We asked producers to submit two Syrahs—one priced $20 or less, the other priced over $20. Last month, in Part One, we reported on the under-$20 set. This month, we sink our teeth into the upper crust.
This is the big leagues, the upper division finals. Wine Enthusiast’s intrepid tasting team, palates well-seasoned by Part One of our World Cup of Syrah, confronted a global selection of 200 wines priced over $20—some well over $20. Regardless of price or place of origin, these players are in this game for one reason—all were at least 75 percent Syrah, in conformance with ATF labeling regulations. In Part One (“The Next Big Thing,” October 2001), we covered the history and legends of Syrah as well as the less expensive bottlings. This month, we’ll get straight to the juice.
For starters, what do you get when you taste at the top? For sure, you get quality. Overall quality was significantly higher than in Part One—although not uniformly. In marked contrast to last month’s dearth of 90-point scores, this month, 56 wines—more than 25 percent of the wines reviewed—received scores of 90 points or higher.
What Price Performance?
We sampled Syrahs from a very broad price range (from $21 to $145)—the most expensive wines were priced almost seven times higher than the lowest-priced wines. The top price could have gone higher, too, had we not already reviewed Penfold’s Grange, which carries a suggested price of $185 and usually retails for more, earlier this year. Flights were grouped in comparable price and geographic groupings, so wines were not blind-tasted against competitors costing twice or thrice as much, or directly against wines of vastly differing origin.
After “Is it good?” the inevitable question is “What does it cost?” Everyone is interested in the bang-for-the-buck factor. Wines at the lower-end of the price spectrum, those costing $28 and less, perhaps relate more to wines from Part One of our survey than the upper-end wines covered here. The strongest performers in this range are our Top Values.
Top Value is a qualification awarded to wines that retail above our normal Best Buy range, but are notable for their positive price-quality rapport. We only use the Top Value designation in our tasting features. We list 17 Top Values in the sidebar. Many other top-scoring wines were priced just above our defined cut-off points for Top Value in this survey. These warrant serious consumer attention, especially if discounted this holiday season.
Enthusiasts should remember that price, quality and rating are not necessarily related factors. Price is most often a factor of the scale of production—a wine made in small quantities will almost always cost more. We hope these wines will be excellent, but there’s no guaranteed correlation.
Price is also the product of specific marketing decisions, a factor that has no impact on our panelists’ estimation of a wine. In tasting feature flights, samples are tasted blind. Reviewers do not know which wines, or the cost of the wines, they are tasting until after a rating has been assigned.
Where is the good stuff coming from? From all over the world—and also from a few select places. In the U.S., winemakers have taken to this Rhône variety, planting it just about anywhere grapes will grow. In California, although no single region stood out, we found a wealth of quality Syrah from all parts of the state. Further north, Washington turned in an impressive performance—evidence of just how important this grape may be to the future of the wine industry there.
Not surprisingly, we found a lot to like in Australia. Top wines came from many subregions, but South Australia, and especially the Barossa Valley, were strong performers. Predictably, France’s Rhône Valley—and, less predictably, the Languedoc—yielded great wines in numbers out of all proportion to the number of offerings tasted. Other parts of the world are producing Syrah, too—with growing success.
California: Quality all over the Place
It was hard to associate excellence with place in the assortment of top-ranked Californian wines. Two of our top wines, Sine Qua Non’s 1998 E-raised Syrah and Martella’s 1999 Hammer Syrah, bore the broad California AVA employed on many of the state’s least expensive wines. But sourcing fruit from different regions of California can afford winemakers a wider palette of fruit character to employ in blending, regardless of price. In Martella’s case, Sierra Foothills Syrah is blended with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
In California, excellent Syrah—like June in the song—is bustin’ out all over. “Not long ago Syrah was scarcely acknowledged beyond a handful of growers and winemakers in California,” observes Mat Garretson wryly. The Paso Robles winemaker should know, as originator and organizer of the Hospice du Rhône, the world’s largest gathering devoted to Rhône grapes and wines—including, of course, Syrah.
“When we started, there weren’t many people to invite. Now it seems California is virtually exploding with Syrah. My winery is 100 percent devoted to Rhône grapes, none more than Syrah, and I work with a dozen different Syrah vineyards throughout the state. I’m honestly amazed by the grape’s strength and adaptability, its diverse, beautiful expressions from a wide range of soils, climates, elevations and exposures. In comparison, try growing Cabernet Sauvignon where it’s too cool—or Pinot Noir where it’s too hot—and see what you get.”
Such wines as the complex and ageworthy Garretson 1999 The Finné Alban Vineyard Syrah, from Edna Valley in San Luis Obispo County are a testament to his commitment. From nearby Paso Robles, check out L’Aventure’s dark and solid 1999 Syrah, or the handsome (and handsomely priced) Midnight Cellars 1999 Nocturne Syrah.
Santa Barbara County is becoming a hotspot for California Syrah—evidenced by the number of top-rated wines from this region and its subappellations of Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Maria Valley. The darkly elegant Io, a Rhône blend containing (this year, anyway) enough Syrah to qualify for our survey, is from Santa Barbara County; Beckmen’s 1999 Purisima Mountain Syrah and Daniel Gehrs’ 1999 Syrah both come from Santa Ynez Valley.
For all the success of the south-central coast, northern California wineries are also turning out fine Syrah. The top-rated American wine was Dehlinger’s 1998 Syrah from the Russian River Valley. Tom Dehlinger’s excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have previously impressed our tasters, and his Syrah does not miss a beat. But finding it—like the Sine Qua Non, another very limited-production wine—may be tough. These are wines to buy from restaurant wine lists, as they will hardly ever be found at retail stores.
Besides Dehlinger, other excellent Russian River Valley Syrahs include offerings from Limerick Lane and Gary Farrell. Sonoma County’s many other AVAs are proving fertile for Syrah as well: La Crema’s 1999 is from Sonoma County, Castle’s 1999 is from Sonoma Valley and Ridge’s 1999 Lytton Estate ATP Syrah is from Dry Creek Valley.
Napa, too, deserves its due—the 1999s from Lewis, Chamleon, Hagafen and Paloma are all excellent efforts. McDowell’s 1999 Reserve Syrah shows Mendocino also can produce head-turning Syrah.
From California high country, the El Dorado AVA in the Sierra Foothills gives evidence of a positive future for Syrah there, with such offerings as the formidable Sierra Vista 1997 Five Star Reserve and the appealing, affordable Perry Creek 1999 Cellar Select.
Washington: A Power Performance
In a surprisingly strong—and admittedly unexpected—performance, three of the top five American Syrahs were from Washington. Washington State growers have been putting Syrah in the ground virtually as fast as the nurseries make plants available—and in a variety of locations. “The nature of Syrah to reflect individual terroirs affords the ability to make a diverse assortment—or combination—of styles, as desired,” says Washington winemaker Eric Dunham, echoing observations heard earlier from California’s Garretson. “The impact of specific sites on the quality and taste of fruit is dramatic. Separate blocks within a vineyard can have vast differences. I try to reflect what I love about both the Aussie and Hermitage styles of Syrah, and blend to that end.
“If a single vineyard really stands out in a year, I’ll release a vineyard-designated wine,” Dunham continues. “However, most Dunham wines will be blends of fruit from contracted vineyards and from our own estate. I think year to year it makes a better wine.” This year, the Dunham 1999 Lewis Vineyard Syrah from the Columbia Valley tied for top Washington honors with the L’Ecole No. 41 Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah from the Walla Walla Valley. Widely available Columbia Crest turned out a dense, flavorful 1998 Reserve.
Australia: A Southern Constellation of Stars
You can field a full team of top wines from South Australia, Oz’s most productive wine region, and the one that accounts for almost half the country’s output. Among the 26 wines in the entire tasting rated 91 and above, 10 came from this state. The Barossa Valley, perhaps the most famous of the South Australian GIs, provided five of these 10. Most South Australian wine comes from GIs (not soldiers, mind you, but Geographic Indicators, Australia’s equivalent of France’s appellations and the U.S.’s AVAs) around the city of Adelaide.
Only 35 miles outside of Adelaide, Barossa is a region originally settled primarily by German immigrants and known Down Under for its Riesling as well as its Shiraz. But the success of its reds, especially Shiraz, has put Barossa near the top of the world pantheon of grape-growing regions. The climate in this area, where most grapes are planted at an altitude of between 800 and 1000 feet, is generally hot—hot and dry.
Great Syrah on a budget? Yes, it’s possible. We generally award Best Buys to wines priced under $15, so there were no candidates in a tasting starting at $21. However, we definitely found wines that represent plenty of “bang-for-the-buck,” and that’s where our Top Value qualification comes in. It’s our way of identifying outstanding values in a price-defined tasting like this one. Here are 17 super Syrahs that make the grade.
“Barossa has a climatic profile that suits the Shiraz grape,” observes winemaker Natasha Mooney, maker of the Barossa Valley Estate 1998 E & E Black Pepper Shiraz, which tied for top honors in our World Cup Part Two with France’s J.L. Chave 1998 Hermitage. “The warmth of the growing period and little rain during the summer allows even ripening of both fruit flavors and tannins,” she continues. Previous vintages of E & E have also rated well (the 1996, 91 points and the 1997, 90 points), and the great 1998 vintage has yielded a truly superb wine.
Other impressive wines from South Australia included Oliverhill’s 2000 Jimmy Section Shiraz and Tatachilla’s 1996 Foundation Shiraz from McLaren Vale. From Clare Valley, Jim Barry’s 1997 The Armagh; from the Adelaide Hills, Paracombe’s 1998 Shiraz; and from Coonamwarra, Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate 1997 Michael Shiraz round out South Australia’s lengthy list of star performers.
France: Old and New Strengths
France’s Rhône Valley set the original standard for quality Syrah and continues to do so. Six of our top-rated wines are French, despite France’s many fewer entries than Australia or the United States. The J.L. Chave 1998 Hermitage tied for top overall honors. It’s totally different from, but equally as impressive as, the Aussie with which it shares the top spot. The intense, fabulously expressive bouquet, beautiful balance and structure of this wine promise great life, and follow more than a decade of steady, fine performances from this estate. And with this family background, why not? The venerable Chave family has been engaged in viticulture since 1481—before Columbus sailed to the New World.