Drew Family Wines Syrah Tasting

On a recent trip to the Anderson Valley I had the opportunity to check in with Jason Drew at Drew Family Cellars. Jason happily decided to mark my visit by basically pulling out every vintage (except for the 2010) of Valenti Syrah for us to taste. I’ve been a big fan of Jason’s Syrah for a long time and I count his Valenti Ranch Syrah as one of the best domestic Syrahs I’ve ever tasted. As you can imagine it was a special experience.

The Valenti wines are made with some whole cluster, native fermentation, and neutral oak. The vineyard is located in the Mendocino Ridge Appellation. Because the grapes are in a cool-climate area they are sometimes picked as late as Jason can wait before the rains. Other times, in warmer years, they are picked in order to retain acidity. Jason likes wines with acidity and energy so the wines reflect that both stylistically and also because of the simple practicalities of the vineyard.

Here are the wines in the order we tasted them:

2009 Valenti Syrah, olive and blackberry character with a tad of baking spice, this is a wine that is ready to drink right now. 30% whole cluster and 13.8% alcohol.

2011 Valenti Syrah, A cool vintage that brings out even more Northern Rhone character in the wine, more minerality and a more austere wine for sure. This wine is 100% whole cluster because Jason liked the looks of the stems that year and also felt like the thinner skins on the grapes meant that they could take on a little stem tannin and not be over the top.

2012 Valenti, this was my favorite of the tasting because it had all that ripeness and accessibility of the 2009 but combined with the cool-climate character of the 2011. It’s a red-fruited syrah with a savory meatiness to it also. 40% whole cluster

2013 Valenti, more herbal character than the previous vintage but a tad more open on the palate. The drought year led the grapes to have a thinner skin so the wine isn’t as tannic as previous years.

2014 Valenti, very fresh fruit and bright with olive and some drying tannin. This was a thicker skin vintage. There’s a thread of energy in these wines that I think defines Drew’s style of making wine. The wines have a lift in them that’s unique for a lot of California syrah.

2015 Valenti, More pepper, again with a black olive aroma and a touch of baking spices.

2016 Valenti, still in barrel has aromas of fresh smoke, and that characteristic olive character. Jason’s excited about the ’16 vintage.

We also got to taste two vintages of the Perli Syrah. This is a tad richer Syrah from a warmer Mendocino Ridge site that sees 50% new oak from a large puncheon.

2014 Perli has less acid in the mid-palate than the Valenti. There’s an interesting aroma of blood orange mixed with fresh blackberries and white pepper on the finish.

2015 Perli is more mineral-driven, with aromas of stone fruit, and again less acid but good tannic grip.

2016 Perli, still in barrel was still going through malolactic but has a beautiful core of blackberry.

If you are into Syrah (and you probably are if you are reading this blog) Drew Family Syrahs are a must try. Valenti Ranch is a special site and although there’s a fair amount of vintage variation on these wines, there’s an undercurrent of minerality, black olive, and blackberry that carries through every vintage. Thanks Jason Drew for taking me through the vintages. It was a special treat. I’ll be writing more in-depth tasting notes for a few more Drew Family wines soon, so stay tuned.

Thanks for the time and the tasting Jason Drew. 

Que Syrah Vineyard in Occidental California

I’d heard whispers among those in the know that the Que Syrah vineyard was perhaps the coolest-climate Syrah vineyard in all of California. It had begun to reach legendary status for me and it was a only a matter of time in my “deep dive” into cool-climate Syrah before I would get a chance to visit it.

I first contacted former vineyard owner Al Rago who told me that he had recently sold the vineyard and the house to Nathan Roberts of Arnot-Roberts Winery. He contacted Nathan who said he would be happy to host us all up at the house and talk about the vineyard. We met Al in Occidental and followed him up into the hills to the Que Syrah site. We decided against a meeting among the vines due to the rain but walked down the road to the house. And this isn’t just any house, it’s modeled on a villa in Italy designed by Andrea Palladio but made with corrugated metal.

The Que Syrah vineyard is situated in the hills west of the town of Occidental, as the crow flies it’s only four and half miles from the coast. The elevation and proximity to the coast make it a marginal vineyard site for syrah to be sure.

Rago bought the property in the early 1990s from a couple of architects who had designed it. With the land surrounding the property he originally considered planting olive trees for olive oil but had a change of heart when he was told that his soil was too good to waste on olive trees.

Even though there were just two other vineyards in the area, he decided that it might be worth finding out more about that possibility. He took a class at the Santa Rosa Junior college on viticulture from the famed Rich Thomas who advised him that planting Syrah there might be the way to go because no-one else was planting it in cool-climates in California. He would corner the market. Al knew just enough about grape growing and wine in general to decide to take the chance, which is to say he knew very little.

Even though many of his neighbors thought vineyards might work in the area, they thought he was crazy for planting syrah. To this day, the area around the vineyard is surrounded by pinot and chardonnay grapes. Things turned out well in the long run.

One of the first to take the Syrah was Ehren Jordan. Ehren had made syrah in the Northern Rhone and appreciated the grapes cooler side. His 1998 vintage turned out to be the rainiest and coldest on record. Although the wine was rather controversial it gained a following. Ehren took the Syrah for a few years and then it eventually went to Kurt and Derek Beitler under the Boheme and Bodega Rancho labels in 2003. I’ve enjoyed those Syrahs but felt that they were trying to tame the acid-driven Syrah to make it more like a warm-climate style Syrah, adding too much new oak and over-extracting the fruit. Derek Beitler made a Que Syrah vineyard designate all the way up until 2013 and then Arnot-Roberts took over.

Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts have not always made wine from cool-climate vineyards but as they’ve gone along, they’ve found themselves appreciating wine made from marginal vineyards that tend to have fruit with a long ripening pattern that’s picked late in the season at low Brix. For them, the question is not necessarily picking grapes at low sugars but allowing them to develop over a long-ripening season. They are looking for vineyards below a climate line that allows that to happen. Que Syrah, because of its coastal location is, in many years, actually cooler than most vineyards in Côte-Rôtie. In fact, Nathan had tasted Ehren Jordan’s 1998 Syrah and knew what the vineyard was capable of even in the most challenging of years. Que Syrah vineyard seems a perfect fit.

Their winemaking has an old-world style to it with 75% whole cluster fermentation, native-yeast fermentation, and gentle extraction. And minimum five-year old barrels. If you’ve read my blog you know that all of this is right up my alley.

The 2014 Arnot-Roberts Que Syrah has a Northern Rhone sensibility about it. It’s got plenty of black olive and it’s dark and brooding, but it has a prettiness and elegance to it also. It begs for a rainy day but wouldn’t seem out of place on a warm summer evening either. There’s some tannin there but it will mellow with age and I think this will become an even more spectacular wine.

It was a pleasure to meet  Nathan Roberts and Al Rago I thank them for their time. The Que Syrah vineyard is in good hands with Arnot-Roberts and I look forward to tasting this syrah for many years to come.

The 2014 syrahs from Oregon’s twill cellars

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The Oregon Syrah although it comes off as a bit oaky at first, given time in bottle is a Syrah with high-toned fresh strawberry and plum aromas mixed with salty black olives. On the palate it’s all smoky and structured acidity with a fairly tannic bite reminiscent of a Northern Rhone Syrah. 94 pts
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The Applegate Syrah has even more of a cool-climate bent to it. It’s all kalamata olive and red plum with even more lift and acidity. The palate is a tad lighter and very Northern Rhone in style. There’s sort of an umami flavor to it also that reminds me of soy or a meaty sauce. Less tannin on the finish makes this a very elegant Syrah. 94 pts

Both these wines are aged in neutral oak, see minimal punchdowns, ambient yeast and were processed whole cluster.

I first had Chris Dickson’s Syrahs last year when he sent them along and I was impressed. They seem to take some time to open as they come off as rather one note at first. But when they open up they are special wines, especially for cool-climate Syrah aficionados. They are bright and savory and they are wonderful examples of what Syrah is capable of in Oregon.

Chris sees the 2014 vintage as producing a stylistically tannic and more structured wine than the 2013 vintage which he sees as more of St. Joseph in style. Perhaps the dryness of the vintage and the heat of the summer produced especially concentrated grapes. No late rain events swelled the berries and the skins maintained their tannin in the resulting wines. I don’t find the tannins to be overly present but some time in bottle would definitely result in a more cohesive wine.

It was a pleasure to check in on the 2014 vintage of Twill cellars. This continues to be one of my favorite Syrah producers out of Oregon and I look forward to seeing how they grow.

 

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

Two Chilean Syrahs from Montes

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2012 Montes Alpha 91 pts. $17. Classic warmer climate Syrah aromas of bacon fat and smokey umami. There’s blueberry and blackberry but damn is it meaty. This is a big wine, and at the first opening I was worried it would be too oaky but given a little time in bottle the wine turns into a very good Syrah. It’s complex with just the right amount of weirdness. It reminds me of some of the better eastern Washington Syrahs I’ve had where, sure, it’s ripe but it’s interesting enough to maintain some varietal character.

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2012 Montes Folly 88 pts. $90: Again there’s that similar complexity, almost a “greeness” and a meatiness that underlies the wine. As far as fruit goes, it’s mostly a blackberry jam kinda thing going on. I wish it wasn’t 15.8% (!) abv because there’s a lot to like here on the nose but the palate gets a little blown out by all the alcohol.

The Montes Folly bills itself as Chile’s first ultra-premium Syrah made from fruit from steep slopes in the inland reaches of the Colchagua Valley. I think Chile has a ton of potential for making Syrah and I can see that there’s a good Syrah in here somewhere but unfortunately, for my palate, it’s just too hot of a wine. There’s certainly a market for these types of Syrahs, it’s just not me.

The regular under $20 Syrah is more my speed, it’s got some solid cool-climate character to balance its ripeness and for around $20 it’s a screaming value.

Montes has been around since 1987 and was one of the early wineries to show that clean and modern wines could be made in Chile.

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

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.

S.C. Pannel MClaren Vale Syrah-Grenache Blend, “The Vale” 92 pts

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It’s time to get past the stereotype of the big, jammy, Australian Syrah-based wines. S.C Pannell makes a different Syrah-blend than what I’ve tried before from a cooler-climate area of Australia but even this one from a hotter area is restrained in its makeup.

A fresh and juicy strawberry nose, not exactly a super fresh palate but the lack of any new oak keeps it from going over the top into gloppiness. There’s also something savory and umami-like in the mid-palate. Present tannins and good acidity on the finish keeps the wine juicy rather than jammy. Now, let’s be honest here, this is a dark, deep, rich wine but it maintains a bit of freshness and a savory element that makes it an impressive effort from what is quickly becoming one of my favorite wineries in Australia.

Steve Pannell has made it a mission to figure out ways to make Syrah from Australia more refined and elegant. Wines are aged in concrete as opposed to oak and he tries to minimize ways in which the wines are exposed to oxygen. Obviously he also picks the grapes at reasonable levels of ripeness. The result is successful wines that even in the hot-climate have a fresh, juicy and elegant style.

Faury St. Joseph 2013 and 2014 vintage

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2013: A clean and fresh syrah, I’m used to a little funkiness in my Faury but this one doesn’t have it. It’s just got a nice crunchy freshness to it that reminds me of why I like cool-climate syrah so much. The nose is all fresh plum and mineral accents with a floral element. It’s a super food friendly wine too with a barely perceptible oak. There’s some tannin there but it’s balanced and the acidity is in just the right place. It’s a pitch-perfect syrah.  93 pts.

2014 Faury: The Funk is back for 2014. I’m loving this wine, it’s even a little “cooler climate” oriented than the 13, which makes sense given the vintage. It’s brighter, crunchier, and meatier with a floral element too. There’s an iron, bloody element also. Perfect for a rainy day and a dish with mushrooms. No perceptible oak.  92 pts.

Faury has been one of my favorite wineries for quite a while. Their syrahs are just pure and clean. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit them on my trip over the summer and I’m kicking myself for not making more of an effort.

St. Joseph syrahs continue to be a medium-priced Northern Rhone with some stand out wineries. Faury is certainly one of them.

2014 Halcon Vineyards Yorkville Highlands Syrah 94 pts. $27

Heading up to the hilltop vineyard at Halcon, one can’t help but think, “How would it have occurred to anyone to plant way up here?” The dirt road winds and then winds again but, eventually, the vineyard appears on the horizon and you know you’re almost there.

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The view west from the vineyard edge.

Paul and Jackie Gordon bought the land and planted their vineyard about ten years ago and slowly but surely have built a brand around this spectacular site and their flagship cool-climate Syrah.

The property had been an old sheep ranch that was subdivided. There weren’t many grapes in the area but the exposed hillside and the rocky soils were too enticing not to take the plunge. It’s a low-vigor site, as you can tell right away, so the vines generally produce the right amount of fruit without much cropping necessary. Paul says that what he’s learned in ten years of farming the vineyard is that what defines it is their cold month of May where they don’t get the fruit set that they would in areas with warmer springs. And the wind, as we found out as the day went on, is a force to be reckoned with! Paul said that just as in Côte Rôtie, the northern-facing slopes will actually produce riper grapes than the southern-facing slopes because of that constant buffeting from the wind. But smaller yields and stressed vines (although not too stressed) can often make for the best wines and Halcon Vineyards certainly exemplifies that.

The vineyard isn’t organically certified but Paul and Jackie practice organic farming. The weeds are weedwacked in early summer and then die back from lack of water as the season progresses. They do irrigate but only small amounts with the goal to eventually not irrigate at all, if possible.

There’s still some planting to be done at Halcon, they’d like to plant some Marsanne and Rousanne and also put in some Pinot. They also have a plan to plant a steeper section of the vineyard using the single-stake method that is used throughout the Northern Rhone. They would be one of only a few Syrah growers that I’ve heard of to employ this method. There’s also a small block of own-rooted Syrah there that produces only about a half a ton an acre. They think the sandy and rocky soil would prevent any Phylloxera from taking hold and if it did, they are in an isolated spot.

The soils are known as Yorkville-Shortyork-Witherell, which is the greatest name for anything ever. They are made up of loam or gravelly clay loam and sandy loam, below that there’s hard schist bedrock at a depth of about 20 to 40 inches.

The vineyard is divided into four blocks planted to mostly Syrah, Tablas Creek clone, Chave Selection, Estrella River, and Clone 172, and with some Mourvedre, Grenache, and a tiny bit of Viognier that they use in the Côte Rôtie tradition as a co-fermenting agent.

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Paul and Jackie also plan on putting a winery and a home on the site. Right now they make their wine at the Dogpatch Roar Wines facility in San Francisco. They are looking forward to being able to process their grapes just steps away from the source.

The 2014 Halcon Vineyards Syrah: A little more primary fruit driven than the 2013, floral aromas also add to the blackberry and plum. High-toned aromas of gravel with powdered cocoa too. Lots of energy and freshness on the palate with an umami element that reminds me of that salty/sweet balance in asian food. The finish is pleasant with present but not-too-tannic tannins, a wonderfully balanced Syrah. 94 pts.

The wine is aged in 20% new oak and neutral puncheons with about 30% whole cluster.

We also tasted a beautiful Roussanne from Alder Springs, and an impressive Anderson Valley Pinot from the Oppenlander vineyard. Their GSM blend is also quite delicious.

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Thanks to Jackie and Paul Gordon and their little dog Cookie for having us up at their distinctive vineyard site in the Yorkville Highlands.

I’ve written about all the vintages of Halcon Syrah going back to 2009 if you’d like to explore them on the blog.

This wine was provided as a sample for the purposes of review.

Stephane Ogier in Côte-Rôtie

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Somehow I didn’t take a picture of the winery so this photo looking towards the slopes of Côte-Rôtie will have to do. 

Pulling into Stephane Ogier’s winery in Côte-Rôtie you immediately know that this tasting experience might be a little different. Very modern and austere, the winery feels a little like an outlier in the middle of all the old rustic stone buildings. Rather than a bell on a string you buzz a gate keypad and state your business. The gates open and you wind up a gravel road to a low angled glass and metal modern structure that almost looks like it’s part of the hill it was built on.

Stephane was off tasting in Portugal but we met with his “right hand man” Graeme Bott. Graeme’s a New Zealander and, after struggling through a few tastings in French, it was a relief to converse with someone completely fluent in English (I know, I need to learn French).

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Graeme Bott, winemaker and “right hand man” to Stephane Ogier

The barrel room is expansive and also modern, clean and bright, it’s more reminiscent of a larger California winery than anything we had seen up until this point in the Northern Rhone. We got started on the 2015’s in barrel and I couldn’t believe how open and finished these wines tasted. Graeme attributed this to the spectacular 2015 vintage which he puts right up there with 1990, 1999, and 2010. The wines had recently been racked which he felt made them more open and approachable even in barrel.

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Graeme pulling barrel samples from the 2015 wines.
Stephane Ogier’s 2015 wines are defined by their balance, they aren’t on the lean side but they aren’t on the rich and full side either, they seem to walk the fine line between brawn and finesse. The 2014’s were a little more on the finesse side of things but didn’t lack for power.

Like many of the Northern Rhone wineries we encountered, Ogier seems to combine the best of the traditional wine-making techniques of the region with the best of the modern. He uses a little new oak and makes decisions about stem inclusion based on the vintage. Having studied in Burgundy, Ogier wants to make Syrahs of finesse and elegance. The Burgundian influence also shows in his philosophy of exploring distinct terroirs within the Côte-Rôtie appellation. They produce a Côte-Rôtie Village from younger vines, a Côte-Rôtie reserve, 6 single vineyard Côte-Rôties and two smaller parcel selections from within those single vineyards. Ogier also produces a wine called L’Ame Soeur which is from an as-yet unapproved Seysuel appellation on the other coast of the Rhone River.

Some highlights of what we tasted:

The 2015 wine made from the goblet-trained vines of Montmain was rich and full but with an incredible floral aroma. The Fongeant, Cote-Bodin, and La Vialliere were also showing very well out of barrel which Graeme believed had to do not only with the vintage but also with the fact that the barrels had been recently racked.

The 2014 vintage was a trickier vintage than 2015, marked by lots of rain but a dry end of the summer, the wines tend to be more reserved than the 2015’s. We were able to taste the 2014 St. Joseph, the Côte-Rôtie Village, the Côte-Rôtie Reserve and the Seysuel Syrah. All were delicious, elegant Syrahs with floral and savory character. The star of the tasting was a 2012 Belle Helene which is a parcel select wine that Ogier makes; it was savory and umami, no sense of vegetal with an irresistible salted plum character.

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The spectacular Belle Hélene

It was a pleasure to meet Graeme and his lovely wife Julie (who helped us with dinner reservations at the bistro of the famed La Pyramide) at Stephane Ogier’s winery. I got the sense that, in the sea of modernity that is the Ogier winery, there is still a winemaker that respects the traditions of the Côte-Rôtie by celebrating the elegant, feminine side of Syrah.