For more information on when to drink, check out On Aging Syrah Wine.
At their best, aged Syrah wines combine the delicacy of Burgundy and the aromatic complexity of Barolo with a power all their own. No wonder they rank among my top three wines! Bet you can guess the other two.
Increasingly, the balance that Syrah is capable of is being traded in for more power. As you might know, I am not a fan of the more-is-always-better style of wine making.
These aged examples from a recent tasting all were remarkably well balanced and helped to illustrate the middle age portion of Syrah’s life cycle.
A Pair of 1988s
This was a patently unfair pairing. Who would pit an excellent if austere and classically proportioned vintage from the Northern Rhône against a little upstart in California? Add in the fact that 1988 was a difficult vintage in California, it was cool and with rains during harvest, and you have the makings for an easy victory. If only it were so.
I see these wines as being qualitatively quite similar, with the Guigal being richer and plumper though a tad less interesting when compared to the ESJ’s freshness and elegance. It’s a toss up, though I’m going to give it to ESJ. By the way, this flight would have been killer with lightly smoked wild boar ribs. I’m just saying!
1988 Edmunds St John Sonoma Syrah
Tobacco, caper and a little funk and earth here with late arriving tea and lilac, some peppery spice as well. Very Northern Rhone. Little bottle sweetness, fully resolved tannins, a little lean and still has fine red fruit. Fruit is low intensity, but there’s plenty of wild cherry and red currant going on. This really has a sense of delicacy and class. It needs food at this stage as it’s a bit austere and lean. Smells lean but complex with a lovely nuance-filled palate impression. 88pts
1988 Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde
Old wood, a bit of minerality, dried fruit, lots of dried herb, Provençal herbs, black olives, a touch of sun dried tomato and smoke. A touch thin on the palate, this lacks some depth but does show fine acid and very soft tannins. Lovely pick up on the leathery, slightly gamy finish with surprising length. Some burnished dark almost nutty, toasted nut, cocoa plum fruit. Finishes with meaty flavors and austere tannins showing. Very solid but lacks an extra gear. 88pts
1994 Was a Very Good Year
So here I’ve pit one of my old time favorites, the Swanson Syrah, against a relative newcomer. The Columbia Crest was new in the sense that the first varietal Syrah to come from Washington State was the 1989 Columbia Winery Red Willow Vineyard, if my memory serves me correctly.
1994 was a great vintage across much of the West Coast, so these wines were on equal footing, and this was a great time for discovery with Syrah as people were enthusiastically planting the vines and honing their craft. The Columbia Crest included 15% Grenache in the blend and showed a bit more of a Châteauneuf character because of it. It really was wonderfully aromatic but the palate had already begun to lose noticeable fruit.
The Swanson also was showing early signs of fruit fading but what a nose. Detach yourself from the world of wine for a moment and indulge in the aromas of red licorice rolls, root beer kegs, violet pastille and red hots! Candied, yes it was, delicious smelling, you better believe it! Not exactly the style of wine I generally reach for, but this showed beautifully! Winner: Swanson
1994 Columbia Crest Reserve Syrah
Lovely on the nose: wiry, gamy and very little brett, but what is there is leather and fresh barnyard. Very fresh, not sure I would call this domestic. Green peppercorn, smokey, intense and really impressive. The cigar and minty spice are powerful. Big and a touch sweet with bright acids, lots of red plum and lots of red fruit. Backed up with a nice herbal, pollen note. Finishes with bright acids, a bit too bright, and a lot of sweet tea. Much more on the nose, which is outstanding, palate is red currant and a touch lean. 89pts
1994 Swanson Napa Valley Syrah
Candied: a bit of root beer, licorice, deep gamy core, violet pastille, leather, peppery cinnamon and cigar box over a base of black olive juice. Very lean and focused, with plenty of sweet fruit that tends to the red end of the spectrum. Lots of cola, root beer, and cinnamon spice layered over a fine bed of dark, firm fruit. This finishes with intense inner mouth perfumes and decent length. Very perfumed, very New World but complex and rather friendly. Light powdery tannins persist on the finish. 91pts