Betting on Syrah

American vintners are gambling on Syrah, and consumers are the winners.


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American vintners are gambling on Syrah, and consumers are the winners.

 

Despite the heady Pinot Noir rush following the success of Sideways, the real grape success story in California is Syrah. According to the Wine Institute, Syrah production in the Golden State grew from 1,975 tons crushed in 1993 to 110,388 tons in 2003—a jump of 5,000 percent over 10 years.

In Washington, the growth in Syrah has also been spectacular, ever since Columbia Winery's inaugural—and first ever for Washington—commercial Syrah release from the 1988 vintage (a modest 400 cases from 3 acres of vines). Since then, Washington wineries have committed to Syrah in a huge way. Although prior to 1999 no statistics are available on the amount of Syrah planted in Washington, the 1999 figure was a modest 290 bearing acres. By 2004, that figure had grown to 1,988 acres—a nearly seven-fold increase in five years.

All of this Syrah has to end up somewhere, and it's finding its way into bottlings that range in retail price from $6 to $125. Our panel of Wine Enthusiast reviewers tasted more than 400 wines for this report, and we could have tasted even more if we didn't have to adhere to those pesky little things known as deadlines. The wines we sampled came from all over California and Washington—and we even tried a few from Oregon, Idaho and New York.

"We've been growing Syrah experimentally for six or seven years," says Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling of Cornell University's NYSAES in Geneva, New York. "It ripens relatively early, and in cool climates. But it will also ripen beyond that, getting more intense and tannic."

This tolerance for a wide range of climates gives Syrah a leg up on much of its competition. Try to grow Pinot Noir in a region that's too warm, or Cabernet Sauvignon in a region that's too cool, and the results are disappointing. But Syrah can succeed in places as diverse as New York's Long Island and California's Central Valley. The wines will taste different, but that's part of the appeal of the variety.

Do you like cool-climate versions, with crisp cherry-berry flavors and loads of peppery spice? Search out wines from coastal areas or higher elevations. Prefer riper fruit flavors, softer tannins and higher alcohols? Head for the interior—parts of Lodi, Paso Robles and Washington State. We found plenty of wines to like, from all over the West Coast.

Even better was the relative value that these wines provide. The boom in Syrah plantings means that there are an increasing number of good bottlings at affordable prices. Even high-end Syrahs still sell for less than Cabernet while offering many of the same characteristics. They may not taste the same, but they offer similar weight, structure and ageability.

The sheer volume of Syrah being crushed in California, plus low-priced competition from Australia, has helped drive prices down at the bottom end of the market, making bargains a true possibility in domestic Syrah—or, as some producers are now labeling it, Shiraz. We found 18 Best Buys in this tasting and we expect to see even more appearing on the market in the next year or two.

Zin-master Kent Rosenblum plans to release a nonvintage Vintner's Cuvée Syrah later this year. "It's gotten easier to find good Syrah than Zin on the bulk market," he says. This buyers' bulk market has already fueled the growth of Don Sebastiani and Sons' well-known Fusée and Smoking Loon brands.

Monterey's Lockwood Vineyard is taking a different approach. Its Syrah under the Shale Ridge Vineyard label is all estate grown from vineyards around San Lucas, in southern Monterey County. "We've got 30 acres of Syrah right now," says winemaker Larry Gomez, "and we've just top-grafted over another 30." Gomez blends from several different blocks picked at different crop loads and ripeness levels to make a minimally oaked, fruity wine retailing for only $8 per bottle.

While this vineyard-driven approach may be new to the value end of the spectrum, it has long been part of the appeal of ultrapremium Syrah. Qupé's Syrah bottlings mention the Bien Nacido Vineyard as early as 1987, the first vintage winemaker Bob Lindquist got Syrah from the vineyard. Much like Pinot Noir lovers, Syrah aficionados seem to enjoy finding every nuance of terroir reflected in their wines—and the winemakers and marketing folks seem all too willing to oblige.

Unfortunately, from a consumer's perspective, this process leads to more and more bottlings of fewer and fewer cases, and more and more confusion over what to buy. Are the single-vineyard wines always better? Nope. Which vintage should I buy? It depends on the producer. Which producers make the best wines? Read on.

Most of the 400-plus wines we tasted scored between 84 and 88 points, or Good to Very Good on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point rating scale. The vast majority of the Syrahs we tried were plump, easygoing red wines, fine companions to red-meat dinners. Wines that stood above the pack married ripe fruit with spicy complexity, balanced tannins, acids and alcohol, combined youthful approachability with structure to support aging, and did all of that with a sense of harmony and elegance.

Thanks to the technical skill of our American vintners and ever-increasing viticultural expertise, we found fine examples of Syrah from virtually all over the West Coast. From north to south, here are some of our favorites.


Washington

The vast Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) encompasses virtually all of the Syrah grown in Washington, and includes the important AVAs of Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley and Red Mountain. In our tasting, no one of these regions stood out as the best; all produced very good wines.

Yakima Valley yielded several wines that ranked high with our panel, including Whidbey Island Winery's 2002 (90 points, $19) and Sheridan Vineyards' 2002 (88 points, $36). Located in the Puget Sound, Whidbey Island Winery purchases grapes for its wine, while Sheridan relies solely on its young estate vineyards (the first vintage for the winery was 2000). The ripe, supple tannins and cracked pepper and spice notes of these wines exemplify the best attributes of Yakima Syrah.

Red Mountain, near the warmer eastern end of the Yakima Valley, was established in 2001, and is already well known for its Merlot and Cabernet. The higher temperatures give Syrahs grown here softer, jammier fruit than in other parts of the Yakima Valley, while cool nighttime temperatures help retain balancing acidity. Wines that typified Red Mountain Syrah in our tasting were the rich, nearly Port-like flavors of Matthews 2003 Hedges Estate Vineyard bottling (89 points, $50) and Doug McCrea's 2002 Ciel du Cheval Syrah (89 points, $55), which marries intriguing notes of game to a velvety mouthfeel.

Even further east lies the Walla Walla Valley, which slips over the southern border to include part of Oregon. Despite being relatively compact by Washington AVA standards, it covers a multitude of microclimates, and we didn't note any strong consistency of style in the wines from this region. Instead, we found everything from herbal, peppery, red-fruited wines to those that were dark, superripe and soft. Two of our favorites were the 2002 from Seven Hills (89 points, $25) and the 2002 En Cerise bottling from Christophe Baron's Cayuse Vineyards (88 points, $55).


Oregon

Oregon Syrah country is split into two parts. In the north, the southern extensions of the Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley AVAs reach across the border from Washington. But for Oregon wineries, the focus seems to be on the southern part of the state, in the Rogue and Applegate Valleys near Ashland. Rockblock, a Rhône-inspired offshoot of Domaine Serene, is one of the leaders at the moment, with three silky-textured Syrah bottlings that show their Pinot-making roots.


Mendocino & Lake Counties

Crossing into California, we tasted a relatively small sample of wines from Mendocino and Lake Counties, not enough to enable any generalizations about the wines. McDowell Valley Vineyards was the earliest proponent of Syrah in the region; alas, Bill Crawford's 2003 Syrah was not yet available for review. The pervasive influence of the Fetzer family is reflected in the high proportion of organic and biodynamic vineyards in the region (25 percent of the total), and Martella's 2003, crafted from the biodynamically farmed Fairbairn Ranch, shows that great potential exists.


Sonoma County

Sonoma has so many AVAs, with such different characteristics, that it makes no sense to speak of a "Sonoma" style or terroir. What is special about Sonoma is that virtually all of its subregions can produce excellent Syrah. From the cool Sonoma Coast near Fort Ross, Ehren Jordan's Failla Estate Vineyard Syrah (92 points, $48) was one of the top wines of the tasting, blending meaty, spicy notes with ripe fruit, while further inland, on the sun-drenched hillsides of the Mayacamas Mountains, we found darker, denser wines from Constant (92 points, $48) and Pride Mountain (91 points, $55). Really, these are probably more "Napa" than "Sonoma," given their respective locations.

In between the coast and the mountains, Sonoma Syrahs come in a wide range of styles. Some of the best came from the Russian River Valley, where the tempering maritime influence gives the wines a deliciously spicy-herbal edge. Arrowood's Saralee's Vineyard bottling is a perennial favorite that didn't let us down in the 2001 vintage (91 points, $38), while newcomer Eric Sussman's Radio-Coteau 2003  Timbervine Ranch was another knockout (91 points, $55).


Napa

In contrast to Sonoma, it's tempting to make some broad generalizations about the Napa Syrahs we tasted. They tended to be big but polished, lush and fruit-driven, and often rather oaky. As a group, they were also some of the best wines in the tasting, with almost 20 percent receiving marks of 90 points or higher. And despite the fact that Napa land costs for both Cabernet and Syrah are astronomical, most of the Syrahs cost less than their Cabernet counterparts. Ann Colgin's new IX Estate 2002 Syrah (91 points) is pricey at $125 for folks on the mailing list, but it's still $40 less than the least expensive of her Cabernet-based wines. Ditto for Heidi Barrett's La Sirena  2002 Napa Valley Syrah (90 points, $55), which sells for $70 less than her Cabernet.


Carneros

Straddling Napa and Sonoma, it seemed unfair to talk about the Syrahs from Carneros under one county or the other, plus the six wines we tasted from Carneros certainly deserve their own separate mention. The top wine in the tasting—Truchard's 2002 Syrah (93 points, $28)—came from Carneros, as did another high-scorer, MacRostie's 2002 Wildcat Mountain Vineyard (92 points, $32).

Much like the Russian River Valley, Carneros is cooled by marine breezes, which impart a slightly herbal, spicy edge to the wines that our tasters found especially attractive. Nickel & Nickel, Cakebread and Cuvaison also crafted Carneros Syrahs worthy of note. Slow to fulfill its early promise for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, we can only hope to see more Carneros Syrah in the near future.


Sierra Foothills & Sacramento Delta

Aside from the Syrahs from Bill Easton's Domaine de la Terre Rouge (not part of this tasting), we've yet to be consistently impressed by what we've tasted out of the Sierra Foothills. But this tasting gave us hope for the future. In particular, the Tanner Brothers Vineyard in Calaveras County yielded two Syrahs that showed considerable promise—one made by Napa-based Smith Wooten (88 points, $28), the other from Calaveras-based Twisted Oak (87 points, $28; they call it simply Tanner Vineyard). Planted in 1998 at an altitude of 2,000 feet above sea level, this will be a vineyard name to watch as the vines mature.

Although the majority of Lodi Syrahs focus on delivering easy fruit at everyday prices—previously well-reviewed brands include Clay Station, Leaping Horse, Napa Ridge and Turner Road—some efforts are moving upscale. Michael David Vineyards 2003 Earthquake Syrah is a big, ripe wine with bold fruit flavors (87 points, $25).

From Yolo County, Rosenblum's 2003 Rominger Vineyard Syrah (91 points, $26) was one of the best wines in the entire tasting, and don't forget that Yolo County encompasses the Dunnigan Hills, which is the source of Elkhorn Peak's 2002 Syrah (88 points, $16) and home to R.H. Phillips. The intrepid Rosenblum has also been purchasing grapes from what he claims to be one of California's oldest Syrah vineyards, in neighboring Solano County.


Monterey County

Much as in the Russian River Valley or Los Carneros, ocean breezes coming off the Pacific cool most of Monterey. And just like in those north-of-SF places, it sometimes seems as if California winegrowers are planting Syrah virtually everywhere they grow Pinot Noir. One of the big advantages that Monterey has, however, is space. Vineyard land has never cost as much here as it has in Napanoma, and the result is that Monterey Syrah prices are easier on the wallet.

The Delicato family's San Bernabe Vineyard, in the heart of Monterey wine country, is billed as the most diversified single vineyard in the world. It's also one of the largest, with approximately 4,300 planted acres; roughly 200 of those are devoted to Syrah. That commitment to Syrah came through in our tastings, where the family's Night Owl 2003 San Bernabe Vineyard Shiraz was one of our Best Buys (88 points, $12). Shale Ridge Vineyard also earned a Best Buy accolade (86 points, $8). Although these wines are priced similarly to Lodi- or California-appellation Syrahs, they taste different, with more herbal complexity, higher acidity and less jammy-fruit character.

But don't think that Monterey is only capable of making bargain-priced Syrahs for everyday drinking. Illustrious wineries outside the region, such as Novy and Testarossa, are making great Syrahs from Santa Lucia Highlands fruit, as are natives Morgan and Paraiso. For complex, herb- and spice-nuanced Syrahs, Monterey is on the move.


San Luis Obispo County

Paso Robles, the largest AVA in SLO County, is a dramatic contrast to neighboring Monterey. Although much has been written about the cooling breezes flowing through the Templeton Gap, many of Paso's vineyards aren't all that cool. That said, there are some great wines emerging from this region. L'Aventure, Linne Colodo and Saxum are three that come to mind, but their release schedules put them between vintages for this tasting. West Coast Editor Steve Heimoff will cover these emerging stars and others from the region in our October issue.

The diminutive Edna Valley AVA shares certain similarities with other California coastal regions known as much for their Pinot Noir as their Syrah. The vineyards are open to Pacific breezes off Morro Bay, giving them a distinctively cool-climate profile. John Alban (profiled in our June 2005 article on California's best single vineyards) sparked the Rhône revolution in this region, but other producers are making noteworthy wines, including Talosa and Baileyana. Kynsi and Talley (maker of Bishop's Peak) are in nearby Arroyo Grande, but are also making top wines from Edna Valley fruit.


Santa Barbara County

Continuing our southward journey, Santa Maria Valley is dominated by the roughly 900-acre Bien Nacido Vineyard—a source of Syrah for Qupé, Kynsi and Benziger, among others. We often find a certain austerity to Bien Nacido Syrahs, which can make them hard to judge in their youth, but Benziger's 2002 bucks this trend, instead heading toward Oz-style jamminess.

The Santa Ynez Valley may be known as Pinot Noir country, but forgive us if after this tasting we think of it as Syrah country. Led by risk-taking vineyard owners, such as Tom and Marilyn Stolpman, Steve Beckmen and Andrew Murray, this region is exploding with potential. Like in the other top Syrah regions of California, there's a balance of spice and fruit in the wines that's a result of the climate.


South Coast

It's likely that few consumers know the extent of the South Coast AVA—or are even aware that one exists. But the area from Los Angeles to the Mexican border once boasted more acres planted to grapes than Napa has now. Today, the numbers of vineyards and wineries are way down, battered by Pierce's disease and housing developments. Yet despite these twin pressures, one winery's Syrahs from this region scored big with our tasting panel.

Temecula's Hart Winery, whose winery dates to 1980 (although the Hart family began planting vines back in 1974), impressed with two distinctive bottlings that show Syrah from the South Coast deserves a chance. The 2002 South Coast wine (89 points, $24) possesses excellent complexity, fine balance and a realistic price tag, while the Volcanic Ridge Vineyard bottling (90 points, $32) is a big bruiser. Both deliver spicy, meaty notes alongside plummy fruit, making them reminiscent of Syrahs from the Southern Rhône.

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