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.

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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.

Cave de Tain Cooperative Collines Rhodaniennes Syrah 89 pts. $12

cave-de-tain

A floral Syrah if I’ve ever smelled one, honeysuckle, violets; the nose is just gorgeous. There’s a meaty funkiness there too, with all that savory olive that I so adore in cool-climate Syrah. The ’15’s coming out of the Northern Rhone are a force to be reckoned with, buy, buy, buy, even these less expensive versions. This Syrah is probably made from the leftovers of the ’15 vintage and even it is good.

I haven’t exactly heard rave reviews of the cooperative of Tain L’Hermitage before.  From what I understand they are basically a group of winemakers who make wine from some of the lesser vineyards around Hermitage and not much of it is usually good.  2015 is one of the better vintages in the history of the Northern Rhone so it’s like that one vintage in Napa where there was such a surplus of good wine that even Charles Shaw was kinda good.

 
So get some 2015 Northern Rhone Syrah

The 2014 syrahs from Oregon’s twill cellars

2014-twill-oregon-syrah

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
twill-2014-steelhead
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

montesalpha

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.

folly

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

graillot

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.

elephant-hill-syrah

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.

villa-pillo
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.