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Volume 34, Issue 9: July 2010

Syrah

The so-called “Rhône Revolution” is running into its third decade here in California, and the star of the show is still Syrah, the red grape that makes the wines from the northern Rhône region of France. Wine collectors know and admire bottlings from such well-regarded places as Côte Rotie, Hermitage and their lesser known but important neighbors in the area south of Lyon. It is there that Syrah is king and makes lots of complex, dramatic long-aging wines. That we did not have Syrah here in California in any meaningful way owes more to the confusion about varieties that has only been set right in the last couple of decades through a variety of techniques, most recently and definitively through DNA analysis.

But we do now have plenty of Syrah. Indeed, we have more Syrah than can be sold, and the grape is finding its way into all kinds of unusual blends. It is true that Syrah did once exist in Bordeaux and that the Aussies have long blended their Syrah, which they call Shiraz for no apparent good reason, with Cabernet Sauvignon. Seeing Syrah show up as a lesser but supportive portion of Cabernet here may not emulate current-day Bordelais practices, but it is neither a surprise nor a problem. Finding Syrah in Pinot Noir is a bit more bothersome, if only because the common wisdom is that Pinot should stand on its own.

It turns out that the Rhône river exits the northern region and runs south through another wine district about two hours drive, and that district is, not surprisingly called, the southern Rhône. Grenache is the leading variety there, and while Syrah is allowed in the blends that predominate in the southern Rhône in such famous areas as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, among others, it has traditionally been a minor or even ignored part of those blends. Yet those blends and the grapes that make them, along with the whites (excepting Viognier which we covered earlier in the year) of both north and south Rhône areas are the collective stars of the Rhône Revolution, and their appearance together in this Issue is not accidental. Nor is the appearance of Petite Sirah, a grape created in France a century and a half ago but not much planted there. It is planted here where it makes extra sturdy red wines. It turns out that Syrah is its daddy, and, more interestingly, that for the longest time, California vintners thought that Petite Sirah was actually Syrah itself.

There are short essays about those other grapes in the following pages, yet, aside from Petite Sirah, none of those others has as yet emerged in real stardom. We think we see glimmers of greatness for Grenache and Marsanne, but the sample size is still quite small. Time may see them emerge in their own rights, and thus, the wines reviewed in those sections can be thought of as possible precursors to the future. Finally, speaking of the future, our Centerfold has an essay by Associate Editor Steve Eliot about the visionary winemaker, Randall Grahm. Now too old to be called a “boy genius”, Grahm remains one of the California wine scene’s most intellectual, forward-thinking vintners.



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92
ADELAIDA
Reserve. Viking Estate Vineyard.
Syrah
 Paso Robles 2007
$65.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
As deep in fruit as the best Syrahs of the vintage and especially noteworthy for its fine sense of balance, this rich, very well-crafted wine offers up layered aromas and flavors of ripe berries and creamy oak with subtle accents of dried-flowers and spice. It is so supple to start that it feigns early softness, but it firms up as it goes, and its long, well-fruited finish is underlain by mannerly structural tannins. In truth, it is wonderfully tasty right now and could be paired up with a well-marbled rib roast, but it will gain in complexity over the next four or five years and deserves a chance to reach its best.
Reviewed: July 2010
88
ADELAIDA
Anna's Estate Vineyard
Syrah
 Paso Robles 2007
$28.00
Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Although not quite so flamboyant and ever so slightly reined-in when compared to the winery's other Syrahs, Adelaida's Anna's Estate bottling still charts a course that is governed by ripeness and sports a touch of milk chocolate. It keeps heat in check and is firmed by nicely fit tannins, and, after resting for a couple of years, it should prove a welcome dinner companion to savory braised lamb shanks.
Reviewed: July 2010
87
ADELAIDA
Reserve. The Glenrose Vineyard.
Syrah
 Paso Robles 2007
$55.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Likely to garner as many detractors as champions, this opulent and somewhat overblown wine is bound to be the stuff of controversy. There is simply no question that it is more than a bit over the top as far as unrestrained ripeness goes, and it barely has enough structural "bones" to support all of its fat. Still, it is also a rich, immensely flavorful and mouthfilling wine of unquestioned extravagance.
Reviewed: July 2010
88
AVER FAMILY
Homage
Syrah
 Central Coast 2007
$35.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Tipped in favor of ripeness and well-concentrated if a bit on the syrupy side in aroma, this full-bodied wine is supple and slightly viscous on the palate but avoids going over the edge and, even with a softish underbelly, it never turns heavy. Its ripe, richness directs it to service with long-cooked meats like braised short ribs or Carbonnade de Boeuf.
Reviewed: July 2010
85
BLACKSMITH
Hephaestus
Syrah
 Alexander Valley 2006
$35.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeSpicy Dishes
Its blend of ripe, dried berry notes and slight angularity is not the exactly the strongest start, but there is fruit underneath, and it pulls the wine back from the brink. It is supple to begin, somewhat stiffer, almost sere in progression and comes with a tannic toughness that is alien to the winery's normal approach, yet here again, it is saved by its underlying fruit.
Reviewed: July 2010
85
BLACKSMITH
Coyote Crest Vineyard
Syrah
 Alexander Valley 2006
$20.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Fairly ripe without so much as a suggestion of excess, this balanced effort sports suggestions of dried leaves rather than spices or game in its aromas and comes across in a similar fashion in the mouth. A back-palate dose of tannin firms it up nicely and gives the wine the needed structure to be a good partner to grilled steaks and chops.
Reviewed: July 2010
88
BONNY DOON
Le Cigare Volant
Syrah
 California 2006
$32.00
Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
A good bit of lightly peppery spice immediately tags this one as counting Syrah in its mix, while subtle strains of raspberries and soft oak make for a fairly complete nose. Supple, slightly velvety and nicely balanced, the wine is restrained in ripeness, free of apparent heat and shows the cool-climate structure of a wine meant for aging. It is not and never will be a bold and blustery wine, but we like its precision and its promise to reveal layered complexity with age.
Reviewed: July 2010
87
BONNY DOON
Le Pousseur
Syrah
 Central Coast 2007
$18.00
Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Compact, unevolved and only hinting at richness just now, this intriguing Syrah steers a course well apart from the swaggering high-ripeness crowd. It shows flashes of dark soil, dried violets and graphite with a core of pert, red-berry fruit its major motif. It is narrowed by fairly firm acids but counts temperate tannins as a real plus, and it makes a good case that ageworthy wines need not be rugged or brash.
Reviewed: July 2010
83
CANIS MAJOR
Unti Vineyard
Syrah
 Dry Creek Valley 2006
$25.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Even allowing that young Syrah is rarely a polite wine, this sere and very tough take on the grape is bothered by out-of-bounds bitterness and never shows close to enough fruit to make keeping an option.
Reviewed: July 2010
86
CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE
Syrah
 Columbia Valley 2006
$13.00
GOOD VALUE
Generally AvailableDrink NowBeef/Lamb
Somewhat mild but wholly on point blackberry scents are joined by a soft bit of spice and equally quiet hints of roast beef in the aromas. Medium-full in body and somewhat round on the palate with comfortable Syrah focus and weight, this fairly direct wine may not challenge the expensive spreads for power, but it will be just what the doctor ordered for steaks and chops off the grill.
Reviewed: July 2010
86
CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE
Boreal
Syrah
 Columbia Valley 2006
$30.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Smelling of pepper and plums and a scant whiff of smoke and following with like-minded, if slightly, dry flavors, this fairly fleshy, full-bodied wine is squarely on the varietal track. It finishes a bit short and wants just a little more evident fruit to get into the recommended ranks, but it will make useful drinking in the near term with hunks of well-seasoned beef hot off the grill.
Reviewed: July 2010
86
CLINE
Cool-Climate Syrah
Syrah
 Sonoma Coast 2007
$16.00
GOOD VALUE
Limited AvailabilityDrink NowLamb
Moderately gamy and slightly toasty with mid-density blackberry fruit on the positive side of the ledger, this wine runs to a bit of sour plum in its flavors and is not much encumbered by tannin. Medium-full in body and somewhat firm in structure, it is a light and brisk version of Syrah that comes at a comfortable price.
Reviewed: July 2010
85
CONCANNON
Shiraz. Selected Vineyards.
Syrah
 Central Coast 2007
$10.00
GOOD VALUE
Generally AvailableDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
If taken as a version of classic, ageworthy Syrah, this scaled-down wine might disappoint, but its pert, raspberry fruit, lively balance and minimal tannins all add up to a likeable, slightly lighter take on the grape whose cleanliness and wholly amicable manner will please at the price.
Reviewed: July 2010
85
COPAIN
Tous Ensemble
Syrah
 Mendocino County 2007
$18.00
Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
If conveying a fair sense of extract, this ripe, vaguely chocolaty wine is a bit muddled and struggles to find a clear sense of fruit in both its aromas and its slightly dull, flattened-out flavors. Its ample tannins are never balanced by proportional fruit, and its chances for improvement are slim.
Reviewed: July 2010
87
CRANE BROTHERS
Crane Ranch Vineyard
Syrah
 Napa Valley 2006
$36.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Very much a bottling of mixed messages, this big-bodied Syrah is both ripe and fleshy but is also limited just now by its very prominent acids. It gets by on its concentration and sheer fruity depth, and, while we are not absolutely certain that it will find comfortable cohesion as it ages, it does have enough extracted fruit at its heart to warrant a quiet hiding place in the cellar all the same.
Reviewed: July 2010
87
CURTIS
Ambassador's Vineyard
Syrah
 Santa Ynez Valley 2006
$22.00
Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Edging out the two Curtis bottlings by dint of its slightly deeper, better-defined fruit, this one is colored by a light bit of varietal spice and comes with a touch more palatal grip. It has the requisite richness to buffer its back-end tannins, but it is still on the slightly rugged side and should be set aside for three to five years.
Reviewed: July 2010
86
CURTIS
Crossroads Vineyard
Syrah
 Santa Ynez Valley 2006
$32.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
The full-blown spice of Syrah is at center stage here, and, while the wine offers up a modicum of dried-berry fruit, it is defined first and foremost by its mix of pepper, smoked meats, leather and game. Its indelicate tannins and undisguised heat make for rough going on the latter palate, but just enough fruit survives that it does not lose its way, and a couple of years should help smooth things out.
Reviewed: July 2010
85
CURTIS
Vogelzang Vineyard
Syrah
 Santa Ynez Valley 2006
$24.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Loose notes of smoked meats and a touch of chocolate sit atop suggestions of dried berries in the aromas here, and the wine's more-ripe-than-fruity flavors follow suit in their slightly reluctant display of discreet Syrah character. Rounded to start and a bit chalky at the end, this one may benefit from brief aging but will not grow into noteworthy beauty.
Reviewed: July 2010
88
CUTT
Fearless Red
Syrah
 Napa Valley 2007
$38.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
It should come as no surprise that this mixed bag of grapes does not fix keenly on any specific varietal theme, but it delivers lots of buoyant young berry-like fruit and counts complexing highlights of sweet oak, briar and a bit of tobacco as noteworthy assets. It toughens up just enough at the finish to warrant a few years of patient keeping.
Reviewed: July 2010
85
CUTT
Syrah
 Napa Valley 2007
$30.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Standing in real contrast to the winery's lively red blend above, the Cutt Syrah is comparatively a thicker, slightly softer wine whose smoke-infused fruit is challenged by grippy tannins and heat. Elements of dark coffee and chocolate out-distance its lesser suggestions of berries, and refinement seems forever out of its reach.
Reviewed: July 2010
88
CUVAISON
Syrah
 Carneros; Napa Valley 2007
$32.00
Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Beefy, peppery and gamy at one and the same time, but a trifle wiry in its blackberry fruit scents, this wine is better focused than it is deep and, somewhat surprisingly, its first acidy impressions on the palate give way to underlying softness that belies its cool-area provenance. Late-arriving astringency brings some needed grip and a bit of ageworthiness.
Reviewed: July 2010
93
DEHLINGER
East Face
Syrah
 Russian River Valley 2006
$55.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Winemaker Tom Dehlinger knows how to handle high ripeness, and his wines are brilliant rebuttals to those who claim that less is more. This highly extracted bottling exhibits keen Syrah focus and, while very deep, dense and chewy, it is simply loaded with richly spiced fruit and is always more about muscle than fat. Rife with blackberries, pepper and sweet oak, it is still tightly wound and a wine that wants time. Leave it alone for at least five or six years, and do not be surprised if it were to continue to grow for another decade or more.
Reviewed: July 2010
86
DEHLINGER
Gold. Ridge Vineyard.
Syrah
 Russian River Valley 2007
$35.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Predisposed to chocolate and somewhat dried, blackberry fruit, this hefty youngster skimps just a bit on clear Syrah character, and, if very certain to smooth off some of its rather evident angles and edges with time in the bottle, it may prove in the long run to be just a touch short on the fruity center needed to make it complete.
Reviewed: July 2010
87
DEMETRIA
North Slope
Syrah
 Santa Ynez Valley 2006
$35.00
Very Limited AvailabilityDrink Now or AgeBeef/Lamb
Holding its ripeness back a bit, yet not at all without it, this comfortably constructed wine presents a pleasant mix of blackberry-scented fruit, forest floor notes and creamy oak in its aromas, and those engaging yet restrained characteristics show up in the mouth as well and in the pert finish.
Reviewed: July 2010
89
DONKEY & GOAT
Fenaughty Vineyard
Syrah
 El Dorado 2007
$35.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Certain to appeal to those seeking structure rather than to fans of outgoing fruit, this bottling is built along tighter lines, but it still manages to display a pert note of berries and shows scattered suggestions of smoked meat, pepper and dried herbs. It narrows and firms, but never lose its hold on its tightly drawn fruit, and it comes with the recommendation for three to five years of age.
Reviewed: July 2010
91
DUMOL
Eddie's Patch
Syrah
 Russian River Valley 2007
$76.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
The spotlight is on Syrah's somewhat gamy side, and, while not wildly fruity, the wine seems a little held back by its youth and shows a good center of intense, still tightly wound, blackberry fruit. It is enriched with an ideal complement of the crème brûlée sweetness that comes of plentiful oak, and its combination of varietal substance and winemaking polish moves it to the head of the pack. While it does not quite open up in the present, its exceptionally long finish is still one more marker of a wine that is guaranteed to get better with age, and we expect it will grow into great beauty over time.
Reviewed: July 2010
84
EBERLE
Syrah
 Paso Robles 2007
$28.00
Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
If showing a touch of the same distracting, half-candied sweetness that plagues the wine below, this rough-cut bottling effort tempers its sins with a little more fruit, yet it runs full tilt into so much hard, acid-accentuated astringency that we doubt its chances for beauty with age.
Reviewed: July 2010
83
EBERLE
Steinbeck Vineyard
Syrah
 Paso Robles 2007
$21.00
Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
Led in the nose by an odd, off-putting note of vaguely candied, strawberry sweetness and flirting with suggestions of plastic all the way through, this crude and patently unpolished effort is at once ripe and very stiff on the palate with unbuffered tannins taking charge at the end.
Reviewed: July 2010
82
EDNA VALLEY VINEYARD
Paragon
Syrah
 Edna Valley. San Luis Obispo County. 2007
$15.00
Limited AvailabilityDrink NowLamb
Disappointing for its dry, somewhat too sharp aromas and hints of dill weed, this medium-full-bodied bottling is noticeably rounded and bit limp in feel on the palate. Its sour plum component does little to bring it a sense of vitality and it drifts into a dry, empty finish. This wine is woefully lacking in fruit and comes drenched in drear.
Reviewed: July 2010
90
EIGHT ARMS
Stagecoach Vineyard
Syrah
 Napa Valley 2007
$38.00
Very Limited AvailabilityAgeBeef/Lamb
More often than not, this hillside vineyard is noted for wines of great ripeness and strength. In this case, both traits are just a tad less in evidence, and the wine instead keys on lightly spiced, pure Syrah fruit. Slightly supple, keenly balanced and comparatively trim when measured against its more blustery mates, it is cut off by nominal last-minute tannins just now and will benefit from a few years of forbearance.
Reviewed: July 2010
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Tasting Note View

Brief ViewFull View
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Rating System

THREE STARS:(95-98 points) An exceptional wine. Worth a special search of the market.

TWO STARS:(91-94 points) A highly distinctive wine. Likely to be memorable.

ONE STAR:(87-90 points) Fine example of a type or style of wine. Without notable flaws.

Note: Wines not marked with stars are often delightful wines. Each has unique virtues and any of these wines may be the best wine to serve your needs based on value, availability or for your dining and taste preferences.

95-98 3 Stars
91-94 2 Stars
87-90 1 Star
80-86 Wines of varying quality and value. See tasting notes for details.
70-79 Flawed wines to be avoided.

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Ageworthiness

Drinkable now. Unlikely to improve with further aging.

Drinkable now. Further bottle aging can improve this wine.

Cellar for future drinking. Wine will improve with bottle aging.

Not suitable for drinking.

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Food & Wine Pairings

Soft and fruity wine Quaffable by itself or with light foods.

Crisp white. Medium acid and dry. Fish or delicate flavored foods.

Mellow white. Dry to slightly sweet. Enough acid for white meats.

Full and balanced dry white. Try with rich seafood and fowl dishes.

Light Red and powerhouse White. Fowl, veal and light meats.

Medium Red. Balanced, good depth, medium tannin. Beef and lamb.

Robust Red. Full tannin, intense flavors. For highly spiced meat dishes.

Sweet Dessert wine. Enjoyable by itself or with sweet desserts.

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Availability

Generally available in most markets.

Limited production and/or limited geographic distribution.

Very limited availability.