surfer and Fogerty says that the surfing analogy of waiting for a big wave works well for how they treat the growth of the winery; they are waiting for the next big vineyard opportunity to come along and when it does they’ll be ready for it. In the meantime the winery sources their current wines from Las Madres in Carneros and a Chardonnay vineyard in Knight’s Valley. They also make an outstanding rosé from Las Madres fruit.

Las Madres is a special site and I was fortunate enough in Spring of 2014 to get invited to a tasting of all the winemakers who make wine from the Las Madres. Belharra impressed me at that tasting. You can read more about the vineyard here but suffice it to say, the vineyard makes a strong case for Carneros being a great spot for Syrah in the future. There are only two pick dates (except for the rosé pick) for Las Madres so wineries have a little less control over their own destiny but most of the wines I’ve tried from Las Madres have an olive brine character that comes through along with some savory and meaty notes.

It was a pleasure to taste the wines and I thank Anne Fogerty and Camille Gaio for sending them along. I look forward to hearing more from these two in the future.

These wines were provided as samples for the purposes of review.