You can’t help but think of Sonoma as being a little wild, rustic, and pioneering. With some of the original Bay Area wineries, as well as vast stretches of developing vineyards, the county is a small microcosm of what’s happening in California these days. It retains that warm patina of days gone by, while continuing to reveal new treasures almost daily.
One of the big issues facing producers up and down the state is the fate of Syrah. This chameleon of a grape (one I rank right up there with Riesling as far as its ability to express the terroir of a site) seems to have never really found its audience. That, my friends, is a shame, because Syrah is one of the great grapes of the world, and one well-deserving of your attention. Add in the fact that the current oversupply of Syrah has depressed the market, and you can’t help but come to the conclusion that it’s time to try some Syrah!
Before delving into why Syrah can be so appealing, it’s worth taking the time to note a few reasons why it can be a difficult variety to warm up to.
First off is the confusion with Petite Sirah (AKA Duriff). Petite Sirah tends to produce rather rustic wines that are full bodied, chunky, and slightly peppery (where a somewhat valid comparison can be made), with plummy fruit and slightly rustic tannins. Syrah, on the other hand, is capable of producing refined wines with dark raspberry and boysenberry tones, crisp tannins and a surprisingly elegant mouthfeel.
So, I hear you asking, why doesn’t my Syrah taste like that? As I wrote earlier, Syrah excels in expressing its terroir – that elusive expression of site, climate, and man. In the case of Syrah in California, much has been planted in the wrong place, resulting in the terroir of excessive ripeness: big, fat, pruny flavors.
To achieve a certain level of elegance, Syrah needs to be planted in the right spots, which can be a slow process of elimination. This art of site selection for Syrah is finally getting somewhere in California, where areas such as Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs are producing some standout wines.
The other factor working against Syrah is that the wines really do tend to show very little of their promise while young. While the wines don’t require decades to blossom, they display remarkable improvement after just a few years in the cellar, revealing their silky texture and gently spiced fruit character that will turn almost everyone into an Sonoma Syrah fan!
Now, before I risk alienating a whole group of wine lovers who might call themselves Petty Sarah lovers (I’ve been told by those in the know that decades ago that what's the wines were called in California), let me just say that I love Petite Sirah, too. It’s really a national treasure of sorts since it is almost an indigenous grape!
While its origins have been traced back to the Duriff grape in France, there is very little evidence that Duriff ever did anything noteworthy on its home turf. Here’s a case of a grape needing a specific terroir to excel, and finding it in its adoptive land: warm, sunny California! Petite Sirah has had a long history in California, being a classic element in many field blends and Zinfandels, adding some spice and richness to the core of any wine. Sonoma County has many of these ancient vine Petite Sirah vineyards, and the wines they produce represent some of the finest of their type. If you’re looking for a rich, full, chunky wine that only California can produce, don’t miss Sonoma County Petite Sirah!
Want more about Sonoma?In this series of emails we’ll be taking a look at the regions that make Sonoma special, and the wines they each produce. We hope you enjoy our tips and observations, and invite you to visit Visa’s Sonoma Trip planner. This interactive guide to Sonoma wineries is fun and informative. Plan a trip today to experience the unique beauty of Sonoma. Visit the Visa Trip Planner
2006 Kokomo Syrah Green Pastures DCV 14.9%
Aromatic and intense with mineral and cracker pepper notes vying for attention at first. The fruit is dark and deep and a touch roasted with backing wood sweetness and spice. On entry, this starts off deceptively matte but then really explodes on the palate with flavors that seem to belong to a richer, heavier wine. It’s not a meek wine by any stretch, but it’s rich, and deep and intensely aromatic in the mouth with a decidedly stern note on the back-end that slaps away that sappy fruit and imposes a bit of mineral, oak, and spice induced discipline that caries through to the moderately long if slightly hot finish. An intense and finely balanced Syrah that will benefit from 2-4 years in the cellar. 91pts
2004 Montemaggiore Syrah Hill Top Reserve 14.8%
This explodes from the glass with lead pencil, vanilla oak, toasted spices, freshly turned earth and spicy black fruit. On the palate it’s certainly a big wine but really well balanced with fresh black cherry, black currant and black berry fruit tones that reveal touches of cocoa and cracked pepper. This is a fairly smooth wine with plenty of weight, but it also offers some crisp tannins on the finish, helping this remain focused through that rich finish. 90pts
2005 Keller Estate Syrah La Cruz Vineyard 14.5%
This smells juicily fruity with floral and quite gamey top notes over a core of slightly reduced boysenberry fruit. There’s pleasing complexity and clarity on the nose. On entry this is surprisingly fruit forward, and it does gain some grip on the mid-palate with some blueberry fruits adding to the core of dark frutti del bosco tones. The finish shows some oak influence as well as a return to violet and pepper tones found on the nose. This shows a fair amount of wood on the finish with its toasty cocoa-tinged edges but it also has a bit of chunky fruit that makes me wonder if this is 100% Syrah. Lots of fun, though and with wonderful fruit. 88pts
2005 Deerfield Ranch Shiraz Cuvée 15%
This is labeled using the Australian term Shiraz instead of Syrah, so it promised to deliver a fuller style of wine, and it certainly fulfills that promise. The blend here is unusual (Shiraz 78%, Cabernet Sauvignon 8%, Merlot 7%, Malbec 4%, Petit Verdot 3%) and results in a real powerful style with big tannins, fruit, and alcohol all balanced by rich, spicy,balck flavors. The nose reveals plenty of that alcohol and smoky, vanilla oak notes as well as deep almost floral woodsy tones. The palate is just packed with fruit, a bit monotone at this stage, but rich, dark fruit and spice tones that saturate the palate right through to the wood spice and vanilla finale. A big wine and one for people who love intensity. 87pts
2005 Forth Syrah La Rousse Vineyard DCV 14.7%
Light and soil driven on the nose with a bit of milky, maybe American oak showing through. This slowly moves into a more vanilla note that accents the dark, lightly peppery plum fruit of the nose that is backed up with a touch of violet. This is really bright and fresh in the mouth with some fairly assertive, austere tannin poking through the fruit. The oak is featured fairly prominently here with lots of toasty cocoa tones and cedary edges to the somewhat subdued fruit on the mid-palate. On the finish the wood is even more pronounced. This comes off as a bit tough and disjointed. 86pts
2006 Seghesio Family Vineyards Petite Sirah Home Ranch 14.5%
This is pretty classic old-school Sonoma Petite with plummy fruit, vanillin, some muddy earth and spicy overtones on the nose that are followed with a very similar profile in the mouth. It’s not a big wine, as far as Petites go, but it’s very fresh and focused with a vein of blackberry fruit that is accented by nice baking spices. It’s pretty finely balanced and certainly has good length, and while this can be enjoyed today due to it’s polished style and well managed tannins it promises to improve in the cellar for 3-5 years. 90pts
2005 Foppiano Petite Sirah 14.5%
Big and spicy on the nose with that dark, slightly earth, slightly spice core of fruit you typically get from Petite. In the mouth this is dark and palate staining with stiff, chewy tannins and nice acids giving this impressive volume. Up front this reveals more complexity than on the mid-palate with forest floor perfumes and a touch of wood spice perking things up a bit. the mid-palate is chunky and a bit mysterious before returning to violet tinged blue fruits on the backend. This is solid if a bit stoic today, but with the right foods, grilled and barbecued meats for example, this is a classic match. 89pts