Archive for Red

Jul
16

Old World Classics

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The wine world has greatly changed over the past twenty years and will continue to change as time rolls on. The lines of typicity and authenticity for each region, each wine is getting blurred by the dramatic improvements both in working the vineyards and in the winery. What are classic wines today? Here are four that we think fit the bill. We will serve them blind, just for fun! Please join us on this journey.

2014 Domaine de Durban Beaumes de Venise–We thought this wine was important to show because of it’s wonderful savoriness.  We find savoriness can very important when considering food pairing.  The Leydier family took over this ancient site in the 1960’s.  Although located in France’s southern Rhone Valley, their Grenache based red wines (this one  typically roughly 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah & 5% Mourvedre) are very different from the other, more famous villages, partly because of the grape mix, the vineyard’s soils & special microclimate.  “To walk through the high-altitude vineyards at Domaine de Durban is to walk through an astounding span of history. On the site of a former Roman healing springs destination, a mere handful of soil reveals well-preserved, ancient Roman roof tiles and medieval pot shards. The domaine and its vineyards sit atop a picturesque plateau in the Vaucluse, sheltered by the Dentelles de Montmirail, just above of the village of Beaumes-de-Venise.   A constellation of fortune seems to converge at this particular spot. Pine trees protect the area from the intensity of the persistent mistral. The soils are rich and deep, with clay, limestone, and the soft, ochre Trias, (quite different from the flatter, lower elevation vineyards of sand, clay & galet stones of the neighboring villages), lending finesse and freshness to their wines. The high altitude in the vineyards means a slightly cooler microclimate with strong sun exposure, a blessing that the Leydiers credit for the amazing consistency their wines enjoy year after year“.

2005 López de Heredia Rioja Reserva “Bosconia”–this truly iconic Rioja estate is one of the few who still follow the traditions which Rioja is historically world renown for.  This family has preserved for over 130 years of running this estate & their inclusive vineyards, the 2 most notable–Bosconia & Tondonia.  This 2005 Bosconia is classic Rioja–Tempranillo (80% or so), Garnacho (15% or so), Mazuelo and Graciano, spending 5 years in barrel.  It’s no wonder that this venerable Rioja star & its Tempranillo based reds in all its glory, is the rage among the sommelier community across the country.

2012 A & G Fantino Barolo “Dardi”–we were so thankful this estate came on our radar screen.  For me, it is getting harder & harder to find small, artisan Barolo-ists like this, who own & farm these kinds of special vineyard parcels & grow & craft more classical styled wines with this kind of pedigree, old style typicity, authenticity & personal touch.   In addition, their wines have a wonderful purity/transparency & though quite masculine in its core, they still offer elegance & refinement, rather than being coarse, (especially in its youth), surprisingly accessible (without the use of roto fermentors) & controversially rustic.  “The Fantinos are also blessed with some of the oldest vines in the entire Barolo zone, thanks to the fastidious care given to them by Alessandro and Gian Natale. Planted in 1946 and 1947 and pruned in an old style that is very labor intensive. Barolos from Bussia tend to have deep color and rich fruit and while they don’t lack the classic tannic structure of Nebbiolo from this part of the world, they are not nearly as hard as the Barolos from the southside of Monforte or from Serralunga”.

2015 Faury St Joseph–we absolutely love the nose of this wine-exotically perfumed, gamey, peppery & lavender scented–as it does capture the core of what the Syrah grape variety can be.  The vines were planted in 1979 & 2007 on steep terraced hillsides.  “The steep slopes of the northern Rhône present a challenging terrain where farming is only feasible through terracing. On these terraced slopes, the Faurys’ vines take full advantage of the southern and southeastern sun exposure, benefitting from optimum ripening.  A combination of the predominately granitic soil, partial de-stemming (in about 70% of the grapes), soft crushing of the grapes with a pneumatic press, and temperature controlled fermentation offer a liveliness and freshness that one does not often find in wines from the northern Rhône.  There’s a real attention to detail here, and nothing is done in haste.  Every method used encourages the grape towards greatness with the ultimate respect for its fragility.  Pigeage, the punching of the cap, is not carried out with tools, but gently by foot – not just poetic but also pragmatic.  Unlike many other vignerons in the region, the Faurys have a strong aversion to new oak. Though the reds definitely see time in barrels, there is a rotation between new and old alike, along with a variety of sizes, ranging from the smaller barriques to the larger 600-liter demi-muids. 

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Jul
15

A Quartet of Tuscan Sangiovese

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Back in the 1970’s, when I was just getting into wines, Tuscany had its share of controversy. In America, because of the great notoriety the name Chianti had, its straw flask and often elaborate/twisted shaped bottles, Chianti was synonymous with Italian red wine for the dinner table. Soon there was a sea of plonk coming out of the region to feed the HUGE demand. It was the tireless crusading of regional champions like Piero Antinori and the emergence of superstar winemaking and grape growing consultants, which thankfully moved Tuscany from misery and lackluster to superstardom once again. The quality pendulum then swung to the far side with the extreme use of Cabernet Sauvignon and new French barrique to the point where the resulting wines could be confused as not tasting Italian. The Sangiovese grape variety can fade into the background, I have found, with as little as 15% Cabernet blended in. So, where is the median, that point where better grape growing and winemaking can produce something noteworthy, yet still Tuscan? That was inspiration for this tasting! 

2012 Poggio Scalette Chianti Classico–Back in the 1970’s, we saw the emergence of consulting enologists, especially in Tuscany, and we subsequently witnessed a rise in the quality of the Tuscan wines. One of the three most prominent stars was Vittorio Fiore. Poggio Scalette is his own most prized property (today run by his son Jurg). It is located in Ruffoli, 1400 feet up above the town of Greve & its very rocky soils. It is truly a magnificent vineyard, whose grapes are done with elegance, refinement and class, while still be thankfully true to its Italian heritage.  Their 2012 Chianti Classico is 100% Sangiovese di Lamole, 10 months in cement, to highlight this wonderful heirloom vine which is grown in this very special site. 

2010 Villa di Geggiano Chianti Classico “Riserva”–This estate produces wines of sheer elegance and class, while still being vehemently Tuscan. Here is the highly acclaimed 2010–97% Sangiovese, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in clay, silt, sand, limestone soils.  90%–20 months in 500L & 10% 225L French barrels (15% new) AND then an additional 12 months in 12HL & 20HL botti. 

2010 Villa Artimino Carmignano–Carmignano was granted DOC in 1975 & then DOCG status in 1990 and is today one of Italy’s smallest DOCG’s, roughly 270 acres planted and only twelve or so producers. It was also one of the original appellations permitted to use (up to 10 to 20%) Cabernet Sauvignon and later Cab Franc, in their blends. Here is one of the top estates.  “Villa Artimino is truly a historical site. There is a rich history on this property dating back to the Renaissance period, when ancients such as Galileo & da Vinci once visited. And it is here that Italy’s 1st wine was produced under the DOC rules (which was Carmignano, the answer to a wine-geeky trivia question!) back in 1716”. 

2009 Fontodi Chianti Classico Riserva “Poggio al Sorbo”–When I was growing up in this industry, Fontodi was one of the two Tuscan standouts others were measured by, showcasing the world class skill of then pioneering consultant Franco Bernabei. Rather than resting on its laurels, this venerable estate is producing their best wines of all time. Here is their highly acclaimed 2009 Riserva “Poggio al Sorbo”–I was told 100% Sangiovese (their own heirloom vine), 24 months in Troncais & Allier barrique, 50% new.  94/95 point rating.

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The illustrious Domaine Tempier has shown that the Mourvedre grape variety can result in something special and soulful, all in a very unique manner. While many others have valiantly tried to grow and produce another rendition of that top rung, somehow the results don’t offer the same kind of magic. Still, because of the limited availability and rising prices of the Tempier Bandol, we continue to look. Here are four new standouts, maybe not quite at the level of Tempier, but certainly very interesting in its own right and well worth checking out! Join us on this search! 

2013 Chateau La Roque Mourvedre “Vieilles Vignes”–Here is yet another completely different take on what the Mourvedre grape variety can be. While Mourvedre seems to flourish in the soils and climates of southern France, especially in a wild countryside with clay/limestone soils and a fierce mistral wind to keep vines healthy. To really make superb renditions, however, one has to really almost coddle and nurture this vine and it is not as easy as one would think. Well, since the Romans cleared and planted this vineyard way back when, one can say, the vine has had hundreds of years to prove its worth. If it didn’t result in something special it would have been long gone.

2012 Domaine du Joncier Lirac “Les Muses”–Here is a completely different “look” to what this grape variety can be.  “The estate’s terraced vineyards of alluvial soil and galets roulés mirror Châteauneuf’s terraces right across the river. Cuvée Les Muses, an inky blend made predominately with Mourvèdre, which owner/winemaker Marine Roussel masterfully crafts into a masculine, suave red wine of wonderful balance, purity and minerality—a noble, if not challenging, goal given the sunbaked terroirs she farms”.

 

2013 Domaine de la Tour du Bon Bandol–Who says the Mourvedre grape variety can only produce, hearty, masculine, rugged wines? Here is the proof that does NOT have to be so.  “Domaine de la Tour du Bon rests peacefully atop a limestone plateau in Le Brûlat du Castellet, in the northwestern corner of the A.O.C. Bandol. Nestled beneath the mountains to the North, it is a bastion of tranquility, an oasis on the Mediterranean surrounded by beautiful gardens and vineyards.   Today, Agnès Henry runs the show, crafting wines with power and precision, but also finesse and charm. Who better to understand how to make the wine than the person who knows the story of the land the best?   Fourteen hectares of red earth, clay, sand, and gravel rest upon sturdy limestone bedrock. Brow-beating excavation and focused determination alone have built these vineyards”.

2008 Domaine du Gros Noré Bandol–We end this tasting with a slightly aged Mourvedre beast—the wild side of what this variety can be.  “Alain Pascal could be a character pulled right out of a Marcel Pagnol novel—a kind of Provençal Hercules. He is a strong, husky man with hands the size of bear claws. That he is a former boxer and an avid hunter should be no surprise, yet his physique matches both his spirit and his wine—this gentle giant and his cuvées are all heart. Kermit–“Magnificent Bandols made in the simplest manner, très franc de goût, with a whole lotta soul.”.

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Jul
02

Italian Barbera

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In the old days I would stumble upon a Piemontese Barbera & think to myself imagine the possibilities of what can be.  Barbera can produce & make really interesting AND food friendly red wine.  One of the big challenges it faced was living in the shadow of the highly esteemed Nebbiolo…..the grape variety used to produce Barbaresco & Barolo.  It was, after all, these appellations & wines which would draw so much fanfare within & to the region, even before their regional truffle came onto the mass American radar screen. 

Because of this, many of the finest sites (& MUCH attention) was devoted to Nebbiolo.  If Nebbiolo fared well in a spot, it was planted.  If it didn’t, then other indigenous grape vines were planted–Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino, Ruche, Croatina AND Barbera, just to name a few.

While those “other” grape varieties can be interesting & a really good drink, Barbera for me, was a possible though distant heir apparent to the throne.  It was capable of making interesting wine which could have character, mojo, tremendous food friendliness AND, it was much easier to grow.

The real challenge is Barbera actually likes to over produce.  It grows & loves to grow.

One of the secrets then is how does one harness its energy & attributes–essentially tame it, first in the vineyard & then in the winery.

I would further add that Piemonte is also the home to some of the world’s finest truffle.  Their vines therefore share the same soils as their truffle.  While, one may not get a “truffle”-ness in the wines, in my opinion, I find similar kind of pungency & savoriness in their core & that is another reason why good renditions can work well at the dining table.

Two of the early champions for me of this grape variety were the Coppo brothers with their Barbera d’Asti “Camp du Rouss” & Giacomo Bologna with his Braida Barbera d’Asti “Bricco dell’ Uccellone”.  Both created quite the sensation & really made others rethink what this grape variety could be.  Needless to say, the category grew in availability here in the U.S., in most cases however, with either wines overdone or wines that seemed like they were secondary to the winery–something I consider when buying each bottle & from each producer.

There are some very good Barbera out there that will show you what can be, but one just has to be very selective.  Here are several we tasted recently which are well worth checking out. 

Elvio Tintero Rosso–this bottling is not 100% Barbera.  It is also not labeled with a vintage.  I included this “country” wine because more often than not it is predominately Barbera & because it is delicious, food friendly & so gulpable.  This is the kind of wine one pops open when friends come over just to hang out &/or talk story.  Unpretentious, thirst quenching & brings a smile to your face with each gulp.  PLUS, it is a GREAT VALUE. 

2015 Cantine Valpane Barbera del Monferrato–what a discovery this has been for us!  It is a more meaty, musk oriented rendition–dark & intriguing in its core–with lots of character & mojo at an almost silly price, it is so reasonable.  It will never be confused as being Cru in quality, but it is very pleasurable, is an interesting drink AND does really over deliver for the dollar spent. 

2011 Cavallotto Barbera d’Alba “Vigna del Cuculo”–I am a HUGE fan of Cavallotto & their wines.  They have such purity, etherealness & refinement, done with wonderful texture, balance & transparency.  This wine comes from their Bricco Boschis Cru (wild yeast fermented & aged for 15 to 18 months in oak) & is one to search out for if you are looking for superb, interesting, classy, well made Piemontese red wine at surprisingly reasonable prices. 

2016 Giuseppe Cortese Barbera d’Alba–this is yet another winery who crafts very elegant, refined red wines & one of our favorites from Barbaresco.  The winery (& their house above) is located just above the iconic & breathtaking Rabajà CRU. Their Barbera (7/10’s of a hectare–planted in 1968), however, comes from the “other” side of the hill, 600 to 800 feet in elevation–Trifolera–on one of the 3 crests between the great Rabajà & Martinega CRUs.

SUPER Barbera.  While these are all quite good & interesting, these next 2 are really in a different class, which is why I refer to them as SUPER Barbera.

2009 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba “Cascina Francia”–As many have noted on line, this is considered the best of what Piemontese Barbera can be.  Here are some of my notes previously posted in this blog after our trip to Piemonte in 2016.  Giacomo Conterno is run by the current generation–Roberto Conterno.  Roberto said the estate vineyard, (a former wheat field)Francia was planted in 1974–9HA of Nebbiolo & 5HA Barbera.  (most sites however say that Francia was purchased & planted in 1976 & the first vintage was 1978).  In 2008, Conterno also purchased 3HA of Ceretta vineyard (1HA of Barbera).  Although these vineyards are only about 2km apart as the crow flies, the soils are so very different (Francia–more calcareous & Ceretta more clay)….& the wines are therefore very different.  (In 2015, Conterno also purchased a little less than 6HA of Arione vineyard, but is currently 100% Nebbiolo).  The 2 Barbera d’Alba we tried, both from 2014 were obviously different.  The 2014 Barbera d’Alba “Francia” was much more musky, masculine with more obvious mojo & distinct rocky, mineral & saltiness in character.  The 2014 Barbera d’Alba “Ceretta”, on the other hand, although made virtually the same way offered much more bay leaf, spice & a savoriness on a much more elegant, refined frame“.  On this night we tried the 2009 Barbera d’Alba “Cascina Francia”.  I was really taken by the class, character & impressive harmony this wine displayed, even at only 9 years of age.  I had not previously consciously really considered whether Barbera got better with age.  (I had previously only sampled slightly aged Coppo Barbera d’Asti “Camp du Rouss” & Braida “Bricco dell Uccellone” before & those wines did NOT wow me like this wine did).   While his Nebbiolo may have more pedigree, this 9 year old Barbera’s vinosity, harmony, balance & savoriness was really compelling & therefore a terrific drink.  Definitely impressive & I definitely learned a thing or two with this wine.

2012 Vietti Barbera d’Alba “Vigna Vecchia Scarrone”–here is another SUPER Barbera, one that like the Conterno “Francia”, supersedes any of its neighbors’ renditions. Located in the Castiglione Falletto commune, the Scarrone Cru has but 1 hectare of 90 plus year old Barbera vines.  Luca, in fact, vehemently believed in this wine & convinced his father they should keep their small parcel of old vine Barbera in this esteemed Barolo entitled vineyard (Scarrone) instead of replanting or grafting over to Nebbiolo.  This was a REALLY big deal!  Such a big leap of faith to say the least!  I absolutely loved the savory, roasted chestnut/sandalwood character of this bottling & its divine elegance, class & refinement.  Truly a standout!  Whether it is worth the price tag or not is up to the taster, but I will say, this is truly some kind of Barbera.

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Dec
22

A Quartet of Gamay Noir 10-19-17

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I have been an admitted Gamay Noir/Beaujolais fan for sooooo many years. I still can’t understand why this category of wines is not blazing in popularity. How can one not love the deliciousness, the lightness of weight (viscosity) and heavenly gulpability of a slightly chilled Beaujolais AND, at such ridiculously reasonable prices. Well, here are a couple of other tidbits which might whet your appetite even more. They’ve genetically proven Gamay Noir is a descendent of Pinot Noir, which at least partially explains the deliciousness and incredible food compatability. We did one Gamay Noir tasting back at the end of August. We now look to yet another, with four DIFFERENT examples……each about deliciousness, food friendliness & gulpability. To make things even more fun, we will serve them BLIND!

2013 Stéphane Aviron Chenas “Vieilles Vignes”–Typically the Cru Village of Chenas produces more a masculine style of Beaujolais with lots of mojo.   “Stéphane Aviron uses old vine parcels & creates very expressive, age-worthy wines relying on traditional and new methods, including organic and biodynamic vineyard management. His wines are authentic in every way & drink like fine Burgundy. This Chenas is produced from pre-phylloxera vines that average over 100 years old. Yes, this is standout Cru Beaujolais! 

2014 Maison L’Envoye Morgon “Cote de Py”–The appellation’s finest vineyards are along the Côte du Py. Here is one from 40 to 50 year old vines planted in schist soils rich in manganese and iron. This soil structure provides a gunflint/mineral edge to the typical raspberry/dark red fruit nuances. This is true Cru Beaujolais, just like the old days–delicious, food friendly & gulpable in style. 

2013 Stéphane Aviron Morgon “Cote de Py”–The Morgon Cote du Py is Stéphane Aviron’s most structured, earthy wine. The grapes are sourced from the slopes of an 1150-foot inactive volcano that is regarded as one of the top terroirs in all of Beaujolais. The 40 to 50 year old vines face due south on a well pitched hillside of poor sandy soil. The wine is aged for 12 to 14 months in new & old barrels”–much more vanguard in style. 

2014 Quenard Gamay Noir “Chignin”–This is old vine Gamay Noir grown in the steep, terraced, limestone scree soils found in the foothills of the French Alps at truly dazzling heights. This was a chance to try another delicious, food friendly Gamay Noir from a different perspective.  This wine was much more open with its charm, vibrant personality & rustic scented perfume with a solid frame & firm tannins.

 

 

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Dec
22

A Quartet of Gamay Noir 08-31-17

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I have been an admitted Gamay Noir/Beaujolais fan for sooooo many years. How can one not love the deliciousness, the lightness of weight (viscosity) and heavenly gulpability of a slightly chilled Beaujolais? Well, here are a couple of other tidbits which might whet your appetite even more. They’ve genetically proven Gamay Noir is a descendent of Pinot Noir, which at least partially explains the deliciousness and incredible food compatability. Furthermore, the “Gang of Four” revolutionized and then took this grape variety and the region to a whole ‘nother level, following the principles of Jules Chauvet. So…on this night, we will try renditions from three Chauvet-ists AND then one mystery rendition, just to mix it up. To make things even more fun, we will serve them BLIND! 

2013 Robert-Denogent Beaujolais Villages “Cuvée Jules Chauvet”–wonderfully delicious, interesting, gulpable Beaujolais at its best from Jean Jacques Robert, the unofficial 5th wheel of the “Gang of Four”!  “The 1.14 hectare parcel (twenty and seventy year old vines) is leased from the niece of Jules Chauvet, Benedicte Chauvet, farmed with organic practices (but not certified). indigenous yeasts fermentation takes place in 228 L oak barrels. Carbonic maceration for fifteen days. No sulfur during harvest or vinification, minimal amount used at bottling. Aged sixteen months in seven year old barrels. Neither fined nor filtered”. 

2012 Foillard Fleurie–a Grand (versus “country” styled)-Cru Beaujolais, sourced from two lieu-dits: Grille-Midi and Champagne…45 to 50 year old vines.  “Of all the disciples of Jules Chauvet, Jean Foillard is the most likely to succeed in the practice of using very little SO2, without having his wines act capriciously at the slightest change in atmospheric pressure. His wines possess magnificent body, a unique viscosity and give aromas of a unique purity and grace”. 

2013 Charly Thévenet  Régnié “Grain et Granit”–this is a masculine, wild & VERY rustic, some would say feral, bordering raunchy (in a good, au naturale way) style of Cru Beaujolais from the son, Charly, of Jean Paul Thévenet from the “Gang of Four”.  Take a trip on the wild side!  The vines were planted in 1932 & 1946. ”biodynamic farming techniques in the vineyard, never adding synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides to the vines. He harvests late, with an aggressive sorting of the grapes, adds minimal doses of sulfur dioxide, ages the wine in four-year-old Burgundian barriques, and bottles his wines unfiltered”. 

2013 Thibault Liger-Belair Bourgogne “Les Deux Terres”–we slipped this wine (75% Gamay Noir & 25% Pinot Noir) into the tasting to show tasters how the addition of Pinot Noir AND the fact these vines grow in limestone soils can affect the resulting wine.  Yes, the wines had harder, more severe acidity & much harder, gripping tannins.  A surprise wine, just to mix things up some!

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Nov
11

A Quartet of Cabernet Sauvignon 07-12-17

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Here is a tasting we did recently in our VINO restaurant.

Yes, Cabernet is now being planted throughout the world. It seems to do well in many different kinds of soils & growing conditions. Having said that, finding distinctive, more unique & handcrafted renditions can be quite the challenge. Here are examples of four worth consideration.  Each from a different growing region.  How often do opportunities like this come about? 

2011 Gramercy Cabernet Sauvignon “Columbia Valley”–This is an important wine to consider as Washingston state is primed to really boom in the very near future with Gramercy Cellars being one of the shining lights.   What I learned to really appreciate on my recent trip to Washington state is several things.  The average cost of premium grapes run in the $3,000 to $4,000 per ton range, which is WAY lower than one would pay in Napa or Sonoma valleys.  This translates into less expensive bottle prices.  Secondly, many of the vines, especially in the top vineyards are own rooted AND have some age to them.  Stylistically, I really appreciated the savory edge many, such as this Gramercy, innately have.  I also appreciate how they approach their wines with Old World sensibilities–looking to wineries such as Chateau La Conseillante & Chateau Leoville Las Cases rather Harlan or Bryant Family.   Their 2011 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, all from the truly iconic Phinny Hill vineyard & saw 20 months in oak, 35 to 40% new.  This wines does have wonderful savoriness & is so very elegant, suave, superbly textured & balanced.  As I had noted in a previous post, superstar Master Sommelier Greg Harrington is the vision & co-winemaker Brandon Moss is the energy.  Kudos guys!

2013 Chateau Aney “Haut Medoc”–Classic Left Bank Bordeaux–“65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. Located in Cussac Fort Médoc lying strategically between St-Julien and Margaux, where the summer sun is tempered by the cool breezes of the Garonne, and round, polished, gravelly, river stones cover the vineyard”.  I have read somewhere how scientists have said noted that the vines’ roots cannot pick up the minerals & transmit them to the grapes.  Well, if that is true for limestone than they must feel the same about gravel.  So, my question is……then why does this wine smell of gravel? 

2013 Camino Cabernet Sauvignon “Montecillo Vineyard”–A wine to show tasters of the huge potential the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas truly has. This one is 100% Cabernet (planted in 1964), on steep, rocky hillsides, wild yeast fermented & sees 21 months in oak, 50% new.  This is the handiwork of Tadeo Borchardt (who is also the winemaker at Neyers.  I think of it as a real thoroughbred–powerful & full of mojo/character, all done effortlessly so & with no fan fare.  100 cases produced. 

2012 Selene Cabernet Sauvignon “Dead Fred Vineyard”–Classic Napa Valley! 100% Cabernet from the cooler (Coombsville) area of southern Napa Valley Valley. “Just under three acres are planted on soils that range from sandy loam to gravelly and even cobbly loams, with clone 8 Cabernet Sauvignon on St. George“.  Another masterpiece from superstar winemaker Mia Klein. Only 236 cases produced.  I would also like to add, Mia delivers these wines at such amazing prices, when one considers this is premium Napa Valley fruit crafted by a superstar winemaker!!!!  OMG

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Aug
13

Syrah from Washington State

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As you may have heard, I just came back from wine country in Washington state. Yup, eight days of walking the most revered vineyards and talking story with some of the real leaders of what’s happening there. (I am so thankful to all who made the trip so interesting and insightful.)

Early on, Riesling had its heyday.  Since then & now Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines is the most highly acclaimed.  For the future, however, it seems Merlot & Syrah is on the rise there.  On this recent trip it therefore turned out that Syrah was more of the focus for this trip.

We found their top Syrah renditions are unlike those encountered from California, Australia or France. One of the characteristics we really liked was the savoriness each offers.  That’s what inspired this tasting!   We tasted wines from three of the trip’s standout producers….all served BLIND, just for fun. How often do opportunities like this come about? We suggest you jump on the bandwagon early, as this train is ready to just take off.  Tasting wines from these 3 standout wineries will hopefully give you a glimpse of what all of the fervor and hoop-la is about.

2013 Gramercy Syrah “Lower East”–We are so impressed with what Gramercy Cellars and co-winemakers, Greg Harrington and Brandon Moss, are doing in Washington state through their wines. Theirs is a true pursuit of transparency, texture and & balance. The 2013 is 100% Syrah, which combines the freshness and acidity of Minick and Upland Vineyard, sitting at 1300 ft in the Yakima Valley, with the funk and meatiness of the rocks at Stoney Vine and SJR Vineyards in Walla Walla.   16 months in oak, only 10% new. 93 points.  Just so you know, this bottling is typically the entry to their world of Syrah.  With the 2014 vintage Gramercy released at least FIVE different Syrah bottlings–“Lagniappe” (a blend of Red Willow, Forgotten Hills & Minick vineyards)….”Columbia Valley” (northerly Oldfield, Olsen, Old Stones & Les Collines vineyards)…..”The Deuce” (Les Collines & Forgotten Hills vineyards)…..”Forgotten Hills”” (100% from their Forgotten Hills estate vineyard)….and “John Lewis” (100% Les Collines vineyard Block 46).  Each are well worth checking out……for different reasons.

2012 Reynvaan Syrah “The Unnamed”–There is no doubt Matt Reynvaan is one of the top winemaking phenoms of Washington state. This 95/96 pointed Syrah is produced from grapes grown “In the Rocks” estate vineyard & grapes grown in their vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountain (co-fermented with Grenache Blanc), which showcases very different character in the wine than that of Red Mountain and the other iconic Syrah sites.  Matt’s wine style is along the lines of those from Cayuse–very lavish, generous, rich, opulent, warm, VERY savory…….with lots of swag.  I noticed Matt did not produce this bottling in 2015.

 2012 Force Majeure “Collaboration III”–A 97 point rated stud! For this vintage, the 100% Syrah grapes come from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard of the Red Mountain appellation and crafted by Mark Ryan McNeilly & Mike Macmorran both of Mark Ryan winery.  This wine really is a stud–masculine & immense with lots of fortitude & mojo…..along the lines of a Syrah crafted by a Cabernet winemaker.  As I have noted on a previous post, with 2014 & on, Force Majeure will be focusing on making wines from their estate Red Mountain vineyard–which was planted in 2007 on the hillside above Ciel du Cheval & the Col Solare vineyards………AND with Todd Alexander (former winemaker at Bryant Family in Napa Valley) at the winemaking helm.  Yes, we will be witnessing a new era for this winery.

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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I should also mention that Syrah is making great strides up in Washington state.

We did a dinner this past January at our Sansei Restaurant in Seattle with Master Sommelier Greg Harrington & wines from his Gramercy Cellars.  Greg is the type of person that looks to excel at whatever he does & has the kind of mind & determination to pull it off.

Since the dinner was held in January, we started working on the pairings in the Fall, months before using wine samples Greg had sent to us.  We all were very taken with his wines, as they were quite provocative, transparent, seamless, well textured & balanced & definitely some of the VERY best we have had from Washington state so far!

What an event!  (you can view the menu & some pictures of a different post–“A Dinner with Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars”).

During the course of the dinner, Greg talked about all of what he sees, understands & believes in what’s happening in Washington wine country.  His wines then clearly re-enforced what he was talking about.  It really was quite the experience.  I knew that night I needed to go visit.

The trip was planned.  Unfortunately Greg would be out of town at the time.  Long time friend/sommelier at the world renown Seattle based Canlis Restaurant, Elton Nichols, however, thankfully put me in touch with winemaker Morgan Lee of Two Vintners.  What timing!  Morgan was going to make a vineyard trek around the time I planned to be there, so we hooked up.

Up to this point in my observation, the Eroica Riesling project certainly had gained prominence, as had the Cabernet & Merlot based red wines from producers such as Andrew Will, Cadence, Doubleback, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole & Seven Hills.  The media certainly had been going gaga over Quilceda Creek, Mark Ryan & Leonetti AND for quite some time.  I was therefore quite surprised that while Morgan made Cabernet & Merlot, his true passion was Syrah.  This was NOT at all what I had expected.

Up to this point I was fascinated with the Syrah based red wines from Gramercy first & foremost, as well as Force Majeure, Reynvaan & Cayuse, just to name a few.  I was even more thankful then tagging along, knowing Morgan was so Syrah enthused & that we would visiting Syrah vineyards.  AND, so serendipitous.

I always feel I can sleep, eat & taste wines at home, but I can’t see vineyards in Hawaii.  So, I was so eager the first morning.  Typically all of my attention is seeing, walking vineyards, hopefully with the respective winemaker.

Our first visit was to the Ancient Lakes appellation & specifically the Evergreen Vineyard.  Planted in 2001 at 1450 feet elevation, 250 of the roughly 450 acres was planted to own rooted Riesling.  These higher elevations help to mitigate the 80 to 100 degree day temperatures with 50 or so degree nights.  The underlying soils is basalt with top soils of wind blown loess.  Driving & walking around in this large site, however, one could readily see “ribbons” of caliche, a white, marine influenced soil.

I cannot help but ask if you are searching to produce a top quality Syrah, doesn’t this soil & cooler growing climate (cool enough for Riesling) spark an interest to ask more questions, especially in terms of suitability for Syrah?

At least, couldn’t it possibly result in a blending component that would add a whole ‘nother dimension to the resulting wine, aromatically, structurally,  character wise & possibly lowering alcohol.  Couldn’t some one just plant 1 to 2 acres just to check it out?

We also went to see Olsen Vineyard in the eastern part of the Yakima appellation.  The vineyard is roughly 1,100 acres planted between 800 to 1350 feet elevation with a varying 5 to 30 degree slopes.  Eventhough the elevation is high, the vineyard looks pretty flat nonetheless, atop basalt bedrock, 18 inches to 3 feet below the loess top soils.  The vineyard produces wonderful Cabernet & Merlot, but this was also the first vineyard I saw Morgan proudly light up when he started talking about the Syrah plantings. 

While there are other vineyards we visited in the general area worth discussing at length, the next real noteworthy Syrah site was the Boushay Vineyard.  Owner Dick Boushay, one of the state’s most iconic & legendary vineyard-ists started planting Syrah I believe in the early 80’s.  His eyes would sparkle when we spoke about Syrah.  And, later, he spent a lot of time tasting & analyzing the 2 German Rieslings AND the 2 French Syrahs I had brought & opened.  He got lost in the wines.  I couldn’t really tell if he was contemplating something of the past, present or future or whether he was assessing the nuances of the wines & comparing them to what he gets out of Washington state wines.  In either case, he took the wines seriously & very thoughtfully, especially the Syrah.  We all talked for hours.  He is a fascinating man to say the least, who I discovered is really fascinated with the Syrah grape variety, eventhough he grows some of the most heralded Cabernet & Merlot  out of the state.  Thank you for the visit.  Sunset was more like 9pm, as we headed to our hotel.

After my first day, I couldn’t help but think…”boy, the vineyards here are large in size & rather flat“.

While Dick Boushay farms in the Yakima Valley & Rattlesnake Hills, I just found out that he has now also taken over the farming of Klipsun Vineyard in Red Mountain.  His comments on the differences between the appellations, especially with Syrah, was an ideal segue to the next day, as we headed to Horse Heaven Hills.  I had previously had visions of steep HILLS.  As we drove to the top, however, it became again quite flat.  A Plateau?  As we drove further & further, I kept wondering why it was called Horse Heaven HILLS. 

Our first stop, however, was the Discovery Vineyard, a 30 acre hillside site which overlooks the Columbia River.  There is 17 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 acres of Syrah & 1 acre of Petit Verdot.  I am sure we were there to check out his Syrah vines.  One could see that Morgan & his team walked with a different bounce to their step at this vineyard.  He was focused on the newer vineyard manager & this time spent in the vineyard together was totally important, especially with some Syrah parcels & its fruit becoming available next harvest AND the specter of new hillside plantings on the horizon!  Yes, this was a Syrah source Morgan was excited about.  AND, when we later tasted a Syrah from this vineyard side by side with a Syrah from this vineyard that another quite acclaimed winemaker made, Morgan’s superior talent & skill was quite evident.  Even the vineyard manager (who also happened to be owner’s son) could see the blatant difference.  His winemaking fit in well with this vineyard’s grapes & created quite a synergy.  4 1/2 hours later……….time well spent.

Morgan dropped me off in Pasco.  It had been a wonderful couple of days….& countless vineyards.  Thank you Morgan!  

The next morning, I was off to meet up with Paul McBride of Force Majeure to see his new plantings on Red Mountain.   Previously Paul worked with fruit from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard & a collection of very esteemed Washington winemakers—under what they called “Collaboration Series”.  The Red Mountain appellation has roughly 2000 acres planted, & the 110 acre Ciel du Cheval vineyard was planted in 1974 on the lower elevation, seemingly flatter benchland below.  The Force Majeure estate vineyard is 20 acres located on the slopes above Ciel du Cheval vineyard & even above the Col Solare winery on much steeper hillsides, which they planted in 2007.  The soil is wind blown loess atop volcanic basalt AND has a VERY different aspect than the flatter Ciel du Cheval parcel down below.  Interestingly, this vineyard is planted to roughly 50% Bordeaux varietals & 50% Rhone varietals (6 acres of Syrah), all on their own roots.  As good & highly acclaimed as the Force Majeure wines are today, watch what happens over the next 10 years, starting with the 2014 vintage.  

In addition, former Ciel du Cheval vineyard manager, Ryan Johnson is also planting at higher elevations up on Red Mountain.  Extreme sites like this are quite breathtaking, but whose to say the resulting wines will be good?   Still, I plan to keep an eye on this project nonetheless……who will get the fruit & who will make the wines.

The next 2 days were in Walla Walla wine country, riding around with Brandon Moss, co-winemaker of the highly revered Gramercy Cellars.  Where Greg Harrington provides the vision, Brandon provides the energy.  Yes, he is a bundle of passion & unbridled energy.  Wow!  I am so thankful & grateful for his guidance, time, insight & packing so much into the 2 days. 

We start off in the “Rocks”, which interestingly actually crosses into Milton Freewater Oregon.  Steve Robertson is one of the founding pioneers/champions of the “Rocks” appellation & gave us a wealth of information–history, geology, climatically, geographically & where he sees everything headed to.  Rising above his 10 acre “SBJ vineyard” (planted in 2007) is the Seven Hills estate vineyard into higher elevations.  Wow, Rocks are everywhere.  Round cobblestones.  His vineyard is on the western boundary & much warmer than let’s say the Cayuse planting.  Even so, because the sites are low lying, they differently are vulnerable to the cold.  I therefore saw so many vines affected by the “killing freeze”.

When I later tasted the Syrahs from this area, I found them to be very unique & interesting–wonderfully savory, generous, luscious & very warm–which is quite the contrast to the minerally, meaty, higher toned, lower alcohol versions made from cooler sites.  Again, one style is not better, just different & therefore a preference thing.  

From there, we drove to the Northfolk area, which apparently is currently one of the new “hotpots” for grape growing, especially for the Rhone varieties.  Our first stop was the Elevation Vineyard” to walk the site with vineyard manager Ryan Driver.  The 15 acres (planted in 2013) is located at roughly 1700 feet elevation with basalt soils & gusting winds (which means NO frost issues to date) which literally pounds the vines.  The eastern slopes range from 110 degrees during the day to 70’s at night.  The Terraces are more in the 95 degree–daytime & 70’s at night.  They planted at least 9 different grape varieties, but its seems everyone is clamoring for the Syrah (Phelps vine selection), planted 3 feet by 3 feet vine density.  This is certainly a vineyard we will keep an eye on.

On this trip, I found this VERY dramatic hillside is for the most part an anomaly in comparison to the other sites I had visited.  Most of the other noted, revered vineyards, although located at high elevations, sway instead & therefore look rather flat to the naked eye.  Gramercy Cellars, for instance draws Syrah from their 6 acre estate JB George vineyard (850 feet in elevation), which is located by the Pepper Bridge planting; their 8 acre estate Forgotten Hills (1050 feet elevation at the base of the Blue Mountains); Les Collines (1100 to 1400 feet elevation); Old Field (Boushay farmed, 1315 feet in elevation) in the cooler Yakima Valley; Minick Vineyard (1400 feet elevation) near the town of Prosser; Red Willow (1100 to 1300 feet elevation) & their warmest site–Olsen Vineyard (1150 feet) in the Rattlesnake Hills.

Furthermore, the soils are more about wind blown loess, often with basalt sub-soils.  In addition, because the vines are own rooted (it seemed like all, although I am not sure), it appears to be a slow process to try & bring in any new vine material.  (I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for the caution).

The point being, the Force Majeure estate & Ryan Johnson Syrah plantings on Red Mountain; the “Rocks”; Matt Reynvaan’s planting at 1600 feet elevation in the foothills of the Blue Mountains & the extreme Elevation Vineyard in Northfolk I surmise are the inklings of a new era in Washington for the Syrah grape variety as the vines get older & older & are followed by subsequent plantings.

This will most likely create other challenges, specifically costs for one.  Imagine buying vineyard sites at today’s prices?  Then the cost of planting meter by meter (or even denser) today, AND on these VERY rocky hillsides?  Then imagine the cost of farming (& harvesting) the radical parcels of the Elevation Vineyard versus the costs for the seemingly “flatter” vineyards?  Where I found the costs for grapes in the more western areas (such as Yakima, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills &  Wahluke Slope) to be surprisingly low in comparison to what I hear from California, the looming question is what will happen in the future?

Stay tuned………

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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In California, by comparison, the evolution & progress forward has been slow for the Syrah grape variety.  It has been like anxiously waiting for the sun to finally rise, but seemingly in slow motion & seemingly an eternity.  I often wonder if the process also took so long in the Rhone Valley.

By the late 80’s, on the California front, I already was working with the wines from Qupe & winemaker/owner Bob Lindquist.  His wines at that time were quite delicious, intriguing, well textured, balanced, food friendly & I loved selling them & then watching people’s faces smile from their pure enjoyment.  While these wines certainly deserved a place on a winelist, Bob’s real shining moments of glory really started when his custom Z Block hillside planting (planted in 1992) started coming into its own.  OMG, what a profound difference!

While I also tasted & appreciated the efforts from Joseph Phelps, McDowell, Edmunds St John & other prominent Syrah-ists, of the time, to me, Bob Lindquist & his Qupe Syrahs really stood out the most.  In the early 90’s there were a couple of estate Syrah bottlings from Bryan Babcock which also caught our attention.  Where Qupe crafted more elegant, refined, suave & well balanced renditions, Babcock’s were much more masculine, hearty & ruggedly structured.

Then, in the 90’s, we found & fortunately jumped early on to the bandwagons of Alban (1989 “Reva” Syrah) & Sine Qua Non (1992 “Black & Blue”, actually custom made by Mike Havens) before the HUGE hoop-la & prices really escalated.  These were/are standout bottlings, whose prominence & superstar status has stood the test of time & are still today some of the most prolific, revered, sought after wines out of California.  It certainly must have something to do with their focus & commitment.

Others certainly have tried to replace them as “king of the mountain”.  Even the media lavished high scores to newer generation Syrah producers such as Lagier Meredith, Shafer & other Napa Valley star wineries & while these wines are highly lauded, none of these Napa Valley-ers has yet to challenge or dethrone Alban & Sine Qua Non.

As it turned out the challengers are today really coming from the Central Coast of California.

Let’s start with Adam Tolmach & his Ojai label.  While I certainly appreciated the bravado & thunder that Alban & Sine Qua Non profoundly offered, the Ojai Syrahs had really caught our fancy more because of their mesmerizing transparency, intricate touch, wonderful texture & balance.  While I liked the Ojai Syrah bottlings from the early 90’s, I was especially much more enamored with their Bien Nacido Vineyard bottling from 1995 on (with the advent of grapes from Z Block, the newer, custom, hillside plantings of Bien Nacido vineyard, coming on line).  This bottling of Syrah has today really come into its own, starting with the 2004 vintage & as the vines got older.  (The 2010 which we sampled recently at a “Young Sommelier” tasting was really a homerun!)  Finally…a Californian grown & produced Syrah, which truly moved me!

(It was those relationships with Lindquist, Tolmach as well as Clendenen, Babcock & Whitcraft which cemented my keen interest in the wines of the Santa Barbara appellation, which is still quite active.  It had something to do with long growing seasons, marine soils & true mastery of winemaking).

I should also mention Randall Grahm & Bonny Doon here as well.  In the late 80’s/early 90’s, Randall was much more renown for his Grenache based “Le Cigare Volant” bottling than his work with Syrah.  That changed with his 1995 Bonny Doon Syrah, which featured grapes grown in the heralded Bien Nacido Vineyard of the Santa Maria Valley, the same vineyard source used by Lindquist at Qupe & Tolmach of Ojai.  The 1995 had a real gamey, rustic, provocative edge, which was a big step forward from his previous Syrah bottlings.  He was quite proud of the wine & deservedly so.  Randall’s biggest contribution, in my opinion however, was his remarkable talent for producing wines which would appeal to a wide spectrum of wine palates AND through his clever bottle packaging & amazing clever writings/marketing, he took Syrah & his other Rhone varietal bottlings, to a whole ‘nother, wider audience of wine drinkers.  He certainly was one of the real champions/crusaders of this niche of wines.  Thank you Randall!

In the early 90’s, the first red wine which started & egged on my fascination with the wines from Paso Robles further north, was the 1988 Justin “Isosceles”, a Cabernet blend from the westside of the appellation.  It clearly stood out in a line-up of other Cabernets from all over California.  It was partly because of the red rather than black fruit the wine exuded, but more importantly, it was because of the underlying minerality the wine innately had, instead of the gobs of super ripe fruit frequently featured.  Needless to say on my next trip to California I made it a point to visit the Paso Robles appellation to check the wine ongoings.  After days of driving around & tasting, Justin Vineyards & Winery was my only catch.  BUT, I was quite fascinated by the abundance of siliceous clay/limestone/white-gray soiled hillsides–which were heated by the 100 plus degree temperatures of daytime, but greatly cooled by the 50 degree nights.  I also remember telling Justin Baldwin at the time I felt this area would be a hotspot for Rhone grape varieties.

In the mid 90’s, I met Matt Trevisan, while he was an assistant winemaker at Justin Vineyards & Winery.  He had told me he & a partner were thinking about making their own wine soon.  The project was named Linne Calodo, which still produces standout wines to this day.  On a subsequent visit, I then met up with Justin Smith, who was to be Matt’s eventual partner, although I did not know at the time.  I, in fact, tasted a “home made” white wine at the Smith’s family’s cellar located in the James Berry vineyard below one the houses.  It was a blend of Roussanne & Viognier, done by Justin & his father Pebble.  This began a long running relationship with Justin Smith (Saxum), Matt Trevisan (Linne Calodo) AND the Paso Robles growing appellation.

There is no doubt, these two are the true standouts of the appellation.  I would also say, they both belong on the same pedestal as Alban & Krankl, in the quality of their wines, changing the game & leading the pack.

Matt is a master at blending.  He typically has 27 to 32 different cuvees to work with (a complex matrix of different vineyards, aspects, soils, micro climates, grape varieties all which have been harvested at different “hang” times & brix.  Furthermore, he has quite a stash of fermentation vessels–several concrete & wood–& in different sizes).  I therefore liken his wine blends as an orchestra as opposed to just a horn section.  It is a similar concept to what one could find from Cote Rotie, Barolo & Champagne in the old days before the single vineyard phenomenon.  His wines are lavish, ripe, though very layered, well textured & deftly seamless.

Justin Smith, in comparison, focuses on more single vineyard bottlings.  He is after all a man of the vineyard, so it makes sense.  (He however, also has a blended bottling, “Broken Stones”, as well).   The Saxum Syrah based wines have such remarkably civilized power, bravado, depth & layering which has certainly drawn incredible fanfare, accolades & a cult like following.

On another of the trips, I was invited to a blind tasting of Syrahs from the area.  This was during the Hospice de Rhone Wine Festival time, but ours was just a small, private get together separate from the festival itself.  Of the 20 plus wines poured, I was completely taken by what was in glass #7.  It really was unlike anything I had had previously.  The next morning, my friends & I were on the road to see Glen Rose Vineyard, the vineyard source of wine #7.  When we arrived, I was shocked how whitish the soils appeared.  Even on the way up to the site, the cuts in the hillsides along the road were “layered” with sheets of all white-gray looking soils.  On a later trip back to this vineyard with Bryan Babcock (whose Syrah at the time was one worth seeking out), he was also taken back at what he was seeing.  I remember him mentioning at the time, “the vines may have issues with shutting down because of how meager & extreme this site looked“.  Bryan & I also on this trip went to check out Heartstone Vineyard & walked the site with owner Hoy Buell.  It too was rather breathtaking in its rolling hills of whitish-gray soils.  The ball was really starting to roll & this appellation was just waiting to bust out to become a reckoning force in the California wine scene.

After those encounters, I therefore made I believe 6 trips in one year to Paso Robles, just to further dig around & get a better idea of what was happening & what would be coming down the road.

Justin Smith, as it turns out, is & has been a pivotal Paso Robles ambassador for us, as he later opened the doors to several of his consulting/helping out projects (early on in their development) of the region–Denner, Terry Hoage, Villa Creek, Booker & Epoch just to name a few.  These provided a whole ‘nother genre of California born Syrah based red wines–lavish, opulent & showy, BUT the limestone/siliceous vineyard soils seemed to greatly add interestingness & surprising buoyancy to the wines.

Further north in California, I also searched for Syrah based red wines.  Although I applauded the early Syrah efforts Joseph Phelps & McDowell pioneered, they weren’t really what I was looking for.  It really wasn’t until the 90’s that Syrah made a qualitative turn.

One of the early leads was based upon a tip from a respected wine friend.  I then drove to Bolinas, way out on the coast, to visit Sean Thackery, just to see his take on what Syrah could be.  As it turned out, his were very unique & idiosyncratic wines–deep, sinister, surly, feral, masculine, brooding–but certainly good enough that we later recommended him, when asked, to David Hirsch of Hirsch vineyard for considerations for Hirsch vineyard Pinot fruit.   I just thought that Sean’s mastery with Syrah, might also shed a different light of what Pinot Noir could be.  Here was one Syrah, named Orion, which really stood out, despite being wild & wooly.

A short time later, I made a trip to the Sonoma side to visit for the first time Wells Gutherie (Copain).  Although he was getting well known for his Pinot Noirs, I initially actually went there to try his Syrah based reds.  He had previously worked a stint with Helen Turley & a stage in France’s Rhone Valley, I believe at Chapoutier.   As it turned out, we liked the Copain wines, as they were much more worldly in style & Wells represented a new generation of young turks emerging on to the wine scene.  He scoured for grape sources & for Syrah even as out of the way as in Mendocino. He was very focused on his wines & his style of wines.  Despite the high acclaim & accolades, some people would say, however, the wines were quite masculine, structured, bordering hard & not so delicious.  Even so, he certainly was a star in the making.  He has since totally found his groove & his wines are today generally considered standouts.

There were, however, a few other winemakers who shared space in his Russian River facility & one in particular, Mike Officer (Carlisle) & his wines really caught our attention.  Mike started off as a home winemaker, but soon because of how good his wines truly were, decided to take the plunge professionally….although part time in the beginning.  He had a true passion for interesting, old vine Zinfandel (& mixed black grapes) vineyards mainly in the Russian River, but also included the Dry Creek Valley.  His wines had lots of mojo, swag, AND lots of intriguing, old vine character.  The high scores & acclaim were inevitable & much deserved.  As the Carlisle wines just took off, Mike also included some Petite Sirah & some Syrah bottlings along the climb.  Like his Zinfandels, his Syrah based reds were manly, unabashed, dense & significant with formidable structure & length on the palate.  Mike Officer’s star was definitely on the rise.  He knew what kind of wine he wanted to make & he since has passionately & skillfully fulfilled his vision.

On the same trip, we then drove to see Pax Mahle.  Back then, I don’t think there was GPS, at least available to me, so I got quite lost trying to locate him.  In following his directions, I kept ending up at a winery with some kind of Italian origin name.  I later found out he rented space there to make his wines.  On this first visit, Pax had 4 to 6 barrels of wine, which were neatly lined up in the middle aisle between their barrels.  We tasted through his barrels & I was especially taken by the Lauterbach Vineyard barrel of Syrah.  It wasn’t overtly fruit driven or oaky.  It had smells of meat, violets, lavender.  The fruit was very ripe, but didn’t smell over ripe.  It certainly was decadently mouthfilling, but still had structure & balance despite the higher levels of alcohol.  This gentleman certainly had a touch!  I believe Pax was also a former sommelier once, or maybe a retailer.  He had the right understanding & spin on his wines, really knew what he wanted them to be & what he thought they were at this time.  He was badass & I left there with my head spinning over the experience.  This was a guy worth keeping an eye for.  Fast forward to today, his Wind Gap wines are quite opposite in style from what he produced under his Pax Wine Cellars label.  They are now much more transparent, elegant, refined & balanced & well worth searching out for.  He is definitely in a real zome.

I thought the same of winemaker Ehren Jordan.  At that time, Ehren was winemaking partner at Neyers Vineyard & was also working at Turley.  Because of his cellar work with superstar winemaking consultant Helen Turley, his Chardonnays while at Neyers were so striking, provocative & highly acclaimed, as was expected.  I knew Ehren had done a stint working in Cornas & had a keen interest in Syrah & therefore was anxiously waiting to see what he would do at Neyers with Syrah.  While he & Bruce Neyers released some interesting single vineyard Syrah early on in their collaboration, it was actually their 2001 Syrah “Cuvee d’Honneur” bottling which really captured our attention.  This bottling showcased a fascination, respect & homage for the way iconic French Rhone Valley Syrah masters like Clape, Verset & specifically Allemand went about their craft (essentially 100% stems, foot stomped, wild yeast fermented & NO SO2).  The resulting wine had a much more of savory, soulful edge which for me was a considerable step above most of the other Syrahs out of California at that time.

This is an ideal opportunity to segue from Neyers wines to the true mastermind behind the wine project–Bruce Neyers.  I first met Bruce back in the late 70’s/early 80’s while he was still at Joseph Phelps.  Even back then I was fascinated with the way his mind worked & I therefore always had uku-zillion questions to ask him, especially regarding Riesling & Syrah, since I was such a fanatic of these 2 grape varieties (which were 2 of Phelps’ wine specialties back then).  It was a thrill to taste through their bottling(s) of each at the same time.  My next really significant meeting up with Bruce occurred when he took over the reins as National Sales Manager for Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants in the early 90’s.  I had already been to France a couple of times & visited many of the wineries he would now be representing.  He therefore was someone I could talk to for ages about Syrah & the wines of the Old World at length & in detail.  He could also better explain to me the Neyers transition of Syrah in the New World, based upon what he saw & learned on his many trips to the Rhone Valley, especially given his deep relationships with, what I would call THE Syrah “Masters”.  He became the yoda of Californian wine.

The next VERY noteworthy Syrah under Bruce’s watchful & insightful care, “started in the mid 90’s, when the revered Sangiacomo family developed their Old Lakeville Road” vineyard using budwood from the three primary red wine vineyards in the northern Rhône: Cornas, Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The 12-acre parcel was divided into three blocks, and each is harvested and fermented separately. From these three components, we created a blend which seems to have characteristics from each of the appellations. The vineyard is located in what is proving to be one of the most favorable spots for Syrah in California“, legally labeled as “Sonoma Coast”, though much closer to Petaluma & therefore greatly cooled by the ocean winds from the Petaluma Gap.  When I first tasted the 2006 Neyers Syrah “Old Lakeville Road”, I was quite stunned.  Finally….another Californian grown & produced Syrah with potential to move me.  The different, subsequent vintages of this bottling had its ups & downs.  Sometimes it was good, sometimes memorable.  Was it the extreme winemaking or the uneven-ness or the moodiness of the imported vines & resulting grapes which caused the disparity?  Or perhaps a combination of both?  Whatever the case, these wines clearly showed how much better vine material could greatly elevate quality.  As time went along, however, it became clear that the vines were not happy to be there & slowly faded into the sunset, with 2012 being the last bottling.  Yes, it was a mere flash of brilliance, but it certainly fostered the dream of what could be.

Although it took some time to get my foot in the door, I also worked hard to get the wines, Syrah based & otherwise from Les Behrens, who was then the winemaker/co-owner of Behrens & Hitchcock.  I especially liked his “Alder Springs” bottling.  When I later tasted a stellar “Alder Springs” Syrah from Pax Mahle, I made it a point to drive north, right outside the quaint town of Laytonville near the Humboldt county line to visit Stu Bewley & walk his Alder Springs vineyard with him.  The burning question & subsequent search was to find a Syrah that really would ring my bell.  This was heralded as one of those spots that could provide something noteworthy.

I should also mention the work the Peay is doing out on the true Sonoma Coast & their efforts at championing “cool climate” Syrah.  Yes, the wines are SOOOOO very different in aromas, character, structure & physiological maturity & deftly provide a whole ‘nother perspective on what Californian Syrah can be.

I also was at the time quite intrigued with the 1999 Edmeades Syrah “Eaglepoint Ranch”, which was crafted by winemaker “Vanimal”–Van Williamson.  At the time Van was producing some very hearty, old vine Zinfandel beasts from a variety of unique, old vine vineyards throughout Mendocino.  Interestingly, he also produced some wild & interesting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah AND Syrah during his tenure at Edmeades.  I was so taken by his masculine, wild & wooly style of Syrah, which featured grapes grown in “Eaglepoint Ranch”..

A short ime later, Van introduced me to Casey Hartlip, the then vineyard manager of “Eaglepoint Ranch”, a vineyard planted I believe sometime in the 70’s/early 80’s (first Syrah planted in 1989), roughly 1800 feet above the town of Ukiah.  We subsequently made a couple of trips up to see & walk the vineyard.  With the 2001 harvest, Along with Jeff Figone, fellow Master Nunzio Alioto, we contacted Casey to buy 2 tons of Syrah fruit, based upon what we had tasted from Edmeades & Copain.  Since this brazen, warmer climate, “mountain grown” fruit had more than enough bravado, we then contacted Pinot winemaking master, Fred Scherrer, to craft the wine for us, hoping he could work his magic to make a much more elegant, suave style of Syrah.  That he did!  We thought the wine was stellar & definitely along the lines we were looking for.  It is still drinking quite superbly to this day.  (By the way, Fred today produces some very elegant, suave, classy Syrahs under his own Scherrer label, definitely worth searching for).

Interestingly, at this time, while we were quite intrigued with this wine, another fellow Master, Mike Bonaccorsi, made a comment I will always remember–“If you are interested in Syrah from California, you need to go back & check out what’s happening down in Santa Barbara“.

That I did!  Thank you Mike.  Back to where the interest & journey for California Syrah really began.

Mike was right.  The Syrah scene had really changed in the Santa Barbara appellation.  Newer Syrah “finds” included those crafted by Sashi Moorman (former assistant to Adam Tolmach) under the Stolpman label; Jason Drew (former assistant winemaker to Bryan Babcock) under the Drew label; Paul Wilkins (former assistant to John Alban) under the Autonom label & Paul Lato (former cellar rat for Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat) under the Paul Lato label, as well as Greg Brewer at Melville & Chad Melville under his own Samsara label.

One of those wines, the 2003 Drew Syrah “Morehouse Vineyard,” in particular was a true standout for me at the time.  (This was a time when Jason was still working down in the Santa Barbara region, first with Babcock & then spinning off with his own Drew label).  Because of his tenure at Babcock in the 90’s & Bryan Babcock’s very masculine, dark, manly, untamed, beasty Syrah wines, I had expected Jason Drew to do something similar in style.  Boy, was I surprised!  His 2003 was so classy, refined & provocatively transparent & intricate, with remarkable layering, savoriness, texture & balance.  The 2003 was a special wine, with something extra & unique, something beyond fruit & oak, qualities even the 2004 did not have.  I often wonder what ever happened to that vineyard since.  (And, as an update, Jason moved his winemaking operation up north in 2004/05, where his home & relatively newly planted, surrounding estate vineyard is located in the Mendocino Ridge appellation.  In the meantime, he has been sourcing from various vineyards in the area, & deftly crafting gorgeous Syrahs & Pinots well worth searching out for).

It was quite a few years later that we started to check out the plantings in the Ballard Canyon niche of Santa Barbara county, first with Stolpman in the early 2000’s & then much later (mid 2000’s or so) with the Jonata plantings.  I was actually introduced to Stolpman grown wine via the vineyard’s Sangiovese & Nebbiolo crafted by Jim Clendenen.  After tasting their Syrah, however, I knew they were on to something even more special.  Plus, under the direction of winemaker Sashi Moorman, the vineyard morphed & adjusted their vine plantings, but this time in keeping with what they learned was happening in Italy & France at some standout estates.  Coupled with Sashi’s meteoric learning curve, the wines, especially the Syrah based ones, just kept getting better & better.  The Estate Syrah typically offers such elegance, class, wonderful texture & balance.

I was then anxious to try the Jonata wines, after eye balling all of the work they put into developing their rolling hills (which we later discovered was mostly sand, instead of the limestone bedrock we saw at neighboring Stolpman estate) into vineyards, while sparing NO expense.  I also became a huge fan of winemaker Matt Dees with the first visit & even more so as time goes on.  He is totally in the winemaking sweet spot.  While my original interest was for their Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc, their Syrah (Sangre) seems to be making the biggest splash so far & is a very masculine, savory, mega-intense stud, challenging for the top spot.  I also thought we would see some interesting Syrah being grown at the neighboring Beckman & Larner vineyards, but as it turns out, Grenache seems to be more of their thing.

Where to next?

 

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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