Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

Is it time for the Tasting of Tain? 2014

Original post by Richard Foxall, Mar 21, 2014.

I love N. Rhone Syrah.  It's my favorite red wine in France.  But the acreage of the region is so small and the area that provide its best wines even smaller, that prices have hit the roof.  Sure, there are a few St. Josephs and Crozes-Hermitages that come in around $25, but those are either made for earlier drinking and a lot less thrilling with age (St. Joseph) or widely variable and more like some of the fruit-driven Aussie or Central Coast Shiraz/Syrah wines.  Not always as bombastic, but not like the wines of Hermitage and Cote Rotie.  A few years ago, I bought Colombier's appellation labeled Hermitage for under $40.  It's not the most well-known producer and it is an appellation wine, but keep in mind that Colombier is family owned, gets high praise from RP and all of Hermitage is small and somewhat homogeneous.  It seemed a fair bit of money, but a fair price at the time.  And the wine was delicious. 

Today I got an email from HartDavisHart touting N. Rhones and only one was under $100.  Somehow, a St. Joseph for $60 didn't seem like a bargain.  All the C-R and Hermitage wines were over $125.  Some of these were highly collectible or had significant age on them, but those bottles were between several hundred and thousands of dollars.  Now you're getting into the Latour/Petrus investment range (and maybe the DRC counterfeiting range).  I feel lucky that I got to try a well-aged Hermitage last October when I met David Parker, CEO of Benchmark Wine Group.  Unfortunately, that's probably the only way I'll ever be able to drink one of those, unless I want to cancel my family's summer vacation.

When Bordeaux first growths started resting on their laurels and pricing themselves out of reach, Spurrier invited the California upstarts to bring their Cabernet to the party.  And while those California wines, and a few even more expensive cult wines since, aren't as cheap as they were, you can still imagine drinking them, not just waiting to cash out when the market gets even crazier. 

Is it time for a tasting of Tain to see how the best California Syrah stacks up?  I see a couple problems.  First, the whole "Judgment of..." format has been done to death and has less shock value and even less credibility.  Second, the California wine business has expanded greatly with so many players it would be hard to choose.  As a subset of that concern, Syrah in California (or Washington) is more dispersed than Cab was in the 1970s, with many small producers making the better bottles.  Third, California Syrah doesn't seem to have coalesced around one style. That can also be said to a degree for the Rhone, but the Hermitage and C-R appellations (and to some degree Cornas) have a pretty fundamental character of savory, meaty wines with strong but refined tannic structure and dark fruits, violets, and pretty well defined secondary characteristics. Of course, there's always the question of who participates and whether this kind of exercise ever makes sense.

What seems clear is that some group of producers makes really good Syrah in Northern California along those lines; if there was to be a "Tasting of Tain," or "Judgment of Sonoma," who would you enter from the West Coast side?  I'd be interested in hearing from people with a good deal of experience with both N. Rhone and US Syrah, but I'm also interested in what people would like to taste if they were given the opportunity to try some of those unapproachably expensive Rhones.

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Reply by GregT, Mar 28, 2014.

Well, if you could drink great Syrah, why bother with PN? It's good for cooking though. And can make a nice marinade.

After all, let's that's the only logical thing to do!

But NG - you're in luck! Even though you're hundreds of miles away, we're in the same state and I'm bringing in a load of good Syrah. Between me and OT, we'll make a believer of you yet!

Reply by outthere, Mar 28, 2014.

"If you think I am missing something, send me details, please...  would love to hear about complex syrah, if it exists. Not holding breath"

Cool climate Syrah from Paso and SB? You were getting warm with Big Basin but should not have stopped in Santa Cruz. Keep traveling north. I know you have said you enjoy Balletto. To be honest it does not do much for me and is kinda pedestrian for my palate.

For complexity and lower ABV you need to seek out specific winemakers. People like Pax Mahle and his Wind Gap label (not Agharta or PAX, they are bigger styled), Wells Guthrie of Copain, Duncan Aront Meyers of Arnot Roberts, Scott Shapley of Halcon, Anthony Filliberti of Anthill Farms and Knez, Kevin Harvey of Rhys...

Not only do the winemakers have a play but many great Syrahs are site specific. Vineyards grown on rocky soils and in colder locations tend to bring out more complexity in the fruit by stressing the vines. Clonal selection is important as well. There are far too many vineyards planted in Syrah in California that were just not thought out very well. Wrong climate, wrong soil, wrong clones, wrong farming... You wouldn't plant PN in Calistoga.

The growers who do their homework come up with sites and pair them with the right clones to get great fruit, picked before it becomes over-ripe and vinified in a way that brings out the complexity of the variety rather than a winemaker masking it in ripe fruit,oak and alcohol.

I'm not inferring that wine has to be low alcohol to be balanced but fewer winemakers attempt to make big wines balanced because the target audience (general wine buying public) wants ripe fruit and the great round texture you get from high alcohol.  The problem is that when you have ripe Syrah from warm climates it is very one dimensional, needs food to be enjoyed and is not all that appealing. Add to that the fact that most Syrah needs time in bottle to develop secondary flavors. People want wine they can open when they get home from the store. No wonder it's as hard to get rid of as pneumonia.

Big ripe Syrah from Central Cali with little acid becomes a hot gloppy mess when aged. (see my note on this 2005 Roar Gary's) Conversely a big Syrah from the North Coast that has balanced acidity can and will age more gracefully. (such as this 2006 PAX Alder Springs Terraces) What you have been describing has been ripe Syrah from warm climates that was not balanced to begin with and never will be.

Look for vineyard sites such as Halcon, Alder Springs, Griffins Lair, Las Madres, Clary Ranch, Hawkes Butte, Cardiac Hill, Baker Ranch, Campbell Ranch. Then toss in some of  the winemakers previously listed.

Or you can come to our Syrah tasting and save yourself some time.  ;)


Reply by napagirl68, Mar 28, 2014.

Thanks, OT.  I won't write the poor grape off entirely.  Yes, I do not like the hotter areas for any grape, actually.  I mean, there are some one-offs in those areas, but...

I thought when I had that Carlisle that I was getting a representation of cool-weather Sonoma syrah.  Yes, I know, it was just one data point, but I've heard y'all go on about it.  It was nice!  I liked it...  I also had to look back in my notes from Taste of Sonoma.  Seemed I also liked the Westerhold 2007 Bennett Valley Syrah.   So, yeah, both were nice, but I don't know if I'd go out of my way to buy them.

I will look for some of your suggestions and give another try.  But although I have liked a few in the past, I just tend to not seek Syrah out.

Reply by dmcker, Mar 28, 2014.

Good post, Outthere. What you are saying two posts above this one reminded me so much of an old thread on problems with California cabs and how overblown and basically boring they had become that I jumped back 4+ years to re-read it. Had to laugh when I read some of my own posts, with comments like this:

On the positive side, here’s a partial listing of California producers that appear to be getting it right, to greater rather than lesser extent, anyway, from what I've tasted over the last year or two. I'm undoubtedly missing several because I am currently living in Tokyo and don't have access to anywhere near as many wines and wineries as I would if I were living back home in California. With some 3,000 wineries in California alone (and 1,000 in the Pacific Northwest these days), it would be extremely hard to get on top of things even if I was back in CA. Also this is off the top of my head, so I'm sure I'll remember others the second after I post this. Nonetheless, I'll get the ball rolling by putting up a list. Then, perhaps others will respond as to whether they agree or not, and suggest other names. 

To start with: 
--Anthill Farms
--Mt. Eden
--Wind Gap

--Natural Process Alliance


I had a laugh because my list above of wineries that 'got  it' was of winemakers focusing mostly on syrah (and pinot noir), and greatly overlaps with Outthere's current list.

Had an even bigger laugh because NG basically proposed to both Greg and myself  in that thread, too. How impetuous we were back then! 

And watching how your tastes have evolved over the years since then, NG, I can't help but wager  that you'll soon be singing paeans to the pleasures of cool-region syrahs, without too much actual arm-twisttng by Greg and Outthere. Back then you claimed not to be able to drink and like French wines, at all. Think you've gained from a change there, so why not further  expand into syrah from both countries, too?  ;-)




Reply by outthere, Mar 28, 2014.

Carlisle Syrahs are full flavor but require a lot of sideways time. See Mikes website for his drinking windows. Very informative and updated every time he tastes one. His Syrahs typically open up 5 years in and go another 10 easy.

Westerhold Syrahs are massive due to the winemaker, Russel Bevan, who is known for his big wines.

The ones I mentioned previously are different cats altogether.

Reply by JonDerry, Mar 28, 2014.

Impressive list indeed for 4+ years ago D

OT the first 4 vineyards you named for cool climate Syrah seem like they may be a cut above the others.

Reply by outthere, Mar 28, 2014.

Good knowledge on the NPA Dmcker, heck 4 years ago they were a mere infant and are still very much under the radar.

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