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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2012 Arnot-Roberts Griffin’s Lair Vineyard Sonoma Coast Syrah

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There’s a soft spot in my heart for Arnot-Roberts, not quite to the level of Piedrasassi but I do love these guys. These were some of the first California Syrahs that made me realize how much I liked Syrah when it was done right. They make it from some classic California cool-climate vineyards like Clary Ranch, Griffins Lair, and the recently-acquired famed Que Syrah vineyard near Occidental. Their wines are not without controversy, they pick their fruit on the edge of ripeness and some would say the resulting wines are underripe and shortchange the gift of sunny climate that we have here in California.

I have found their Syrahs to be aromatically enticing, elegant, and perhaps a little light on the mid palate but that’s not anything that causes me any concern. I’d gladly exchange a little depth on the mid palate for an ethereal, elegant style of Syrah. I think their wines fit well into the pantheon of Syrah in California, someone has to be the counterpoint to the blocky, rich style that was so prevalent a few years ago.

Having said all that, the 2012 Griffin’s Lair isn’t missing anything on the mid palate. This is the first time I’ve tried their version of Griffin’s Lair and it has all that aromatic intensity of their other wines but this one matches it on the mid palate too. It’s an inky wine at 13.5%, one of the heftier wines that I’ve had from Arnot-Roberts. On first opening the nose has an earthy, almost dusty, gravelly aroma with some floral accents and fresh plum, black olives and blackberry. It’s a classic Syrah for me, and just plain delicious. Some of Arnot-Roberts’ other wines tend to take a little while to unfold in the glass. This one has a hedonistic quality that I think represents the vineyard well. It’s a fresh wine though, with a core of minerality that makes it unmistakably Arnot Roberts. I’d like to see how the wine ages too, I’d love to try it again in ten years.

Griffin’s Lair itself was planted in 2000 in the Lakeville Road area of the Petaluma Gap. It’s a site most defined by it’s cooling, drying winds, producing acidity in the fruit while also making them intensely flavored. It’s a sweet spot for Syrah and picking before the fruit is too ripe allows for the savory side of the variety to shine. This is one of the better representations of cool climate Syrah that I’ve had from this vineyard.

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.

2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah

What has now become a winery known mostly for its high-acid, true Sonoma Coast Pinot and Chardonnay, began its story with Syrah. A move up north and an appreciation of cooler-climate styles shifted winemaker Carrol Kemp’s focus toward burgundy and away from the Rhone.  Fortunately for me, Red Car’s Estate Syrah is one that’s sure to stay in their lineup and it’s one of the better California cool-climate Syrahs that I’ve tried, so as long as they keep this one around I’ll be a happy camper.

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The 2011 Red Car Estate Vineyard Syrah $55

Salty licorice, savory nose, has a meaty character there too. There’s fresh plum and blackberry that reminds me of summer fruit. This Syrah is very floral too, even though there isn’t any Viognier added. There’s great minerality and tension on the nose, with bitter chocolate aromas. The palate is fresh and light with great lift and the finish is not overly tannic or bitter to my palate.

The Fort Ross Seaview appellation is a relatively new appellation, it’s a subsection of the Sonoma Coast appellation and the beginning of a break-up of that gargantuan appellation into smaller subsections (soon to come…The Petaluma Gap). It’s a northerly coastal appellation that generally produces cooler-climate style of wine but the hilltop vineyards are often above the fog so some of them get more heat. The Red Car vineyard sits at about 1000 ft. above sea level in the hills above Fort Ross and is positively cool-climate because of its proximity to the cooling fog and breezes of the Pacific Ocean.

The wine is aged for 18 months in 27% new oak and the balance in neutral barrels. 2011 was a cool vintage and the resulting wine comes in at only 12.7% alcohol. It’s not lacking for stuffing though, also a wine to revisit in a few years.

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.

2011 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah

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This 2011 Wind Gap is now in the running for my favorite cool-climate California Syrah. It has beautiful, elegant fruit aromas of plum and raspberry but there’s so much savory going on also. It’s a wine with undertones of tobacco, black pepper, and black olive tapenade but it’s also so fun to drink. It’s the perfect combination of complexity and ease. The mid palate is just so fresh and there’s not much tannin on the finish, a very flexible and food friendly Syrah.

For those of you who don’t know much about Wind Gap, there’s a lot to tell, most of it has been told over and over again on the internets and much of it is related to the story of the collapse of Pax Wine Cellars and the subsequent birth of Donelan Family Wines and Wind Gap. If you are looking for more information on these subjects, check out a recent Levi Dalton podcast in which Pax Mahle puts a lot of questions to rest. A recent Wine Searcher article also fans the flames of controversy a bit and is a good read (even if it may not be the complete story).

The most significant news lately, in my opinion, is that Pax is re-launching Pax Wine Cellars and thus opening a new chapter in what promises to be a venue for more Syrah. The lower alcohol wines of the Wind Gap portfolio will stay where they are but Pax will move some of his fuller-bodied Syrahs back over to his eponymous label in what seems to be an attempt to corner both sides of the Syrah (warmer versus cooler) dichotomy.

I’ll probably be mostly sticking with the Wind Gap label but I’ll be intrigued by some of the forthcoming Pax wines such as the Griffin’s Lair and, of course, his Alder Springs—which only has Syrah because Mahle convinced the grower to plant some many years ago. I don’t think the alcohol levels will be huge with these wines but they will be fuller, bigger styles of Syrah (as they always have been) and the resurrection of the label will give Pax a chance to express that bigger style in a way that he has perhaps not felt comfortable doing under the Wind Gap label.

I remain more interested in the Wind Gap versions of Syrah because of their ease of drinking and their complex aromatics. They are also more versatile on the table than the bigger Syrahs that beg for steak or barbecue and this 2011 is no exception. Definitely one of the better Syrahs that I have tried so far this year.

Two Exemplary Sonoma Coast Syrahs from Red Car Wine

Red Car is a great California winery that doesn’t get nearly the attention that it should.  I admit it flew under the radar for me for a while and it might have something to do with a name that for me suggests a less than premium label.  But this is premium wine. Having tried Red Car at a the West of West wine event I was immediately convinced that this was a winery I needed to get to know better.  In fact, these are some of the best Syrahs and Pinots from the Sonoma Coast that I’ve ever tasted and that says a lot considering there’s a growing cadre of serious contenders.

My wife and I made the trip up to Red Car on our way to Anderson Valley about a month ago.  The tasting room is a fun place, with a style that evokes urban hipness as opposed to country kitsch.

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The 2010 Fort Ross Seaview Syrah:  Wow, this is a great wine.  On the nose I get savory components of olive tapenade and bitter chocolate, there’s also an umami element that makes me think of soy sauce.  There are some fruit aromas of fresh blackberry combined with an earthiness that carries over onto a bright midpalate that evokes less than ripe fruit.  The finish isn’t too tannic but has some good acidity.  If you’ve been reading my blog for bit, you already know that this is my type of wine.  I had this blind at the Syrah tasting at the WOW event and was blown away there also.  I had pegged it then as a wine from St. Joseph because of that bright acidity and lack of harsh tannin.
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The Cuvee 22 is definitely a bigger style of Syrah but not too big.  At 13.9 % alcohol it’s still squarely in the cool-climate camp, at least for California.  There’s a little less fresh fruit on the nose and it leans more towards a blackberry blueberry compote.  Not jammy by any means, just a tad more ripe.  I get some licorice and tobacco mixed in with that fruit.  Just like the Seaview, this Syrah is light on the tannins.  It’s got great acidity but is drinkable now.  Almost too drinkable; it’s making it difficult for me to save some to taste tomorrow.

It says a lot when a winery can do two Syrahs that are so stylistically different and so damn good.  Both of these wines are balanced for their style of wine.  One is more on the brighter cooler climate style, the other a little more brawny style but both with nice balance.

Red Car’s winemaker Carroll Kemp is an old hand at Syrah having made it over ten years ago as his first foray into winemaking when he lived in Southern California.  Back then, he made (and appreciated) a bigger, more extracted version of the grape but as his palate developed it began to draw him closer to the cooler climate vineyards of north western Sonoma County.