This spring, during the biannual two-day Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles, California, I sampled Syrahs and other Rhône varieties that spanned global regions and decades of vintages, from 10-year-olds bottled by Albans and 20-year-olds from Sine Qua Nons to 30-year-old Condrieus and Côte Rôties.
Then I returned home and opened a bottle of Qupé’s Bien Nacido Vineyard Syrah from 1987, purchased recently for $50.
Even compared to all of the glorious wines of the previous days, this bottling from a historic vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley was revelatory. The wine wasn’t awesome simply because it was 31 years old and still totally alive. Rather, winemaker Bob Lindquist’s long-lasting handiwork was stunning in all aspects, with rounded dark fruit, luscious baking spice and savory meat flavors, all wrapped in joyous acidity and polished tannins.
“Very possibly the best wine I’ve ever had,” I stated on Instagram.
My post launched a torrent of applause and eyebrow-raised intrigue, yet I wasn’t surprised by the Qupé at all. Over the past few years, I’ve sought out older Syrahs from across the Central Coast, like Novy Family expressions from the Santa Lucia Highlands, Saxum bottlings from its James Berry Vineyard in Paso Robles and The Ojai Vineyard versions from Bien Nacido in Santa Maria Valley, and I’m frequently floored by their excellence. These Syrahs not only stand the test of time, they emerge stronger, smoother and smarter after all those years in bottle.
This understanding was hammered home late last year, when I joined Joey Tensley at his Santa Ynez Valley winery for a 16-year vertical of his namesake Syrahs from the Colson Canyon Vineyard.
We started by heading up to the vineyard itself, located in a ridiculously remote, chaparral-choked canyon north of the Santa Maria Valley, where the bear and the mountain lion roam.
“If you were dropped off at Colson Canyon Vineyard, you’d never know you were in Santa Barbara,” says Tensley, the only person to have used fruit off of these vines each harvest since 2000. It was planted by an orthopedic surgeon, Reo Reiswig, in 1997 after he found a generous spring that gurgles out even in the drought years, but Tensley took over full ownership of the vineyard in 2016.
The 116-acre property is planted to more than 16 acres of Syrah and Grenache, surrounded by jagged peaks, poison oak and impenetrable scrub.
“It’s pretty trippy topography,” he says of its 1,400-foot elevation. “You’re usually walking on clouds up here.”
Back down at the winery, Tensley poured tastes of each bottling from 2000 to 2015. Varying from leathery to very fresh, some vintages were more powerful, some more tightly wound, and not in the order you’d expect—the 2001, for instance, tasted younger than the 2003, and the 2007 much more zippy than the brooding 2013. But they were all full of black pepper, tar and rich blackberry flavors, classic Syrah elements.
“What I like is that they all have the same flavor profile,” says Tensley, who explained that the 2007 was his “go-to” wine. “They all came from the same place.” And none were even close to being over the hill.
“There’s just not a lot of old Syrah in America,” says Tensley. “When I started making wine in 1998, it was hard to find five wineries that make Syrah. Now it’s hard to find five wineries that don’t.”
Given these experiences, that should be a boon for cellars to come. Says Tensley, “Now you can truthfully say with California Syrahs that they age.”