Two Impressive Syrahs from Fields Family Wines in Lodi

Fields Family Wines Estate Vineyard Lodi Syrah 2014

Cranberry and blackberry-pie nose with savory hints of cured meat and a touch of milk chocolate.  The palate belies the nose in that it’s bright and almost citrussy with a pleasant touch of bitterness that evokes orange rind.  93 pts.

Fields Family Wines The Roasted Slope Lodi Syrah 2014

The Roasted Slope is all strawberry and salted plum on the nose, the palate also has good energy and lift that, like the estate wine, contrasts with the big-fruit nose.  92 pts.

The Roasted Slope, as its name implies, is an example of a Côte-Rôtie-style Syrah with about 9% Viognier mixed in with the estate Syrah fruit. The Viognier comes from Gill Creek Ranch right along the Mokelumne River. Ryan felt the Viognier added some acidity to the wine which would account for a slightly more energetic lift on the palate.

Both the wines are impressively “balanced” and I continue to be impressed with what Ryan Sherman is doing at Fields Family.  Judicious picking times, and the absence of new oak, make the wines superior examples of Syrah.  I wouldn’t exactly call the wines shy but Sherman keeps the fruit just restrained enough to make the wines food friendly and savory.

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Two bright and juicy syrahs for warm weather and two dark and brooding ones to warm you on a winter’s day

The Syrah lineup from Waxwing (not pictured 2014 Flocchinni vineyard)

2014 Santa Cruz Mountains Lester Family Vineyard Syrah

The Lester Family Syrah has that earthy-green peppercorn-savory aroma that I’ve come to expect from the vineyard, but also an umami element that is different this vintage that I like quite a bit. On the palate the wine is very pinot-like, not too tannic but with good acid lift. This vintage seems to have upped the elegance factor for the Syrah. It’s such a food friendly wine too and I could see this working well even a tad chilled for a warm day. 93 pts

2015 Santa Lucia Highlands Tondré Grapefield Syrah

A straightforward Syrah that’s just plain delicious. Appetizing aromas of beautiful blackberry with some savory bacon fat mixed in. Nice dryness and lift on the mid palate and finishes without much tannin. Very reminiscent of a St. Joseph Syrah and like the Lester Family I could see this wine going with many different types of food, especially in the summer. This would be a great backyard party wine. 92 pts

2014 Flochinni Vineyard Syrah Petaluma Gap

The Flochinni Syrah doesn’t depart from previous vintages in that it’s a wine with healthy tannins and a characteristic meaty side. Once described by Jon Bonne as having feral aromas, I tend to agree. There’s lush blackberry and plum here on the nose too. It’s a wine that will reward with time in bottle to mellow the tannins, more of a winter’s Syrah than the previous two. Located right off of Lakeville road, next to the famed Syrah vineyard Griffin’s Lair, Flocchinni gets the cooling wind from the Petaluma gap and that cool-climate character shows here. 91 pts

2015 Yorkville Highlands Halcón Vineyards Syrah

Like the Flochinni this is a bigger, richer, and more tannic Syrah than the first two wines. Usually wines with an ABV above 15.2% aren’t my thing but this wine works. It’s pure and delicious, which I think is helped by the fact that it hasn’t any new oak. Blackberry, major minerality and a hint of citrus, and yeah, there’s heat there but it isn’t anything that throws the wine out of balance. This is the first vintage of Halcon that Scott has made and I think the wine represents the vineyard well even though the fruit is a tad riper than I normally like. 94 pts.
These are impressive syrahs and they give you a great sense of the versatility of the grape. Scott Sisemore’s Waxwing Wines in Belmont, CA continues to be the best little winery you’ve never heard of. He continues to make delicious wines, mostly Syrah, Pinot, and Riesling. And the Riesling is something you have to try; it’s some of the best domestic Riesling I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Blind tasting Californian and French Syrah dinner

If you had told me in 2012 when I started this little blog that there might come an evening years later when I’d be invited as press to a dinner and seated between celebrated Syrah winemakers Pax Mahle and Adam Tolmach, I would have told you you were crazy. But so it was on May 11th at the Hillside Supper club in San Francisco.

The dinner was put together by Paul and Jackie Gordon of Halcon Winery and included five other legendary Syrah winemakers: the aforementioned Adam Tolmach of Ojai Winery, Pax Mahle of Wind Gap and Pax, Bob Lindquist of Qupe, Bradley Brown and Brad Friedman of Big Basin, and Michael McCullough representing Drew Family. Wine writers in attendance were Patrick Comiskey of Wine and Spirits, Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle, William Kelley from Decanter, Jim Gordon of Wine Enthusiast and Mike Dunne from the Sacramento Bee. Other attendees included master sommelier Chuck Furuya, and Alan Rath who contributes quite a bit to Wine Berserkers.

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Syrah-heads gathering:  Pax Mahle, Patrick Comiskey, Bob Lindquist, and Adam Tolmach

The Gordons had put the dinner together as an extension of a dinner he had been a part of in France organized by the great Northern Rhone wine writer Jonathan Livingston Learmouth. The dinner was held as a culmination of a trip that Paul, Jackie, Adam, and Bradley had made in the spring of 2016. In that dinner Northern Rhone winemakers were asked to rank the California wines made by the attendees and the results were published in Decanter Magazine.

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Our second flight of six

The task at hand for our group was to blind taste six California Syrahs and six French Syrahs, rank them and say where we thought they were from. This was obviously a challenge for all of us but the results were rather interesting but also difficult to generalize. Here are the wines’ rankings according the group in attendance.

1. 2013 Wind Gap Nellessen Vineyard Sonoma Coast
2. 2013 Halcon Alturas Yorkville Highlands
3. 2012 Jamet Côte-Rôtie
4. 2013 Gonon Saint-Joseph
5. 2013 Drew Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyard
6. 2013 Ojai Santa Maria Solomon Hills
7. 2013 Andre Perret Saint-Joseph Les Grisieres
8. 2013 Big Basin Rattlesnake Rock Santa Cruz Mountains
9. 2012 Allemand Cornas Les Chaillots
10. 2012 Clusel-Roch Vialliere Côte-Rôtie
11. 2013 Clape Cornas
12. 2012 Qupe Sawyer-Lindquist Edna Valley

The main shocker of course is that the Qupe and Clape as wines from such well-respected Syrah houses would rank at the bottom but I guess somebody has to be last. The other surprise for me is that the Wind Gap and the Jamet which have a lot of similarities in their cool-climate fresh and savory profiles would end up on the top of the list but perhaps that shows how a group of Syrah aficionados can appreciate Syrah with a bit of a wild side. The other wine in the top three, the Halcon, just seemed like such a complete and balanced wine and showed beautifully that evening.

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One of the highest-scoring wines and such a treat to get to taste it.  All olive and bramble, delicious.

Some of the wines towards the bottom of the list were a tad more tannic and blocky, which may be why they didn’t show as well in a blind tasting setting. They simply need more time in bottle. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch and the rankings were hard for all of us to complete and commit to, especially in two different flights.

As far as my own rankings went they were actually pretty similar to the group’s ranking overall except that I had the Gonon as my number one wine (which makes sense as I love Gonon even though I didn’t actually know I was tasting Gonon).

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Michael McCullough (Asisstant at Drew Family) and Pax Mahle, who, by the way, is damn good at blind-tasting Syrah

As far as how we did deciding if a wine was from the Northern Rhone or California our guesses were all over the place with nobody out of the group doing particularly well perhaps showing that the lines of high quality balanced Syrah have become blurred between the two countries. As French wines have gotten cleaner and more modern, California Syrahs have gotten more elegant and are also being made in vineyards that allow Syrah to express some of it’s savory side.

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Adam Tolmach, Esther Mobley, Alan Rath, Jackie and Paul Gordon

Overall the tasting was certainly a highlight of my five years of blogging and I thank Paul and Jackie Gordon and all the winemakers who participated.

The Petaluma Gap Wind to Wine Tasting

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The Petaluma Gap Wind to Wine event is one of the better wine tasting events around right now, it’s small, it’s easy to get a good sense of the appellation and it’s not too expensive. This year I’ve been invited to join a cool-climate Syrah panel where I’ll be talking Syrah with David Ramey, Duncan Meyers and moderated by Dan Berger from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Join us! I even have a discount code! And it’s my name!

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.petalumagap.com and your discount code is
*W2W_CYRUS*. Or just click on the following link: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/petaluma-gap-2016-wind-to-wine-festival-tickets-26991767102?discount=W2W_CYRUS

Domaine Gonon in St. Joseph

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Jean Gonon

Our meeting with Jean Gonon was much anticipated. We had heard about his magnetic personality and how much we would learn from our time with him. And all of it was true. Jean Gonon is a pleasure to be around. He’s articulate, has a good sense of wine in its global setting and he’s very knowledgable about wine in the Northern Rhone.

Domaine Gonon is run by siblings Pierre and Jean Gonon. As the younger brother, Jean was not necessarily expected to play such a large part in the family winery but he came back from college to do some seasonal work when his father became ill. The wine work intrigued him and he just kept doing it. After their father’s death, he and Pierre share all the work in the winery and have what Jean describes as a problem-free working relationship.

Gonon’s vineyard holdings are ten hectares and include their own vineyard holdings above the town of Tournon planted by their great grandfather. This area is referred to as Les Oliviers. Other grapes come from holdings in Mauve and parts of Raymond Trollat’s famed vineyard. These holdings are the ones from which they occasionally make their special Vielles Vignes bottling. The Tournon vineyards are mostly granitic soils.

When it comes to vinification, the Gonons are rather traditional. The wines are aged in neutral oak 600 liter casks. A high percentage of whole cluster is used in the vines but the percentage varies based on the vintage. The vineyards are organic and to that end the Gonons are very proud of the horse they’ve purchased to help plough the vineyard rows. Given the steep slopes, many vineyard owners in St. Joseph still resist ploughing in favor of easier to administer herbicide sprays. The horse has been a revelation.

The Gonons are also big believers in massale selection and are replacing clones when they can. They feel that the clones just produce and produce without moderation and are also generally shorter lived than the original vines that were planted. The old version of Syrah originally endemic to the region produces less grapes but the grapes are of higher quality and the vines tend to live longer. In the 1970s the region saw practically an obsession with clones and now in Jean’s estimation the entire St. Joseph appellation is 90% clone. Like Clusel-Roch in Côte-Rôtie and some of the other organic wineries in the Northern Rhone, turning the tide against clones to return the vineyards to their original historic version of Syrah is a pivotal concern.

The Gonons harvest as late as possible and Jean finds the current fashion and fascination with “fresh” wines in the global wine community rather amusing. In the Northern Rhone, Jean says, “freshness is not the thing, ripeness is the thing”. The struggle to ripen grapes fully is always the main concern. The grapes never get over-cooked. To that end the Gonons and, in fact, many of the winemakers in the Northern Rhone are very excited about the 2015 vintage. It was a consistently sunny vintage which has resulted in richer, darker, more tannic but perhaps less floral versions of Syrah.

The 2014 seemed to me a classic St. Joseph with its floral aromas and distinct mineral edge. It also has less tannin and more acidity. The 2013 was a lot like the 2014 with its elegant floral component. Jean had an interesting observation in which he referred to the aroma in cool-climate Syrah as “dead flowers”, I like this description for Northern Rhone Syrah, the wines often have a floral component (whether or not they include Viognier) but that floral component also has a meaty, rotting, almost bloody element to it.

We also got to taste a 2001 St. Joseph which took its time to open up but was a more rounded and fresh version of the 2013 and 2014 we tasted. A beautiful wine that Jean referred to as “…perfect for a winter day.” I’d have to agree, in the almost 100 degree weather we experienced while in the Northern Rhone the only place to drink these Syrah was the Gonons cellar or better to save them for a wintry day.

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The Gonon cellar is dark and cold.  Perfect for tasting brooding Syrah. 

We had a spectacular and informative time with Jean Gonon. He’s an effusive, amiable and articulate representative of his winery and the Northern Rhone in general.

Domaine Marc Sorrel Hermitage

After a few fits and starts in France, specifically a sadly missed meeting with Domaine Clape, we were relieved to find Marc Sorrel’s cellars in the town of Tain L’ Hermitage rather easily. His little winery even had a sign in front (which is not as common as you would think in the Northern Rhone region of France), and he spoke English which made my wife happy as she did not have to attempt to translate.

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Monsieur Sorrel comes from a long line of public notaries in the village of Tain. He studied to be a notary and ended up becoming one for a short period until his father’s death. His father and grandfather had owned parts of Le Meal vineyard and some of Bessards and Les Plantiers and his father began making small amounts of wine in the 1970s. Marc Sorrel took over operations in 1984. He was also able to add the Greffieux vineyard in the mid 1980s by purchasing it on his own. He’s a bit reserved but opens up quickly and it’s easy to tell he has a lot of quiet pride in his winery and confidence in the quality of his wines.

Sorrel makes wine in a traditional way with a few nods towards modernity, he uses no new oak, generally 100% whole cluster (depending on the maturity of the stems) and ages his wines for two years in barrel. Yet, he uses outside yeasts and an automatic punchdown machine, which he’s quite excited about. He’s one of the small producers, a little island in an appellation dominated by Jaboulet, Chapoutier. and Guigal. In fact, according to Monsieur Sorrel only about a dozen producers make wine outside of the three big ones and they make it in small quantities. Hermitage is, after all, a small appellation.

Marc Sorrel talking about his punchdown machine and the barrel room which, rather than being downstairs, extends back from the tasting room/store front. 

Monsieur Sorrel makes a cuvee that he simply calls Hermitage Rouge ($55). Traditionally most Hermitage Syrahs were blends from various vineyards and this is still widely practiced today. The 2013 cuvee tastes of honest pure fruit with good balance and a backbone of acidity.

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The Greal ($85), so called because it is a combination of the Greffieux vineyard and the Méal vineyard, is his flagship red. It’s a richer style of Syrah and seems darker and fuller than the Hermitage Rouge but also defined by its core of pure fresh fruit.

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Monsieur Sorrel also makes a beautiful white Hermitage from Les Rocoules which is spectacularly rich and complex and a wine that I’d love to taste in 10 to 15 years.

These are impressive iterations of Hermitage. Although I would have loved to have purchased a Greal (and I’m still kicking myself for not having done so), I decided on an Hermitage Rouge and plan on putting it away for a few years to revisit and enjoy.