Two Vintages of Belharra Las Madres Carneros Syrah

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Belharra 2013 Syrah Carneros Sonoma Valley 2013 (sold out but some magnums available)

Plum, chocolate, mostly a fruity, not a lot of savory but a little black olive comes through with some time in the glass, not too much oak, a bit of heat coming through on the nose. Decent acidity on the mid-palate. A little spike of alcohol on the finish but it blows off with time. A big Syrah for sure but it reveals a little of the cool vineyard character of black olive brine and pepper. 90 pts Aged in neutral oak, no stem inclusion 15% ABV 50 cases produced

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Belharra 2014 Carneros Sonoma County $39

Stewed fruit aromas, almost a liqueur-like nose. Again, good notes of olive and a little more red fruit character than the 2013. Not exactly a super bright Syrah but I’m trying to branch out to appreciate bigger and richer Syrahs and this one is a good introduction. There’s freshness to the palate and the new oak isn’t distracting. My favorite of the two.  91 pts. Aged in 20% new oak in puncheons, no stem inclusion. 109 cases produced.

Belharra Wines is the project of Anne Fogerty and Camille Gaio. Both have other jobs in Napa while they search out vineyard sites from surrounding areas that allow them to launch their own brand. Fogerty is the cellar master for Outpost Winery on Howell Mountain in Napa Valley. Gaio is the assistant winemaker for Julien Fayard in Napa.

Gaio is an avid surfer and Fogerty says that the surfing analogy of waiting for a big wave works well for how they treat the growth of the winery; they are waiting for the next big vineyard opportunity to come along and when it does they’ll be ready for it. In the meantime the winery sources their current wines from Las Madres in Carneros and a Chardonnay vineyard in Knight’s Valley. They also make an outstanding rosé from Las Madres fruit.

Las Madres is a special site and I was fortunate enough in Spring of 2014 to get invited to a tasting of all the winemakers who make wine from the Las Madres. Belharra impressed me at that tasting. You can read more about the vineyard here but suffice it to say, the vineyard makes a strong case for Carneros being a great spot for Syrah in the future. There are only two pick dates (except for the rosé pick) for Las Madres so wineries have a little less control over their own destiny but most of the wines I’ve tried from Las Madres have an olive brine character that comes through along with some savory and meaty notes.

It was a pleasure to taste the wines and I thank Anne Fogerty and Camille Gaio for sending them along. I look forward to hearing more from these two in the future.

These wines were provided as samples for the purposes of review.

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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.

2015 Las Madres Winemakers Luncheon

Early in April, on a gorgeous Sonoma, day I had the pleasure of attending a very special wine luncheon in the Carneros area of Sonoma. Every year vineyard owners John Painter and Jean Gadiot host a unique event at their Las Madres vineyard. I know the area well. My mother is manager of a ranch in Carneros, a ranch where I had worked for summers and weekends all through high school, college and even after college when I was between jobs. But it wasn’t until I actually plugged in the address to Google that I realized how close to the house this vineyard actually was. As the crow flies, the vineyard was probably only a couple of miles from the back end of the ranch’s property. I could have hopped the fence and walked over in about the same time it took me to drive. You can’t actually see the vineyard from the ranch so at least I have that excuse for not knowing that one of the Carneros most famous Syrah vineyards was basically in my own backyard.

Las Madres is a small vineyard that consists of two separate block. One is planted with the 300 clone (also known as the Hulda block) and sits a little lower in elevation and a tad more protected from the afternoon wind. The other is the 174 (Esther) clone and is planted on a hillside making it a little more exposed. Some of the winemakers make wine from one of the specific blocks but most take a blend of the two. Interestingly, there are two picking dates for the vineyard. One late and one early. In 2014 the difference between these two dates was only about a week because of some impending rain that threatened the later pick. John believes that managing lots of different picking dates from different wineries is simply too much to handle so signing up for taking fruit at Las Madres means that you have to leave a little bit of individual control up to the collective power of the group.

I first heard about Las Madres after I tasted a very impressive Syrah from Anaba Winery in Sonoma a few years back. The wine had a meaty, savory component that I completely fell in love with. Anaba unfortunately no longer takes fruit from Las Madres but the wine sure whet my appetite for more Las Madres Syrah.

The annual luncheon that John and Jean host is unique because all of the winemakers are invited to talk about the wines they’ve made for the current vintage. We started the brunch off with a little meet and greet and an impressive rosé from Belharra wines. Made from a batch of Las Madres Syrah that was picked earlier than the Syrah for red wine, it was a mouthwatering introduction to the vineyard. Beautiful, light pink color with savory watermelon on the nose and very crisp mid-palate with a bright finish, it was everything I like about rosé.

We got down to business with the twelve Syrahs on the table.

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The work at hand.

Here they are in alphabetical order, they are all 2014 Syrahs. I’m not really reviewing the wines, as they haven’t actually been bottled yet, but rather giving a snapshot of how they are tasting at the moment. As I said, my general impression of all the wines was positive.

Belharra
This wine was the wine of the tasting for me (although, as I mentioned, I was impressed across the board), it had a floral element and more of a red fruit profile than some of the other wines and had a brightness and an elegance to it that I really enjoyed. I was surprised to learn later that the wine is around 15% ABV. Another example of how alcohol percentage is just a number, other elements must be giving the wine a sense of balance.

Benevolent Neglect
This wine was made with very little intervention, 100% whole cluster made in one t-bin, this wine was meant as a little side project to see what whole cluster brings to the signature of the vineyard. At 12.8% alcohol, I was surprised at how much weight the wine had on the midpalate, A beautiful wine, with lots of litheness to it.

Campesino
The Campesino tended to the darker side of Syrah with some blackberry and black olive character. Good grip on the finish, a little more tannin. This wine had about 25% whole cluster.

Eric Kent
Eric Kent winery has been making wine from Las Madres since 2010. They’ve gone through a progression of using less and less new oak to let , as Kent put it, the signature of the vineyard shine through. This wine also seemed balanced despite a higher ABV of 14.4%. I have to say it was a tad closed down at the tasting but I did get some savory and meaty notes coming through, which I believe will develop over time.

Guerilla Vino
Guerilla is the home wine making project of ex-Gundlach Bundschu winemaker, Lance Cutler. He makes the wine basically for himself and some family members. This was a bit riper wine than some of the others but still possessing good Syrah character.

Jazz Cellars
The Jazz wine also tended to a riper profile with more of a milk-chocolatey thing going on in the nose.

Lois Rae
Mark Finver’s winery used 50% whole cluster, Esther block. 3-4% co-fermented with Viognier. 1/3 new oak. A very balanced Syrah with a lot of aromatic intensity, elegant and beautiful. I kept coming back to this one.

Myriad
Both the Myriad and the Quivet are separate brands from Mike Smith that he differentiates by making wines from the different Las Madres vineyard blocks. The Myriad is from a distinct block of the vineyard. A floral element was present on both these wines.

Quivet
This wine is made from the other block of the vineyard. A lower alcohol wine than many at 12.8% ABV this wine was also floral. Both wines had an energy to them that I responded to.

Vie
Another elegant Las Madres Syrah, about 30% whole cluster. Vie is a winery on Treasure Island. The wine was made by Todd Seaver but presented to us at the tasting by winery partner Bryan Kane.

100 Legs
This is a new project from a neighbor of John and Jean’s, Wanda Mae Lombardi. It’s made with more Viognier than the others, it’s a lighter style of Syrah that Wanda wanted to be more food-friendly. I think she succeeded.

The last wine, poured after the tasting, due to the late arrival of the owner of the project, Jamie Watson, was also delicious. Made by Macario Montoya of Campesino in a completely hands off style, it was balanced and expressive on the nose.

las madres winemakers

The winemakers: Kent Humphrey of Eric Kent; Matt Nagy of Benevolent Neglect; Anne Fogerty of Belharra; Lance Cutler of Guerilla Vino; Bryan Kane of Vie Winery; Winery Owners, John Painter and Jean Gadiot; Wanda Mae Lombardi of 100 Legs; Mike Smith of Myriad and Quivet; Macario Montoya of Campesino; Vineyard Manager Armando Ceja

It was a pleasure to taste these wines and the fact that there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch not only speaks to the talent of the winemakers, but also the care that the vineyard owners and the vineyard manager, Armando Ceja, put into the vineyard. What was most interesting to me was that many of my preconceived notions of what I like (lower alcohol, whole cluster) were challenged. I found myself responding well to most of the wines regardless of their alcohol level and whether or not they had stem inclusion. And I guess that’s the takeaway from the tasting. Las Madres fruit can be made in different styles but in the end, the signature of a balanced, yet rich Syrah, with pure fruit expression and savory qualities almost always emerges.

The Failla Fort Ross-Seaview 2011 Estate Vineyard Syrah

Failla 2011 Syrah

First opening: The wine hits you with a high-toned aroma of fresh plums and gravel, reminiscent of the Northern Rhone and the best of the New World Syrahs I’ve tasted for the blog. Right out of the gate, I can tell this is going to be my kind of Syrah. The palate is full and light at the same time. The mouth-feel is almost textured.

Day two, there’s a touch of the vegetal coming through right now because of the 100% stem inclusion. It’s integrated though and adds pleasant complexity. There’s a real savory side to this Syrah that’s intriguing. That plum is coming through now but with a black olive edge to it, and there’s a floral element also.

This is quite simply one of the best California Syrahs that I have ever had (which, frankly, at its $60 price tag is as it should be).

Failla is the brain child of former Turley wine maker Ehren Jordan who left Turley to start his own winery with his wife Anne-Marie Failla. The winery is Pinot and Chardonnay focussed but those who know Jordan also know that he’s a Syrah expert. He spent his early winemaking apprenticeship in the Northern Rhone and learned to appreciate cool-climate Syrah. Jordan’s become known for making Syrah that’s intensely aromatic with a cool-climate Old World bent but he’s not a cool-climate zealot. He believes Syrah should be full on the mid-palate and has been known to poke fun at cool-climate Syrah makers who make wine at under 12% alcohol. He’s not afraid of his Syrah being broad-shouldered in order to back up all that aromatic intensity.

This wine was made in a traditional Northern Rhone style with 100% whole cluster fermentation. It was crushed by foot, and aged in 30% new oak. It’s a wine that nods more to the Old World than the New, which is consistent with other Failla Syrahs I’ve had.

If you want to taste an elegant New World Syrah that tends toward the Old World, this is a wine to seek out.

Two Impressive 2012 Syrah Releases from Anthill Farms

Anthill Farms 2012 Syrah
The 2012 Campbell Ranch Syrah:  You’ve heard of umami in wine, well, the 2012  is a great example of what that means.  This wine has a salty richness on the palate that reminds me of that umami flavor in  meaty ramen and/or chicken noodle soup.  Lots of savory aromas too, along with a beefy/tomato nose. This is not a shy Syrah, it has elegance but it’s a bit more of a tannic bruiser than Anthill’s Peters Vineyard Syrah.  With too much oak and picked at higher brix I probably wouldn’t be such a fan of this wine but luckily all neutral oak and the right amount of acidity makes it just about perfect for me. Those interesting aromas give this Syrah just the the right kind of weirdness to keep me happy.  I can’t wait to see where this ends up in five or ten years and I hope I can keep my hands off it until then.
The 2012 Peters is a more floral and mineral-driven Syrah, with almost a more Pinot-like sensibility. There are aromas of salted plum too. It’s light and bright  on the palate.  In its current stage of development it’s maybe not as complex as the Campbell’s but it has a gorgeous lightness to it. It’s a beautiful example of cool-climate Syrah, and it’s a wine that could age for a while I’m sure.  This is a foggy, cool vineyard on the outskirts of Sebastopol where the Anthill crew asked the grower to plant a little Syrah alongside the Pinot.  They’re the only ones who get the fruit and they really know what to do with it.
I let this wine sit out on the counter for a day and it really became more expressive and developed some of that umami character.  It still has salted plum aroma and a pervasive minerality but the mid-palate is less angular.  Just like the Campbell, it’s another Syrah to lay down for a few years to see what comes of it.
Anthill is the brainchild of Webster Marquez, David Low and Anthony Filiberti who all met while working at Willems Selyem.  They started the winery on a shoestring with the goal of celebrating small lot vineyards in California.  They don’t set out to make wines that speak of the old world but they do appreciate cooler sites for Syrah that provide wines with structure and elegance.
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Me talking wine with Anthill’s jack of all trades, Tyson Freeman
My wife and I visited their open house/pick up party recently to pick up the Syrah and try some of their Pinots (which are more coveted than their Syrah) and it could not have been a more laid back setting.  I have an old friend who helps out at Anthill so I got to taste some of the ‘13s in barrel and what was most remarkable was the consistency between the vintages.  Anthill uses a hands-off approach (very little new oak, no filtering or fining) that they believe lets the vineyard site speak for itself. These wines are a great reflection of that approach.

The 2012 Wind Gap Nellessen Vineyard Syrah

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At the Wind Gap tasting room in Sebastopol I tasted the 2012 Nellessen Syrah. I love this Syrah. At the time I thought it was the best Syrah I’ve had so far from the 2012 vintage. I bought a bottle to taste at home over a couple of days. It more than lived up to my first impression.

This is a decidedly cool-climate Syrah, it’s almost as if Pax Mahle made a carbon copy of a savory Northern Rhone Syrah. It’s got that tobacco, pepper and bright plum thing going on big time, there’s a green element reminiscent of celery and it’s all couched in fresh plum and blackberry fruit. All of that carries over to the mid-palate which has great acidity and juicy freshness. The tannins are present but the wine doesn’t completely dry out the palate. A great wine with food but also very drinkable on its own.

The most striking thing is how little oak influences the wine and how little it tastes “Californian”. I know California is known for ripe fruit and it’s not as if we shouldn’t embrace that part of this great wine-growing state but I think there’s a place for cool-climate Syrah here and this is one of those. I put it into the group of the Peay La Bruma, Failla Estate, the Arnot Roberts Clary Ranch, the various Ant Hill Syrahs, MacLaren Wines Judge Family Vineyard, and the recent Red Car vintages for being a textbook examples of cool-climate Syrah.

On day two the wine is a little more open and some of that savoriness has given way to rich plum, although the celery and pepper is still right there in the background. The mid-palate is softer and fuller and the finish a tad less tannic and reminiscent of fresh blackberry. This is a wine that I think will age beautifully and I wish I’d bought a few bottles to put down.

Pax doesn’t often make wines from the Nellessen Vineyard that end up with their own bottling, the grapes are usually mixed in with others and added to his Wind Gap Syrah but I’m guessing that in the abundant 2012 vintage the fruit was begging for its own vineyard designation.

It’s such a pleasure to drink a wine that is so true to the Syrah’s motherland in the Northern Rhone and it’s further proof that California’s diverse climate is a proper home to all of Syrah’s diverse permutations.

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.

Copain Hawks Butte

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.