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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The Petaluma Gap Wind to Wine Tasting

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The Petaluma Gap Wind to Wine event is one of the better wine tasting events around right now, it’s small, it’s easy to get a good sense of the appellation and it’s not too expensive. This year I’ve been invited to join a cool-climate Syrah panel where I’ll be talking Syrah with David Ramey, Duncan Meyers and moderated by Dan Berger from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Join us! I even have a discount code! And it’s my name!

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.petalumagap.com and your discount code is
*W2W_CYRUS*. Or just click on the following link: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/petaluma-gap-2016-wind-to-wine-festival-tickets-26991767102?discount=W2W_CYRUS

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.

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph Syrah?

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Gonon Saint Joseph 2011

So you want to get to know Saint Joseph, well here’s a good place to start.

There was a whisper among some of the Syrah geeks and winemakers about Gonon. Every once in a while when I mentioned Saint Joseph they would say that this was the textbook example, that this was the wine that most represented the appellation. They espoused its classic lightness on the palate and its savory minerality and I knew it was a wine I had to try.

The wine: Black olive, black pepper, pervasive gravel aromas, hints of something vegetal in the background, high-toned fresh plum. On first opening even with an aerator the wine was super tight. A day on the counter and it was much better but you could imagine it fleshing out even more over time. There’s a lot of acidity here but the tannins aren’t as pronounced as Syrah from other regions of the Northern Rhone. That’s in line with what I’ve come to expect from Saint Joseph and historically what the region has been known for, food-friendly reds that are versatile enough to go with steak, chicken, or even fish.

Gonon is an historic estate that Pierre Gonon gave to his sons Pierre and Jean in 1989. They’ve resisted the temptation of new oak and other modern techniques and focussed their energy on elevating the vineyard while maintaining the classic vinification process in the cellar. The result is that these wines are textbook examples of what St. Joseph has classically been and what it should always be; food-friendly, fresh wines, with a core of pure fruit, and savory aromas.

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 Ballard Canyon AVA Syrah Seminar from the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference

At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara I had the privilege of attending a Syrah tasting that introduced the wines of the recently approved Ballard Canyon AVA to the blogger community. I feel like a kid in a candy store at these kinds of events.  It’s rare that Syrah gets its own seminar and, much like last year’s Syrah event at the West of West tasting in Sebastopol, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

Patrick Comiskey moderated the event.  Patrick is writing a book on Rhone varieties in America and I’ve been wanting to meet him for a long time.  His opening remarks were a reprise of his recent talk at the Syrah conference up in Walla Walla.  He’s an expert on Syrah, and, in general, his ideas about what is going on with Syrah are right on. You can find the full text of his Walla Walla talk here.  To summarize, Patrick blames the declining state of Syrah in America on the fact that it has been planted in areas that haven’t embraced its inherent wildness.  When Syrah isn’t wild it simply isn’t good. It’s dull, jammy fruit and oak, and rather non-descript.

To me, Syrah expresses its wildness best in cool climates. In recent years I’ve had some good examples of “wild” Syrah planted in warmer climates but, in general, I still say that Syrah does best  with cooler climate influences that accentuate its wild, savory side.

And that brings us to Ballard Canyon.  The recently approved AVA is one that will be mostly dedicated to Syrah.  Peter Stolpman, as the elected head of  Ballard Canyon, represents an unparalleled collective of Syrah-based wineries. While not an extreme cool-climate site by any means, its area, like many parts of Santa Barbara County, has a lot of maritime influence.  Comiskey has called it, “a warm spot in a cool place.”  According to geology buff Michael Larner, of Ballard Canyon’s Larner Wines, the soils of the area are mostly sand.  The sand has the effect of stressing the vines which leads to an intensity of fruit.  Beneath the sand lies a chalky limestone soil that lends complexity and interest.  This combination of soil influences, along with windy maritime afternoons which keep temperatures from rising too high, makes for a Syrah of power and elegance.

The following are my notes from a tasting of six wines that the Ballard collective chose to represent the new AVA.  Forgive my lack of detail for some of the wines; I was so blissed out by all the talk of Syrah that I didn’t take the greatest notes. Hopefully, they will give a sense of the uniqueness of Ballard Canyon.

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The first three wines poured and waiting.

Kimsey Vineyard
This is a new project, not yet released, from long-time vineyard manager for the area, Ruben Solorzano.  The wine had some cool-climate character but verged a little too much into the warmer style.  Good energy on the mid-plate though, with a nice bitter chocolate finish.  As in all of these wines, a good combination of concentration and energy.

Beckman 
Beckman is a name that’s synonymous with Syrah in Santa Barbara county.  Their Ballard Canyon Syrah is  2012 La Purisima Mountain Syrah.  I have found most of their Syrah bottlings to be a little too ripe and too big for me and the La Purisima was no exception but it did have good energy and acidity.

Steve Beckman referred to the wine as a combination of cool and warm climates and I think that’s a fair description.  It had some cool-climate character but embraces warm climate while maintaining the structure and acidity of a cool-climate wine.

Stolpman Vineyards
The 2012 Stolpman Originals Syrah ranged a tad more into the cool-climate style than the previous two.  It had beautiful fruit but also this untamed, meaty element that revealed its true Syrah character.  A great wine to represent Ballard Canyon.

Rusack
The 2012 Rusack Reserve Syrah was a nice wine and many of the people at the tasting liked it but for me it simply had too much new oak.  I got some chocolate aromas and it did have that characteristic of concentration and acidity.

Harrison Clarke
The 2010 Cuvee Charlotte Syrah was a bigger wine but maintained some good acidity.  These wines all have a complexity and acidity behind the big fruit but this was a tad too big.

Larner 
The 2010 Larner Estate Syrah was too big for me, also. A warmer and somewhat extracted style for sure.  Again the characteristic of concentration and ripeness was there.

Jonata
The 2010 Sangre de Jonata Syrah was my favorite of the bunch and, unfortunately, at $125 is probably a wine I’ll never purchase.  It had the most elegance of the bunch and had a bit of green character that I like.  Most of the people I talked to disliked it because it had that leafy character. I appreciated its lift, purity, and elegance.

Overall, Ballard Canyon impressed me with the concentration and energy on the mid palate, though I would like to see that dialed back a bit, possibly by picking the grapes earlier.  These are great iterations of Syrah and will do well in the marketplace. They’re a wonderful ambassador for Syrah because of that unique combination of warm and cool climates.  I look forward to seeing how this AVA develops. It’s a step in the right direction for planting Syrah firmly back into the landscape of California wine.

Tasting older vintages of California Syrah with Fred Swan

A couple of weekends ago I tasted some older Syrah with Fred Swan from NorCal wine blog. Fred and I have been Facebook friends for a while now but we had only met in person once. Last time we met at a Rhone Rangers tasting in Oakland we talked about our shared love for Syrah and how we should get together for a Syrah tasting. I had two bottles of Copain Syrah from the early oughts and we decided to do a tasting of Syrah from the early part of the last decade.

I showed up to Fred’s house with my two bottles of Copain and was happily surprised to see about 15 bottles of Syrah, all from the early 2000’s. Apparently Fred has a pretty big personal cellar and lucky me, he was willing to share.

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The flights getting ready for take off

The most amazing thing about opportunities like these is that you get to taste wines that you never would have bought. Even though many of the wines were not my style I see them as part of an education and this was an enlightening day that confirmed my allegiance to cool climate Syrah.

We started the tasting with a flight of wines that included the two Copains that I’d brought. These wines were the most cool climate of the bunch, the Copains were from Eaglepoint Ranch and the Brokenleg Vineyard in Anderson Valley. I was especially interested in these wines not only because of their cool climate sites but also because of the change in style that Copain has gone through over the years. I was interested to see how they held up over the years as the style has changed. Based on what I had read and the alcohol level of these two wines, I was expecting them to be pretty big and rich but that wasn’t the case.

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Empty glasses await

The 2002 Copain Broken Leg was a high- toned wine with savory aromas of olive, blood, and iron. There was also a rather interesting aroma of what I could only describe as insect or maybe insect spray, not as bad as you would think. Classicly cool-climate with a meaty mid-palate and a pretty big, tannic finish. Even after twelve years, this was a dry wine. To me, not a wine that was too big or lacking in any acidity. A beautifully made wine that’s in a good place.

The 2002 Eaglepoint Ranch was also a classically cool-climate wine. Gorgeous nose of dust and sweet plum, and aromas of meat and gravel with some red fruit. Also super dry, these are wines that I suspected would taste better the longer they were open, and Fred confirmed that was true.

The 2003 Nickel and Nickel Darien vineyard was in the same flight because of it’s slightly more northern and coastal bent. To me, the wine was a warmer style, more vanilla notes and blue fruit, although it also had a nice dry finish. I wouldn’t say it was over-oaked but you could tell the oak was a bigger influence. Surprising that the Eaglepoint and the Darien were the same alcohol level because they were very different wines making me think that oak usage and winemaking practice has just as much to do with how the wine will taste as anything else.

The next flight were wines from the Central Coast the first of which was the Qupe 2001 Central Coast Syrah. This was a fun wine to taste for me because it was a wine that I drank a lot of during the time of it’s release. I don’t remember exactly what it tasted like then, but I do remember it was a Syrah that always had a warm climate bent but with some good savory aromas also. The wine on first opening had an unbelievable aroma of barnyard. Nothing less than a horse’s ass in this case. The horse manure smell was slightly integrated and truth be told the wine was not all that bad. It has held up well over the years, especially for a wine that probably sold for under $15 upon release.

The 2001 Qupe Purisima Canyon smelled bretty, yet turned out to be corked. Unfortunate. I was looking forward to tasting this wine, especially after so many years of aging.

The next two wines were wines from Adam Tolmach at Ojai. These were benchmark Syrahs for years and years (and still are) and I was excited to see how they had aged. Like Guthrie at Copain, Tolmach went through a change in philosophy. He now picks his wine at lower levels of alcohol and with higher levels of acidity.

The 2002 Ojai Thompson had a great nose of blackberries and some meaty aromas and after those enticing aromas, I was excited to taste it. Unfortunately, the wine sort of fell apart on the mid palate. It just seemed flat and empty and just had very little acidity to give it balance. So, in my opinion, Adam made a great choice in picking wines at higher levels of acidity. Of course Fred made a great point in that few people age their wines 12 years these days. But still, to me, the wine just fell flat and it was hard to imagine that it would have had enough acidity in its inception.

The 2002 Ojai White Hawk was much the same. The wine had a pretty meaty nose but it just really fell apart on the mid-plate and had a lack of structure.

The 2002 Ojai Roll Ranch at 15% alcohol was really the biggest of the bunch. This wine to me was verging on a port-style wine with stewy fruit flavors that made me think of a liqueur. Again the line really fell flat on the mid palate and for me was eye-wateringly alcoholic.

The strange thing is that the first two wines in the flight had an alcohol level of 14.5% for the Thompson and 14% for the White Hawk. Not exactly over-the-top by any means, also right on level with the Copains. It’s a strange comparison that doesn’t quite fit in to the nice little box that I was hoping it would but, all in al,l I would say that as far as the wines’ aging potential I think Tolmach made the right decision to embrace more acidity in his wines to give them more structure in the mid-palate.

The next flight were Carneros wines from 2003 and 2004, these are also pretty big wines, the most instructive being the Nickel and Nickel Dyer vineyard Syrah. I liked this wine the best in comparison with the Nickel and Nickel Hudson vineyard and the Cline Los Carneros which I felt to be too big and blowsy. Yet, out of the other six people in the tasting I was the only one to like the wine, the others felt it was too sour and astringent. In my defense, I think I was just craving something with more structure on the mid palate after the accompanying wines fell flat.

For out last flight we moved into a realm of Syrah that for the most part I try to stay away from. These were some of the big bruisers of the Paso and the Central Coast. They weren’t actually as bad as I thought they would be but certainly not wines I would seek out.

The first wine was the 2003 Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah at 14.9% alcohol. To me it was not necessarily a bad wine but just too big and evoked stewed, cooked fruit rather than fresh fruit that I look for. For many at the tasting, this wine had a delicious factor that they liked, for me, it was just too one note and overly rich.

The 2003 Justin Paso Robles Syrah at 15% alcohol was a jammy wine that again seemed too big to me but not a wine that I thought was necessarily poorly made.

The last wine of the tasting was the 2003 Wente Nth degree Syrah from the San Francisco Bay AVA. If you like wines that taste like dessert, with the pastry and the dessert wine all mixed together then this is the wine for you. I had this pegged as the wine with the most alcohol at the tasting but it turned out to only be 13.5%. Surprising because it tasted like raisin liqueur and apple pie to me.

So what can be said in terms of generalizations from the tasting? First of all, I think that acidity really does play into how wines age if you believe they should have structure and freshness but alcohol simply cannot be the only indicator as to how a wine can age. The Copains with their 14% alcohol were way more structured and fresh tasting than the Ojais with the same alcohol level. Site differentiations that produce unique ph levels to balance out the alcohol may play into how the finished wine will bear out. But then, based on the subsequent flights I think there might be a point where no matter how much acidity the wine might have, if the alcohol level is too high it simply won’t have much backbone after a few years of age. Put more simply, wines from cooler climates or soils with high ph levels might have higher acidity levels that balance out the alcohol whereas wines with from warmer climates simply turn flabby at the same level of alcohol.

The larger point that Fred brought up as to whether or not anybody really cares about twelve year old Syrah is a pretty interesting one and the truth is he’s probably right. Most people drink their wine within a few hours of purchase so the reality is that Fred’s got a point. I still think that wines should be built to age regardless of when they actually will be drunk. That’s probably one of the main challenges for many California winemakers, to make wines that are both attractive to consumers who want to drink wine when they buy it and also can be aged with success. All of this also depends on the winemaker’s ethos also. I know that Wells Guthrie has said that he suffered from an exodus from the mailing list when he changed his philosophy and began picking at higher levels of acidity. (I think it’s since rebounded quite nicely.)

This was an instructive tasting and one I was happy to be a part of. As often happens when tasting and thinking about wine, as many questions were raised as answered. And that’s what keeps us coming back.

Fred and I

Many thanks to Fred and his wife Eva for their hospitality