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.

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Piedrasassi 2012 Santa Ynez Valley Syrah Sebastiano Vineyard $53, 95 pts

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I promised I would come back to these Piedrasassi’s and I think it’s time. These Syrahs are meant to age so it’s advisable to give them a few years in bottle.

The Santa Ynez Syrah from Piedrasassi is made of grapes from the Sebastiano vineyard in the Santa Ynez appellation.

Day 1: Not overly tight on opening, in fact a rather welcoming wine. Aromas of meat and integrated whole cluster mixed with fresh blackberry, soy sauce, and gravel. On the palate it’s a full wine and the tannins aren’t overwhelming. It’s an elegant Syrah and I think four years in bottle put this wine into a great place.

Day 2: More of the meaty aromas come out, it’s all umami, celery, and braised beef now with that gorgeous fruit and happy elegance.  It still has that round mid-palate and finish.

The Sebastiano vineyard is about 15 miles from the coast along the highway 246 corridor between Buellton and Lompoc and mostly (surprise!) is planted with Pinot. It’s these little patches of cool-climate Syrah planted among mostly Pinot vines that really intrigue me.

Piedrassasi’s Melissa Sorongon and Sashi Moorman are excited about Syrah in these spots too. A relatively young site, the Sebastiano vineyard was planted in 2008. 2012 was the first year they began to make it as it’s own vineyard designate. Prior vintages mostly went into their Santa Barbara Syrah blend. Along with Kessler-Haak, Pence, Presidio and now Duvarita, Sebastiano is one of only a few spots where small plots of Syrah are planted among all the Pinot and Chardonnay. They’ve found that the Sebastiano, as the vineyard aged, has developed some very interesting characteristics and they think more vine age can only help the Syrah from this vineyard be even more impressive.  In bottle the wines also develop, what has started out as an austere wine in the last two vintages has developed into something with more softness in bottle, more elegance, and more flavor complexity.

The Sebastiano is about 50% stem inclusion. Aged in neutral oak, and made with minimal additions in the cellar.

I’ll be breaking into their 2012 Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande Syrahs soon, so stay tuned.

Radio-Coteau 2005 Las Colinas Sonoma Coast Syrah

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I’ve been wanting to try one of these Radio Coteau, Las Colinas Syrahs for quite a while, but I have to admit that the $60 price tag kind of scared me off.  So, when my sister got me one as a gift for my birthday it was truly a happy day.

There was a catch though. I’d always heard these were classically cool-climate Syrahs and the ABV of 14.7% on the 2005 vintage made me a little skeptical.  Well, I’m happy to report that even though the wine carried a tad higher alcohol than I usually look for, it displayed all the cool-climate character that I love so much.

The wine:  Savory plum, gravel, and black olive on the nose.  On the palate, there’s fresh blackberry and also savory flavors that evoke an umami quality.  The finish is all sweet tannins, this is a wine that’s ready to drink and a pleasure to have gotten to try.

Radio Coteau is a small winery located in Sebastapol. They buy fruit from various Sonoma Coast vineyards and also have an estate vineyard near Occidental.  Las Colinas Syrah, blending fruit from various Syrah vineyards around the Sonoma Coast, is a beautiful expression of cool-climate Syrah and one that I’ll keep an eye on for future vintages.  If your pocketbook can handle it, it’s a wine worth checking out.

2013 Waxwing Santa Cruz Mountains Lester Family Vineyard Syrah

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The Lester Family Syrah is one of the more interesting cool-climate Syrahs I’ve encountered for this blog. I know it well, I’ve been helping out at Scott Sisemore’s little winery in San Carlos, CA for a couple of years now.

The 2012 Waxwing has an unmistakable aroma of green peppercorn on the nose which has made it something of a niche wine. I have the sense that it’s a wine that will integrate more over time so I’ve got a few bottles put away for safe-keeping. For the moment though, if you’re not a fan of green peppercorn, the Syrah can be seen as a tad too exotic.

With the 2013 vintage, for whatever reason, there’s less of that green peppercorn. It’s there but it’s couched in bitter chocolate and brambly black berry aromas. There are aromas of meat, too, and an intriguing bit of iodine in the background. The palate is full but light with a bit of a dusty, tobacco-y finish and the tannins are, right now, surprisingly approachable for a 2013 Syrah. This is good stuff and speaks to the potential of the Lester Family Vineyard to produce Syrah not just for wine geeks who like to #keepsyrahweird, but also for those just looking for a balanced and intriguing wine.

Scott has recently moved out of a shared winery space into a smaller dedicated warehouse for his winery and has by necessity adopted more of an old world method for making his wine. There simply isn’t room for the larger equipment he used when he shared space and costs with other winemakers. All the wines are now crushed by foot and they’re all 100% whole cluster. To me, all this makes for compelling wines.

The Lester Family Vineyard is located just behind the town of Corralitos south of Santa Cruz. The area has become known for Pinot but, as is the case with many of the cooler-climate growing areas in California, there’s great Syrah to be had there too. The vineyard is influenced by fog due to its proximity to the coast. It’s managed by the ubiquitous Prudy Foxx who looks after many vineyards in that area with meticulous care.

When Scott first relocated to the peninsula from Sonoma County, he kept many vineyard connections with that area but he’s gone through a bit of a shift living down here and has moved towards more vineyards in the Santa Cruz and farther south in Arroyo Seco and the Santa Lucia Highlands. I’m excited about this southward progression because I think there’s great potential for wine with a cool-climate bent along the coastal hills south of the Bay Area.

Lester Family Syrah bears this out. It has a distinct aroma profile, vintage after vintage, that makes it one of the more fascinating New World Syrahs I’ve ever tried.

Two 2010 Central Coast Syrahs from Piedrasassi

I have to admit that I have a real soft place in my heart for Piedrasassi. I love their aesthetic, the distinctive little bottle, the simple labels, the rustic, yet modern, tasting room. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I could have sat talking to Melissa Sorongon, who’s the wife and partner of Piedrasassi’s winemaker Sashi Moorman, forever. With my favorite indie rock playing on the tasting room sound system, the mid-afternoon sun pouring through the windows, Melissa talking in reverent tones about cool-climate Syrah, I was in my happy place. And, just to put things totally over the top, Melissa also serves delicious homemade bread and olive oil with the tasting.
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Homemade bread, marcona almonds, olive oil, great conversation and great Syrah.  My happy place.  

Of course, none of this would really mean anything if I didn’t love the wines. They are, without question, up there in the echelon with the best Syrah I’ve had in all of California. This is my kind of Syrah; picked at the correct ripeness (for my palate), minimal intervention and neutral oak.

Piedrasassi is one of the many projects of Pinot and Chardonnay expert, Sashi Moorman. Melissa and Sashi set out to make California Syrah that could go toe to toe with the Northern Rhone styles of Syrah that they loved so.

On a recent trip to London to help Jon Bonné promote his New California Wine book the couple were pleased when wine-knowledgable Londoners remarked after tasting their wine, “You must love Cornas.” Melissa likened it to an aspiring musician receiving a compliment that invoked his biggest influence.

A few years ago, Rene Rostaing’s son Pierre was looking for an internship. He ended up at Piedrasassi and Moormon and Sorongon relished this new connection with one of the Northern Rhone’s famous wine houses. This new relationship also fueled a motivation for Moorman. He wanted to make a wine that he would be proud to present to the Rostaings. After the 2010 vintage, they had turned a corner in their farming, picking, and winemaking decisions that they feel has now allowed them to reach that pinnacle.

They are looking for wines that represent vineyard sites that have a concentration and depth but with a modest alcohol level, lift and energy on the mid-palate. They don’t want heavy wines but they also don’t want wines with overwhelming acidity. I guess the obvious word to use here is balance and it’s a cliche but that’s what they are really looking for, balanced wines with the concentration and power of wines from the Northern Rhone that are also food friendly.

But their wines are not without controversy. Some in the region think they are are undermining the very nature of California wine and its ample ability to ripen grapes, by picking too early. The naysayers see the wines as too lean, and too “old world” when they should be embracing the “new world”. I think there’s a place for all styles and that diversity is what California should embrace. For my palate, I will throw my lot in with wines that dance with lightness, acidity and verve on the palate and that’s what these wines offer.

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The 2010 Piedrasassi Central Coast Syrah 13.9% ABV $42

Day 1:
On the nose, there’s some celery and bacon fat, sweet plum that verges into jam but virtually no hint of oak keeps it light and fresh on the palate. There’s a lot of energy here and fresh fruit blackberry flavors. The tannins are extremely integrated even at this stage but the acidity means it will age for much longer.

Day 2: Still retained some strong acidity after a night on the counter. Has a deeper umami character today, kind of mushroomy but still with the meaty, plum aroma. Really a gorgeous wine.

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2010 Rim Rock San Luis Obispo County Syrah 13.2% ABV $65  (Yes, the bottles look exactly the same, you’ll have to take my word for it that the wines inside were different.)

Day 1: The Rim Rock nose bears a little similarity to the Central Coast with its blackberry, plum, and bacon profile but there’s also some green peppercorn, bright raspberry, BBQ smoke, and on the palate, a lot more acidity. No hint of alcohol. This wine is built for aging, the tannins are more pronounced.

Day 2: Well, even after a day on the counter the acidity is still there big time but it’s beautifully integrated into a wine that has become more open and inviting. Other than an intensification of the flavors and aromas, this wine really hasn’t changed a whole lot, it still has the same meaty and fresh fruit flavors, all mixed together with savory elements and no hint of alcohol or new oak to throw it off balance.

These are honest Syrahs and they are indeed wines worthy of standing up to the Northern Rhone. The aren’t dismissive of California’s ability to ripen fruit but they nod towards Syrah’s birthplace with their savory and lifted profiles. I can’t help but be excited for what’s on the horizon for the Piedrasassi label and I hope that they are but the beginning of a trend towards “balanced” Syrah on the Central Coast.

Two Older Vintages of Copain Syrah

I was able to get hold of a few older Copain wines from K and L the other day and I thought it would be interesting to see how they are holding up. The winemaker for Copain, Wells Guthrie, had something of a change of heart in the mid 2000s resulting in a subsequent change in the level of ripeness in his wines. I wanted to see how the wines were holding up, especially after my tasting with Fred Swan in which we tasted the 2002 Broken Leg and the 2002 Eaglepoint Ranch. I thought then that they were holding up well. Yes, they had a higher level of alcohol (around 14.5%) than his current wines but they weren’t overly ripe by any means. In fact, I thought they were rather fresh and structured for ten year old wines. The following wines were tasted over a period of a few days.

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2004 Copain Hawks Butte Syrah 14.3% ABV

On first opening this Syrah was completely closed down and for a second I thought it was corked because of the lack of aromatics. But the wine opened up and, although still not exactly super expressive on the nose, it’s got a rich mid-palate, not jammy but a little stewy, not exactly a fresh fruit profile. I did get some aromas of blackberry, dust, oak and milky vanilla.

This is not the balanced, elegant style of Syrah that Copain is known for nowadays or, after a decade of age, it’s not showing that way. It’s got very present oak and a glycerine richness that I wouldn’t expect from a Wells Guthrie wine of the present. There’s a tad bit of alcohol coming through on the finish also.

I can sense a balanced wine in there somewhere but it’s not quite there in the 2004 version of the wine. It makes me wonder if this is what Guthrie noticed when he tasted through his wines and had the epiphany to change his style to a more “old world” Syrah style. If it was, then I think he made the right choice because this wine just doesn’t have the structure and freshness that I would have expected and the oak is simply too present.

2001 Eaglepoint Ranch

2001 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah 14.4% ABV

This wine is definitely more balanced than the Hawks Butte. It has a text book cool-climate kalamata olive character mixed with some nice floral and meaty aromas. Yes, there’s some blackberry, bright cherry and salty plum fruit there but it’s in the background and it’s the savory aromas that really take center stage. The mid-palate has some nice juicy acidity and the tannins are relative smooth in the background. This is a wine that begs for cheese or salty snacks. It’s my style of Syrah and again makes me wonder what happened to Eaglepoint vineyard and why there are very few vineyard designate Syrahs coming out of there.
It’s hard to make a generalization based on two bottles of wine from different vineyards but it’s easy to imagine that Guthrie saw that the mid 2000 versions of his Syrahs simply weren’t holding up well over time. Newer vintages of Guthrie’s Syrahs are coming in under 13% ABV so you can see that he made a substantial shift in style.  I also question how much new oak was used on the either the 2001 or the 2004 and how much that affected the structure of the wine over time for these two bottles.  I would guess the 2004 Syrah saw more new oak.  It could also be that the natural acidity of the Eaglepoint Ranch wine that gave it more structure and cool climate character.  As seems typical with wine, after tasting these vintages more questions were raised than answered.

These wines were sold back to K and L by a private party from a personal collection. It was a rare opportunity to taste the older vintage Syrahs and I’m glad I pulled the trigger when they popped up.

Pining for a trip to the Northern Rhone: Two 2010 Saint Joseph Syrahs

It’s no secret that this blog has been mostly focused on California, a few years ago I started writing about Syrah from other parts of the world but, probably because I live in California, that Golden State focus has endured. I believe that wine is really more interesting when you know its context and although I enjoy wines from the Northern Rhone, I have yet to make a trip there. I definitely want to go in the near future and make that pilgrimage to Syrah’s birthplace. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying the gorgeous French wines available here in the States and hope that will provide enough interest for these posts.

St. Joseph is the lighter more playful side of the Northern Rhone. The wines go with lots of different types of food (even fish). They are generally less tannic, less big, but perhaps just as serious as wines from Hermitage, Cornas, or Côte-Rôtie.

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2010 Saint-Joseph Domain Courbis ABV 13%

Beautiful honeysuckle aromas on the nose mixed with some earthy tobacco aromas. There’s a sweetness on the nose that translates to a very dry mid-palate. This is what I love about St. Joseph. It has floral aroma but great acidity makes it super food friendly. We had it with some homemade carne asada tacos and it worked well. The finish is not too tannic but there are tannins there.

The Courbis grapes are de-stemmed and the wine is aged in neutral oak casks.

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2010 Etienne Becheras Saint-Joseph Le Prieure d’Arras, Rhone, France ABV 13%

Again, an elegant wine that smells sweet but finishes dry. Not as dry as the previous wine but also has beautiful acidity on the mid-palate. There’s just a gorgeous sweet plum aroma on the nose that is so cool-climate Syrah. The tannins are there but they exist in the background and this makes the wine, like most Saint Josephs, very versatile with food. This Syrah would pretty much go with anything you’d serve a Pinot with. It’s light and easy to drink but it’s not an insubstantial wine, it has a lot of complexity and interest, again very similar to Pinot.

This wine is made with indigenous yeast fermentation and aged in various sizes of neutral oak barrels. The grapes are de-stemmed.

If you like Syrah, you need to check out wines from St. Joseph. They are often in the lower price range (both these wines retail for under $30) in comparison with the other star appellations in the Northern Rhone but they are beautiful, elegant expressions of Syrah. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to pining for a trip to Syrah’s ancestral home.