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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Three Vintages of Halcón Alturas Syrah: Highly Recommended Cool-climate CA Syrah

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I’d been holding on to a 2011 Halcón Alturas Syrah while waiting to find a time to meet up with Paul Gordon, the owner, and when I was able to find a 2012, I decided to do a post on the different vintages. Paul and I met up and I was also able to taste the recently released 2013.

The 2011 really impressed me right out of the gate. There’s intriguing fig, pepper, brambly blackberry, cranberry aromas and something on the edge of herbal. This is a delicious-smelling wine, it just keeps you coming back for more. And it delivers on the palate too, good structure and energy on the mid-palate. Almost like biting into a fresh piece of fruit. The tannins on the finish are present but they’re approachable.

This wine reminds me a lot of the impressive 2009 Halcón Alturas I had, but I think I even like it more. It’s just a beautifully enticing, and delicious Syrah.

The 2012 is equally as pleasing, perhaps a bit more open and full but it still has a savory element, this time it reminds me of mushroom soup, and those enticing fruit aromas are there too with possibly a little more oak coming through at the moment.

Halcón Alturas’s 2013 wine is also delicious if not more than a little different in its aroma and textural character. This is the first year that the Halcón has used about 1/3 whole cluster on their Syrah and it’s given the wine a structure and ageability that may not have been there in its previous iterations. With vine age they’ve finally felt that they’ve started to get the first real lignification(maturation) of the stems which allowed them to consider using whole cluster.

With that structure and mouth feel comes a little bit of a downside in that the 2013 at the moment that I tasted it was less expressive and open than the other wines. I got a peppery spiciness mixed in with some brambly-bright blackberry and plum but the wine seemed a little reticent. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a spectacular wine, while not totally complete at the moment, that will develop into something even better with a little more age.

Of the wines so far, the 2011 version is probably my favorite but the 2012 and the 2009 are close seconds. I have a feeling that the 2013 will develop into something brilliant and I look forward to that progression.

I think there’s something special about Syrah grown in the Yorkville Highlands, it seems to be the perfect combination of cool and warm climate that produces Syrah with intensely aromatic qualities and full, round mid-palates. In my opinion,  are really making the wine with the right recipe, unfined, unfiltered, a little bit of new oak from large puncheons and, at least in the 2013, just the right amount of stem inclusion.

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Paul and Jackie talking about whole cluster inclusion on the 2013. 

Paul Gordon and Jackie Bracey are the masterminds behind Halcón and the ones who decided to plant Syrah in such an unlikely place. Scott Shapley is the winemaker at the Roar facility which is situated in a rather mammoth warehouse in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco. Paul and Jackie have ideas to eventually move up to their vineyard in the next few years and will eventually take over the winemaking themselves.

The vineyard itself lies in the western edge of the Yorkville Highlands Wine Region which begins west of Cloverdale on the way to the Anderson Valley. Most of the wine in the area is, somewhat strangely, planted to Bordeaux varieties but it’s a spot where Syrah really shines, especially at the higher, sunnier (read: above the fog line) elevations. And at 2500 feet this is one of the higher elevation vineyards in all of California.

It’s a special place and one that deserves more attention for Syrah. I was lucky to be able to get a sense of how the wines are progressing through the vintages as the vineyard matures and I think I can say, without any reservation, that good things lie on the horizon for Halcón Vineyards and I’ll be there waiting for the next glass.