Model Farm 2014 Sonoma Coast Syrah $45.00, 12.6% ABV, 97 pts

One of the best things about having a blog like this is that it encourages me to take a chance on wines I’ve never heard of and it’s even better when I find out that they’re really good. Obviously this used to happen a lot more when I started this blog but the other day I picked up a bottle of a Syrah I’d never seen before at the Boonville Hotel in Anderson Valley. I was intrigued by the 12.6% ABV as I tend towards those lower alcohol styles of Syrah.

This beauty is a dead ringer for a Northern Rhone Syrah or even a Wind Gap Nellessen or Sonoma Coast Syrah. Olive, bramble, and graceful fresh fruit jump out of the glass. Earth and mineral mixed in there too. Perfectly balanced on the palate, not too much acid or tannin and energetic and full at the same time. Whole cluster deliciousness. This wine definitely surprised me, glad I took a leap of faith. Cool-climate Syrah lovers need to seek this out.

Photos courtesy of Joanna Wells

Model Farm is the project of winemakers Joanna Wells and Sean Castorani. Joanna is also assistant winemaker at Kutch wines and Sean is assistant winemaker at Rhys Vineyard. They are engaged to be married and have been wanting to start a small project on their own, so in 2013 they took a lease on a two-acre Syrah vineyard in the Petaluma Gap. The vineyard hasn’t had any name recognition but it is sometimes referred to as the Fuller vineyard. Sean and Joanna farmed the two acres by hand organically. They do 100% whole cluster and native yeast fermentation, foot stomping and also foot punchdowns. The barrique is 100% neutral oak for 18 months and the wines are unfiltered and unfined.

I’m thrilled to find a new wine that I enjoyed this much and I can’t wait to see how this project and this special vineyard progress under such skilled tutelage.

Two Chilean Syrahs from Montes

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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.

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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

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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 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.

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.

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.

2013 Radio-Coteau Harrison Grade Sonoma Coast Syrah

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Syrah is serious business. Talking wine with Radio Coteau’s winemaker and owner Eric Sussman. 

I had a 2005 Las Colinas Radio-Coteau Syrah blend a couple of months ago that I wrote about here. It was a beautiful wine with lots of cool-climate character and a surprisingly high alcohol content (14.7%). A recent trip to Bodega Bay coincided perfectly with Radio-Coteau’s fall pick up open house day so I was able to make a stop in to taste. The wines were very high quality across the board, including a stand-out Riesling and an elegant old-school Zinfandel.

But, of course, I was there for the Syrah. Radio-Coteau makes five Syrahs, all of which accent cool-climate Syrah vineyards of the Sonoma Coast. All had classic cool-climate character and were balanced and age worthy but it was the estate Harrison Grade Syrah that piqued my interest the most and it was the wine I walked away with.

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Harrison Grade Estate Syrah

Day 1: High toned aromas of gravel and savory aromas accented with flowers and a somewhat pervasive aroma that reminds one of blood and white pepper. Yes, don’t be scared that’s something cool-climate Syrah sometimes has. There’s a little plum there on the nose too. It’s very reminiscent of the Northern Rhone. On the palate the wine has a pretty sweetness that belies its savory nose. The finish is rather tannic and has a lift of acidity that begs for rich food. I’d love to see how this wine tastes in a few years. But I have to say it’s beautiful now and tops my list for the best Syrah I’ve tasted this year. And, that’s saying a lot. There’s a balance to this wine that only comes along every once in a while.

Day 2: The wine was a tad fruitier with some more blackberry aromas and flavors replacing the blood and plum, but there’s still a hint of meatiness there in the background. It’s even more balanced and complete after some air which may be an indication of things to come.

Eric Sussman and crew have gone through somewhat of a transition in recent years. The wines were never overly rich but most come in at lower alcohol levels now, are fermented with native yeasts, and are treated in a mostly hands off manner. The wines see various degrees of stem inclusion depending on the vintage and quality of the stems. The Harrison Grade has 45% stem inclusion for the 2013. All the Syrahs are aged in puncheons (larger oak barrels) which lessens the impact of oak flavor on the wine. The Harrison Grade comes from Radio-Coteau’s Estate Vineyard.

These are Syrahs made in a style that I’ve found matches well with my preferences and the cool-climate vineyard sites pushes it right over the edge for me. I’ll be seeking out these Syrahs for years to come.

Thank you Eric Sussman for your time.  Thank you Rick LaRocca for your photographs.