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Wine and Food Wednesday
Syrah To The Rescue

By Stephen Eliot

I do not particularly trust Spring, never have. It is fickle, it is hesitant and it is always late. The calendar on my desk says that it arrived today, but the chill-wind-driven dark clouds outside my window and the ice that I scraped from my windshield this morning are irrevocable proof that I have been lied to again. What is worse is that the popular press seems an accomplice in the hoax and is already making the turn to wines for warm-weather drinking and dining. I am sitting here freezing.

Nope, I am not ready to give up the heady and warming wines that seem so well suited to winter. Keep your Timorassos and Txakolis. Do not bother me just yet with your Grecos, Grillos, Grechettos and Gruner Veltliners. Refreshment is not what I am looking for just yet. When I see the sun for three days in a row, I will think about Rosé, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, but not before. I still want something that will warm from within; something that will find fair alliance with the barely bubbling pot of garlicky lamb shanks that waits for dinner. I want something red, and I want something rich.

Now, it is far from fashionable or oeno-politically correct to say a kind word in the defense of Syrah these days, but I think that is just what is called for this evening. Syrah has become an easy target; the red counterpart of Chardonnay whose damning proves one to be genuinely savvy and vinously hip. It seems the new recipient of “anything but” status. I will concede there are more than a few utterly uninteresting and downright boring bottlings to be had, and a good many recommended food-and-Syrah combinations leave me mystified and sometimes alarmed. Nevertheless, well-made Syrah, and there are many, is wine with much to offer. The best provide unmatched satisfaction with the kinds of hearty fare that I crave in these last dreary weeks of winter.

I have always thought that a classic, garlic-larded leg of lamb, braised short ribs and highly seasoned roasts on the bone sometimes overmatch the Cabernet crowd, and a savory Syrah’s extra sense of muscle and mass is often the prescription for real success. Mind you, I am not talking about throat-burning, over-the-top monsters that speak more to chocolate than fruit, but ripeness in itself is no vice. There are accomplished Syrah producers like JC Cellars, Darioush, DuMol, Shafer and Ramey that push the limits with regard to ripeness and sheer size and still offer up wines of extraordinary interest and depth. Others such as Dutton Goldfield, Ojai Vineyard, Breggo, Qupé and Novy pull back a bit from the brink and similarly show just how complex and involving good Syrah can be. It turns out that the list of worthies, both big and bigger, is actually quite a long one, and I feel a little less “unschooled” as I head to the cellar to pick tonight’s bottle. For this evening and this meal, Syrah is a “nothing but” choice.

Here are a few recent Connoisseurs’ Guide favorites...

92 BREGGO Alder Springs Vineyard Syrah Mendocino County 2007 $55.00
There is a real sense of polish about this bottling that sets it apart from the brawnier crowd, yet, even if very well-balanced and slightly supple in feel, it still musters lots of very solid Syrah fruit with abundant sweet oak enriching the mix. In some ways recalling Merlot or even a good Pinot insofar as its close-to-velvety feel goes, it invites drinking now but has a good deal in reserve and will unfold and become more involving in four or five years.
Reviewed: November 2010

91 JC CELLARS Fess Parker's Vineyard Syrah Santa Barbara County 2008 $30.00
Spot-on varietal spice and pepper get full play in this very expressive Syrah, and an extra bit of roasted meat gaminess is layered atop its very generous blackberry fruit. If ripe and mouthfilling, the wine is ever so slightly less so than most of its cellarmates, and its rich, nicely balanced, very long-lasting finish shows nary a hint of last-minute heat. It too has a long life before it, but it is so structured as to also be useful now as a foil to a juicy, garlic-larded leg of lamb.
Reviewed: March 2011

92 MacROSTIE Wildcat Mountain Syrah Sonoma Coast 2006 $34.00
Nicely ripened blackberry scents with spicy, nutmeg and cocoa-like accents are followed on the palate by a supple entry and then by firming acidity. A bit of early flesh helps open up the wine a bit, and its solid, deep and balanced flavors hold well into the its long, somewhat zesty finish. Not a massive wine, it nonetheless will reward a few years of cellaring, and its best uses with food are likely to be a bit more refined than the more beamy, bold Syrahs seem to demand.
Reviewed: November 2010

91 NOVY Christensen Family Vineyard Syrah Russian River Valley 2008 $27.00
Rather more modest than its mates as far as its expression of full-throttle varietal spice goes, this very deep, optimally ripened look at Syrah is directed almost entirely by abundant fruit and its peppery accents are just that. It is full and slightly viscous to start but quickly firms and sheds its baby fat as it takes a more structured stance. There is plenty of room for improvement and growth here, and, if three or four years are the minimal waiting period, it boasts the look of wine that will evolve for many years.
Reviewed: March 2011

91 ZACA MESA Syrah Santa Ynez Valley 2006 $23.00
Fans of expressively gamy Syrah should find a good deal to like here, but so too will those who like their Syrahs on the rich and well-ripened side. The wine is a big one, yet it is nicely balanced, and it does a fine job of hiding its heat. Neither its acidity nor its ample tannins are excessive, and the two are seamlessly fit. It is sufficiently fruity to enjoy early on but has the extract and depth to improve for a few years. Zaca Mesa seems to get it right with Syrah year in and year out. Well done.
Reviewed: November 2010

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