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.