Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Syrah, Syrah, Syrahs at Hospice du Rhône (and in Santa Barbara)

When we talk about “Rhône” grapes, we usually mean more than syrah; but also grenache, mourvèdre, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, and some sixteen other varieties, as well as blends of such, associated with the vast expanse of Southern France, from the Riviera to the Bay of Biscay (in this sense, these aren’t nearly so much Rhône Valley grapes as they are Southern French grapes).

Santa Barbara's Los Alamos Valley at sunset

But at the 2010 Hospice du Rhône (HdR) in Paso Robles this past April 30/May 1 (the 18th annual, if you’re counting), it did seem to be all about syrah for this simple reason: damned, these wines are good. Staggeringly, lawdy mama good. But how good? Which is to say, how good have California grown syrahs become, because those are the wines that dominate the yearly Hospice du Rhône (I wish there was more French, American Northwest and Australian representation at the HdR each year, but that’s the way it is).

It just so happened that one of the seminars featured at the 2010 HdR was about The Next Generation of Côte-Rôtie producers, and was centered around the wines produced by Domaine Michel & Stéphane Ogier. Now, you have to remember that when you talk about the “latest” things happening in nearly any wine region these days, it usually is a story about vignerons taking things backwards: returning to more natural, minimalist, less manipulative grape growing and vinification practices; recalling, perhaps, the work done two to six generations ago – with, of course, the benefit of hindsight, or the latest technical knowledge, at the disposal of the present day generation.

We may dig Côte-Rôties that are less redolent of new oak (in fact, aged strictly in oversized, old, neutral flavored wood rather than new Bordeaux or Burgundy barrels), with their flavors extracted by, say, gentle foot treading in small open vats rather than through continuous pumping over in big, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks; yet we certainly don’t want to see the oxidized, vinegary or Brettanomyces infected (i.e. dead-animal smelly) styles of wine that has plagued French wines of generations past.

That said, Ogier’s Côte-Rôties certainly were eye opening. The 2007 Domaine Ogier Lancement Côte-Rôtie, culled from family’s Côte Blonde plantings, had a beautifully sweet perfume of raspberry, orange peel, and smoky incense – the spices coming totally from the grape, not barrels – and were velvety rich, zippy, effortlessly poised, and tightly woven with rock solid tannin without being heavy, rough or fat. Ogier allowed that judicious pre-fermentation cold soaking in years like ’07 helps heighten the syrah expression; yet the Lancement remains finesseful, rather feminine – i.e. true to the terroir of the famed “blonde” slope.

Coming from their miniscule plot (.32 hectares) in the darker, clay/schistous terrain of Côte Brune (the “brunette”), the 2007 Domaine Ogier La Belle Hélène Côte-Rôtie posed the deeper, darker, earthier side of the syrah grape – damson plum and blackberry with a little less spiced perfume,, but little bit more of that scrubby, meaty sauvage – with a stony fullness, while still landing with every bit as much grace and finesse as the Lancement on the palate. It was interesting to note that Stéphane Ogier related spending time in Burgundy, and being influenced by the pains Burgundians take to retain transparency of grape and terroir in their wines, because you could certainly taste it here in the Hélène.

The significance? For three days just prior to HdR, I spent quality time with 38 sommeliers from around the country, touring through Santa Barbara as part of Sommelier Journal magazine’s annual Terroir Experience. We tasted tons of pinot noir and chardonnay, of course, but also some incredible syrah, grenache, and other Rhône style blends, red and white, now coming from this region. Naturally, the question came up during our tastings and discussions: since Santa Barbara grown syrahs are so good, do they now compare with the syrah based reds of the Northern Rhône Valley?

The answer to that question depends upon what you mean by “compare.” If you mean “better” in terms of grace, finesse, or transparency of grape and terroir, I have to say that nothing beats a Côte-Rôtie by Ogier, or a Cornas by Thierry Allemand, an Hermitage by M. Chapoutier, a Saint-Joseph by Philippe Faury, a Crozes-Hermitage by Alain Graillot, or any of those classic wines made by those French bastards lucky enough to be sitting on golden real estate.

If you talk about sheer variety of styles of syrah based reds – big wines, small wines, oaky wines, unoaked wines, earthy wines, pure fruit bomb wines, cheap wines, ridiculously expensive wines, etc. – then I have to say the Americans now give the French a run for their money in all areas except, perhaps, stratospheric price points. For Pete’s sake, if you’re looking for high quality wine from a .32 hectare parcel, you have to expect to shell out $200. Whereas, even the best American syrah producers haven’t quite attained that matrix of quality/quantity/demand/stupid-98+point-scores yet. But don’t hold your breath, because those cult wine collectors never really go away (they’re always on the look-out for ways of ruining things for us actual wine drinkers).

But when you talk about syrahs of “monumental” size, “hedonistic” fruit, or “opulent” intensity – to borrow the verbiage common to some of our more oft-quoted critics (who always sound like they’re talking about Big Mac or Cinnabon attacks rather than wine) – then I have to say that American grown syrahs now reign triumphant. Yeah, yeah, now it’s me who is sounding like this is some kind of contest; yet I have to say: from what I’ve been tasting lately, up and down the coast from Yakima and Walla Walla to Southern Oregon’s Rogue and Umpqua Valleys straight on down through Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara’s Los Alamos and Ballard Canyon, American grown syrahs take a backseat to none in terms of the wham-bam-who’s-your-daddy personality of the grape.

Let’s put this in further perspective: Takero Kobayashi. TK was the little guy who showed up for Nathan’s annual July 4 hot dog eating contest at around 130 pounds, putting away 50 to 60 of those wieners to win it six times in a row. Obviously, it was never the size but the artistry, the finesse, that did it for Takero san. Same for Côte-Rôtie: obviously, the French never have to pick it at 15% potential alcohol for their wines to achieve opulent, even hedonistic proportions. 13% always seem to do just fine, whereas West Coast syrahs need to be closer to 15% to reach those heights. That’s why it doesn’t make sense to even compare French vs. American grown syrahs.

Yet American syrahs can indeed be monumental. It has reached the point where it is possible to talk about American and French grown syrahs in the same way that we do other classic grapes: the fact that the best California chardonnays are now made in California, whereas the best Burgundian style chardonnays are now in Burgundy, France… and the same thing for cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and now syrah… it’s all good, depending upon the place. Comprenez-vous?

Enough of that – what did I like best during my most recent travels? These are my favorites in order of personal preference, as I sit today (05/12/2010), which will probably change a little by next week, indubitably more next month, and most certainly a lot by next year (another reason why I don’t do scores: they imply a permanence that simply doesn’t exist in the real world of wine appreciation). Re:

2007 Paul Lato, Cinematique Syrah; Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley
– Lately Paul Lato (the bastard!) has been ruining my life by forcing me to rethink the parameters of what this grape can do in the New World. Last year I was inspired by the Rogue Valley syrahs crafted by Ken Wright under his Tyrus Evan label because of the thickly hewn yet svelte, lingonberry and scrubby spice perfumes of his wines, epitomizing the grape as much as the consistent quality of the modest slew of similarly endowed syrahs that have recently emerged from Southern Oregon. But Mr. Lato’s syrahs seem to take things one step further. You want spice? You get that in spades and multiplicity (anise/fennel/cracked pepper/roasting coffee) in the ’07 Cinematique. Looking for varietal intensity? The luscious plum, violet and fraise liqueur-like perfumes are also here – something you can smell practically with your eyelids when you get close to the glass. Seeking transparency (nirvana for terroir lovers)? What do you call the rock-like structure, the velvet texture punctuated by racy acidity, and tight underpinnings of seamlessly rolled tannin – qualities common to this and other wines coming specifically from the Larner Vineyard in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon? If this is not part and parcel of the moderate climate and confluence of sandy, gravelly, limestone rich soils of these hillside plantings, I don’t know from Adam. Whatever the case, Mr. Lato’s syrahs ain’t no hollaback girls – they’re just the shit.

2007 Samsara, Syrah; Melville Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills – By Chad Melville of Santa Barbara’s Melville label wines: an even livelier, zestier style of syrah, yet absolutely brimming with sweetly perfumed, floral/violet, black and blueberry fruit with undertones of smoked sausage meats and ground pepper (why do good syrahs always come across like whole meals?). On the palate, the feel is suitably thick with tannin and popping, saturating, smoky-spicy fruit, cased in round, fleshy viscosity. This wine gives credence to the thinking just beginning to be spoken out loud these days: that the slightly warmer (middle and eastern), shallow, porous hillsides of Sta. Rita Hills are probably more suitable to syrah rather than to the pinot noir and chardonnay that currently dominating those slopes. What’s the sense, when you think about it, of always having to de-alcoholize pinot noir when picking them at peak ripeness in an AVA like Sta. Rita Hills? While 12%-13% alcohol reds are the norm in the Northern Rhône Valley, syrah is a beefy enough grape to taste perfectly well proportioned at 14%-15% alcohol, which is typical of the U.S. and South Australia. The only drawback, of course, is the considerably weaker market demand for syrah relative to pinot noir – right now, no one’s going to pull out pinot noir in order to plant syrah. Someone definitely needs to make a movie (Vertical rather than Sideways, with sleazy girls – or biker/chick-or-mama/winemakers – rather than guys, who you always expect to be sleazy anyway).

2008 Jaffurs, Syrah; Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley
– A meaty, viscous experience, four squared and hard-packed muscularity at the shoulders, yet bulging in the middle with plummy, mulberry-juicy, wild strawberry and violet laced fruit. According to Mr. Jaffurs – who works with enough fruit throughout Santa Barbara County to know the differences – the sand-over-limestone soil of vineyards like this, along Ballard Canyon Rd. in the center of Santa Ynez Valley, yields syrahs of Rhône-like spice and perfume “with seemingly little effort.” With, of course, more of a “New World” sense of power. Taking a page from new/old generation Rhône producers, Jaffurs utilizes partial foot stomping (in this wine, 43%) of whole clusters and an unfined/unfiltered regime to ramp up the intensity without sacrificing elegance (i.e. roundness and proportion).

2007 Jaffurs, Syrah; Verna’s Vineyard, Santa Barbara – Farmed by the Melville family in Los Alamos – an unofficially recognized sub-region of Santa Barbara sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley to the north and Santa Ynez Valley to the south, characterized by a moderate climate (slightly cooler than Ballard Canyon, but a tad warmer than Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley) and well drained hills of dusty sand and rocky loam. The ’07 Verna’s is a black velvet, purplish monster of a syrah – a little bigger (15.8% alc.) than most of what you find from nearby Ballard Canyon -- brimming with powerful, sweetly aromatic flavors more suggestive of scrubby herbs (reminiscent of Southern French garrigue), pungent tapenade, caramelized meats and crushed peppercorns than of the plain fruitiness found in most syrahs.

The Buffalo Hill at Rockpile Vineyard

2006 JC,
Buffalo Hill Syrah; Rockpile Vineyard, Rockpile – Gloriously perfumed, dramatically unfolding wine from Sonoma County’s Rockpile AVA, a region located north and west of Dry Creek Valley, and defined by 800-2100 ft. elevations (this vineyard located at the highest points). Vivid purplish red pigmentation and nose of violets, cracked pepper, dark roast coffee and blackberry liqueur; feeling thick and full, yet compact with muscled, fine grained tannins and acidity giving well defined edges. The peppery spiced fruit is augmented by sweet oak, extending long and energetically on the palate; the high toned qualities exhilarating the senses.

2007 Jaffurs, Syrah; Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley
– More muscled masses of red and violet perfumes – spraying peppery spice hither and yon – piled upon a concentrated, black fruit base, with mouthwatering, juicy flavors charging through the thick, supple tannin built into the wine’s bedrocked structure.

2007 Stolpman,
Angeli Syrah; Santa Ynez Valley - Super-sweet in spice, not fruitiness, with the violet scented qualities tinged by resiny kitchen herbs, lavender, roasted game meats and whole bushes of prickly wild berries, lashed across a burly, strapping, Samsonite frame; the tannins substantial, yet round and toothsome in a rare meaty sort of way.

2007 Jonata,
La Sangre de Jonata Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley – Aromatic suggestion of sprigs of rosemary with garrigue-like scrubbiness as well as cracked pepper spices; those qualities packed into this wine’s thick, dense, palate gripping, violet/flowery fruit concentration, yet finishing with a sleek, meticulously polished veneer.

2007 McPrice Meyers, Syrah; Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley
(3% co-fermented viognier) – Staggeringly deep, dark, violet and smoky spice inundated syrah concentration; yet amazingly compact, balanced, even lithe on the palate, despite a tangible feel of enormousness.

2008 Stolpman
Originals Syrah; Santa Ynez Valley – Borrowing an analogy from Bob Lindquist (in an attempt to explain the unexplainable), this wine makes you think of Shaquille O’Neal rumbling through one of his patented spins: burly yet balletic, going wild with unexpected fruit sensations. Whatever – here the syrah qualities are chiseled yet luscious, delectably deep, evolving on the palate with every sip.

Bien Nacido Vineyards

2008 Paul Lato,
Il Padrino Syrah; Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Maria Valley – Riper, flowery, cassis-like fruit sweetened further by pungent, smoky oak, mingling with peppery, ginger root spices and just a smidgen of black olive-like herbiness; immense feel on the palate, but mostly from the sheer concentration of smoky, spicy, earthy fruit rather than from alcohol or tannin; the wine rounding out towards the finish with a silky flourish.

2007 Jaffurs, Syrah; Thompson Vineyard, Santa Barbara – Another Los Alamos sourced wine, shooting out peppery spice from a moderately full, compacted core, portraying as much stony minerality as sweet, preserve-like berryishness; dense and muscular on the palate, the flavors sweetly spiced and scrubby.

2007 Rusack, Syrah; Santa Ynez Valley
– A saturated, generously compelling, velvet lined black box of a syrah emanating boysenberry, bitter chocolate and smoky French roast coffee spices, seeping through a thick core of tannin.

2007 Harrison Clarke, Cuvée Charlotte Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley – This hillside Ballard Canyon growth is rooted in limestone rich shards of chalk and porous sand; no doubt, lending the pure, ringing, flowery syrah qualities in the nose; on the palate, the wine turns thick and wild, with a black chocolate consistency, and flavors of concentrated dark berries, sweet anise and rolling, tumbling stones.

2007 JC, Haley’s Reserve Syrah; Rockpile Vineyard, Rockpile – Even thicker, denser than JC’s Buffalo Hill cuvée, with a little less baby fat in the middle. Otherwise, similar profile: floral, black liqueur-like nose, with smoky, peppery highlights and a touch of roasting meat; thickly textured, deeply extracted fruit qualities beefed up by muscular tannin and zesty edges, underlain by perceptively solid oak flavors.

2008 Justin, Focus; Paso Robles (4% Grenache): Black-purplish, riper, sweeter toned style than that of Santa Barbara, yet not without muscle under the outward layers of fat; nose of jammy fruit, steeped with anise and Chinese five-spice; big, thick, seriously rich yet balanced, buoyant on the palate, exuding explosive, heaping sensations of the spicy, jammy sensations signaled in the nose.

Beckmen Vineyards' Steve Beckmen with Stolpman's Sashi Moorman

2007 Beckmen,
Block Six Syrah; Purisima Mountain, Santa Ynez Valley – The style here is full yet round, pliant, although there are generous scoops of concentrated, chocolaty, almost dried berry/raisinette qualities in the nose and flavor; the tannins sturdy yet well rounded.

2008 Davis Family, Syrah; Russian River Valley – We are also beginning to see that in other fairly cool climate zones where pinot noir predominates (i.e. Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills and Sonoma Coast), perfectly rich, solid, well ripened syrahs can also be grown. Here, the nose is sweet, raspberry/framboise-like, with the violet varietal notes; the flavors are a little fat, or chubby, in the mouth, yet bright and vivid, hoisted by sturdy tannin and moderated oak. The main thing is the syrah definition, which this wine screams, despite the loosely woven structuring.

2007 Epoch Estate, Authenticity; Paso Robles (88% syrah; 12% mourvèdre) – One of the newer, promising Paso Robles based Rhône specialists; vivid black/purplish color, and nose of ripe cherry/strawberry with sweet, liqueur-like concentration; fat fruit qualities gushing over a full alcohol/tannin structure, making up in exuberance and satin texturing for what it might lack in subtlety.
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