2014 Donelan Kobler Family Vineyard Syrah Green Valley, 96 pts.

Donelan

My favorite of the Donelan lineup because it is decidedly their most cool-climate Syrah.  In a lower elevation vineyard in the  Russian River Green Valley area the fog tends to keep the grapes from getting too ripe.  Viognier is harvested early and kept fresh with dry ice until the Syrah is ready and then co-fermented. The wine is stored in neutral oak barrels to keep with the Northern Rhone theme. It’s a floral/meaty/smoky/umami wine that accentuates the savory side of Syrah. In a blind tasting it would be hard to pick this wine out as a California Syrah. 96 pts.

Donelan has been predominately a Syrah house for many years but they also have some delicious Pinots and Chardonnays. At a recent tasting at the winery I especially enjoyed the Tripp’s Block Perli vineyard Pinot and the Genevieve’s Block Chardonnay. I generally don’t like Chardonnay but this one had an enjoyable bracing acidity.

As far as the other Syrah, I enjoyed the Cuveé Keltie which is a nice middle ground for those that like a balanced California Syrah styled wine. Not too ripe, and not too savory. Donelan’s benchmark wine is the Obsidian Vineyard Syrah from a, now mostly destroyed by fire, vineyard in Knight’s Valley.  It’s a well made wine for those that like the big, ripe, in-your-face iteration of Syrah. The vineyard is being replanted with Syrah so this wine will be off-line for a few years.  I only took quick tasting notes on those wines so I won’t score them here.

As Donelan replants their flagship vineyard they also welcome in new winemaker, David Philbin.  Philbin has been working with Pinot and Syrah at Relic Wine Cellars in Napa. Every since the Pax/Donelan break-up, Donelan has become a breeding ground for young talented winemakers.  Tyler Thomas and Joe Nielsen have moved on to other projects but I’m hopeful that Donelan Winery will continue the tradition of letting their diverse vineyards dictate the wines they produce.

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Latest Syrah Releases From Waxwing Wine Cellars

2016 Dierberg Santa Maria Valley

Winemaker Scott Sisemore ventured farther south to bring in this fruit from a premium Santa Maria Valley Syrah vineyard. There’s under ripe blackberry here and ripe strawberry, with an undercurrent of minerality. There’s a bit of meat and mushroom there too.  Built to age with great structure, acid mid palate and grippy tannins, this ain’t no jammy Syrah and it’s delicious. There’s a pleasing grip and structure here that’s frankly often hard to find in a lot of California Syrah.  I would put this up with some of the best Syrahs I’ve had from CA.  97 pts.
2016 Lester Family Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah

At 14.3% ABV riper than I’m used to from the Lester Family and that makes it a bit more smooth and easy drinking than previous ones. It has less of the green peppercorn I’ve come to associate with the vineyard and more red and black fruit.  94 pts
2015 Syrah Petaluma Gap Flocchini Vineyard

Here’s that Flocchini signature feral aroma mixed with blackberries and lots of earthy gravel. The word is that a lot of these grapes are getting grafted over to Pinot and Chardonnay with just a little Syrah left.  I don’t know very many wineries making Syrah from this vineyard and frankly Waxwing is the best last chance they have. So, if you like restrained European Syrah and you want Syrah to continue at this vineyard seek it out.  94 pts.

2016 Flocchini Sans Soufre

A surprising entry from Waxwing and a bit of an experiment on the part of winemaker Scott Sisemore.  He says, “The wine tasted fresh and clean (not oxidized ) at every tasting so decided to go ahead and bottle without an addition.  Maybe wines would not allow for this as they’d start to taste tired or oxidized and would need to be “cleaned up” with an SO2 add.  The Flocchini never got to that point so I was confident I could get it into bottle without an add.”

This wine accentuates the feral side of Flocchini with more barnyard aromas but it isn’t anything crazy.  If anything, the wine tastes more European than the 2015.  On the palate it’s balanced, with that bit of that barnyard coming through at the end. There’s a bit of off-putting aspect to the finish but in general this is a very good “natural” Syrah. 90 pts.

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.

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.

syrah dinner across the table

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.

syrah dinner

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.

jamet bottle shot

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).

pax and michael

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.

syrah dinner group

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

Image result for petaluma gap

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