It’s time to give Central Coast Syrah its due. Not only does it produce age worthy wines, but you’ll find a wide variety of styles and regions to explore.
The wines discussed in this episode are:
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Read the full transcript of “Central Coast Syrah Belongs in Your Glass and Cellar”:
Jameson Fink: Welcome to Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting Podcast. I’m your host, Jameson Fink. Join we as we discuss three fantastic wines, and why each one belongs in your glass. This episode I’m exploring Syrah, from California’s Central Coast with contributing editor Matt Kettmann, who covers and reviews wines from the region. What We’re Tasting is sponsored by Vivino. Vivino is the world’s largest online wine marketplace, powered by a community of 30 million wine drinkers who use The Vino app to engage with 2 million wines (including Central Coast Syrah from California) every single day.
So when it comes to the top grape, the top dog in California, especially with red wine, everyone wants to talk about Cabernet. It’s the wine people collect, it’s the one that can age, it’s the one that gets the most love, and press, and it’s well-loved for a reason. It’s a famous, famous grape. But I think we’re giving short shrift to Syrah. it’s underrated, it’s versatile, and it also belongs in your cellar. So Matt, you have recently made the case for Central Coast Syrah, the area that you cover, as being age worthy. Can you talk about sort of your awakening with Syrah as a grape that is age worthy?
Matt Kettmann: Yeah, of course. I’ve loved Syrah since I started liking wine. I’ve always found it to be kind of one of the more interesting wines out there. And it was actually one of the first wines where I was in a tasting room, I read a note that said “cracked pepper”, and I actually smelled cracked pepper. So I was like, “Wow, this isn’t all completely made up. There’s some truth to these tasting notes.”
JF: Of course, they’re completely objective.
MK: Of course, yes. So that really kind of turned my head not just for Syrah, but for wine in general. This is obviously a dozen or so years ago at this point. So that really kinda made me interested in Syrah. And then over the years I’ve been lucky enough to try some older vintages from people like Bob Lindquist at Qupe, he’s been making single variety Syrah since the 1980s, and doing it really well.
And then more recently, a couple things happened. One, I did a long vintage flight with Joey Tensley of Tensley Wines, and we tried every vintage he’d ever made from Colson Vineyard, which is this really remote spot in Northern Santa Barbara County. And they were all phenomenal, and not in ways that you would necessarily expect. Some of the older vintages tasted younger than some of the more recent ones, so it was really kind of eye-opening in that regard. And it also showed how Syrah can really speak of a specific place, and do so while also referring to that year’s, the vintage’s characteristics as well.
And then a little while ago, couple months ago, I had been up at Hospice du Rhône and and tried zillions of different Syrahs and other Rhône varieties from around the world and the region. And I came home, and was hanging out with a buddy in my garage, which is kind of a defacto tasting den of sorts. And we popped open this bottle, this was pretty late at night, but we popped open this bottle of 1987 Qupe from Bien Nacido Vineyard, and we tasted it and we were both like, “This is maybe the best wine we’ve ever had in our lives.” And I actually posted that to Instagram. And people were very not so much surprised, but they were surprised that I would say something like that I guess so publicly.
MK: But also that somehow Syrah was up there. And I wasn’t really surprised at all, because I had been tasting older Syrahs for a while. And I try to seek out old stuff as much as possible. But it was really just this phenomenal wine that you kept coming back to. And it really had developed beyond secondary and tertiary notes. There were just a lot of kind of crazy flavors and textures going on that were really memorable.
JF: Yes, I went back and stalked your Instagram, and I saw that post. Your quote is, “Very possibly the best wine I’ve ever had.” And then two of the responses are, “That is quite a statement.” “Bold statement.”
MK: Right. No, and I wasn’t, I stand by that statement. It was a phenomenal wine. And you know, it was obviously properly cellared and all of that, so it was kept well. You know, I don’t know it was kind of mind blowing, which is funny. A lot of people have that happen with crazy old Burgundy, or some Chateau Margaux from 1954 or whatever. But for me it was just a simple 1987 Syrah from Bien Nacido Vineyard, and it was awesome.
I taste a lot of great Pinot Noir, so when people ask me what my favorite grape is I usually have to say, “Well, I taste a lot of great Pinot Noir from this region.” ‘Cause we have that. But Syrah is still kind of my, you know that’s the one that … My heart goes out to Syrah I guess. It’s had a lot of struggles over the years. It’s been a little bit too widely planted, probably in regions where it doesn’t do as well. But I love, especially cool climate Syrah. Stuff that comes from really coastal regions, I think it brings out a lot of the kind of inherent uniqueness to the grape where you start to get these really kind of gamey, meaty flavors. But you also get a lot of the pretty purple flower aromatics too. So I don’t know, there’s just a lot in Syrah that’s there to love. And those flavors and aromas really develop over time as it sits in your cellar.
JF: Yeah, when you say there’s a lot of Syrah, that first one I wanted to talk about was pretty much just for that reason. It’s the Stolpman 2017 Syrah So Hot Syrah from Ballard Canyon, 92 points. And it’s a wine made without sulfur, a natural wine. And you talk about chilling it down. I’m just wondering, are you tasting a lot more wines like that with no sulfur added, or minimal sulfur and the kind of light weight Syrah that you do wanna put a chill on and enjoy in an ice bucket?
MK: I’m starting to see more, I guess you’d call them kind of sessionable reds. Lighter reds. They’re not all Syrah by any means. Some are Syrah. Ones that you would wanna put a chill on. They do tend to be Rhône varieties, or Cab Franc can kind of show up that way as well. But I’ve had some Cinsaults recently that were really light, and sessionable I guess. So I am starting to see that.
As far as the natural wine movement goes, you know, there’s a lot of people, especially in Santa Barbara County, but in other parts of the Central Coast that have always used kind of minimally effective sulfur. So they’ve never been big on adding too much. I don’t see, I know there are a few brands that do it. I don’t see a lot of all natural wine branding here, or brands here. There are some, but for the most part people are, I don’t know, I guess professional about making their wines here. And they’ll put a little sulfur in there to make sure it lasts. What’s great about this Stolpman wine was that they tried to do it a different way. So they actually fermented it carbonically for the most part, which is to stay in a closed container without oxygen and without crushing the berries. So their Syrahs tend to be pretty rich and sumptuous, and thick. And that’s because they get pretty warm days in Ballard Canyon and it makes the skins thicker, so that will lead to kind of a thicker wine during the fermentation.
So for this one, they wanted to make something fresher. So if you ferment it carbonically the juice starts to ferment inside the berries, so you get less skin tan and extraction. So you can make this kind of lighter, fresher wine. And that’s what they did. And to keep that freshness, they decided not to add sulfur. I think it was partially kind of an experiment to see how it would go. But it makes this really light, lovely, fresh wine, that really I think does deserve a bit of a chill to properly experience it.
It’s funny, I was trying to remember where we were, but now I do. We were at the World of Pinot Noir this past March. And the guys from the Stolpman team were walking around with a chilled bottle of this Syrah as kind of an antidote to some of the Pinot. So if you think about it in that way, using Syrah as a refresher for a bunch of Pinot, it kind of goes to show how light and refreshing this particular bottling is.
JF: Yeah, I was impressed, I was reading your review, and you actually called the aromas joyous. “It’s a joyous wine.”
MK: Yeah, I use that when it’s, it almost means kind of juicy, or I’ll also use the word playful from time to time. It just kind of means it smells like a fun wine. Smells like a wine that you wanna hang out with for the afternoon. And I think it’s reflective of sunshine, and kind of that warmth during the growing season leads to some riper flavors. And especially, you know, when a wine’s released that young, they bottled that in January. So for a red wine, that’s pretty crazy to have it on the market at all at this point. But to have it on the market as early as March and February, right after harvest, it’s gonna be just by design extremely lively, and really primary on the palate.
It’s not the most complex wine in the world, and I think my note kind of eludes to that. It’s pretty … I don’t wanna say simple, ’cause that makes it seem kind of demeaning. But it’s a light, fresh, fruity wine. And I think as much, for many decades, people have been trying to make these really rich, and layered, and deep wines. And they still do. But it’s nice to have another choice in your arsenal there for something that maybe you have with lunch. You can have red wine with lunch and it’s not too much. And you can enjoy that and go back to work, and not have to worry about it. ‘Cause it’s a lighter wine.
JF: I like the life you live, your lunch life.
MK: That’s right, yeah.
JF: But I like also you say, “Get it cold and chill out.” That’s literally the last sentence in the review. I think that’s actually, well chilling out is good advice for everyone when appropriate. But get it cold, I think not even just with a wine like this, but I come across wines at restaurants and things like that, the red wines are just way too warm.
MK: Yeah, and that’s kind of the mantra I’ve heard for the typical American serving practice is that our whites are typically a little too cold in a restaurant, and then the reds are typically too warm. I think that’s changing a lot in the last few years, especially as wine has become such a major part of our culture, and Sommeliers are in every single restaurant you go to. So I think there’s a little bit more knowledge on that front. But yeah, that is something that I think people tend to forget even when serving at home is that those red wines should be served kind of at cellar temperature, which is not room temperature. It’s a little bit more cold.
And really you can just throw it in the fridge for 10 minutes and pull it out and you’re gonna be probably at a more optimal space than if you just serve it too warm.
JF: Yeah, I’ve kinda talked about this concept earlier, but if you can just buy two bottles of any red wine, the same red wine, and put one in the fridge for 20 minutes and serve the other one at room temperature, it’s pretty astonishing the differences in the wine, and what flavors poke out. Alcohol dominates for things like that. It’s a pretty simple exercise that anyone can do with just two $10 bottles of red wine. You can have it be a little parlor game, and serve it to your friends and say, “Which wine do you like better?” And then be like, “Aha, it’s the same wine.”
MK: Right. Yeah. And sometimes chilling it, it’ll hide certain flavors, but it’s not like it’s hiding the bad flavors. It’s just allowing other flavors to stand out a little bit more. And in the case of this Stolpman, it allows those crisper fresh fruit flavors to stand out away from maybe some of the warmer, riper aspects. So it’s I don’t know, I wouldn’t chill all, I wouldn’t put a big chill on big Cabs, or anything like that. Because you do kind of want, when they’re these kind of lush wines, you do wanna experience those full waves of lush-ness. But you know, for a wine like this, it’s just great to have a red wine option that you can drink on a sunny day.
Sunshine and red wine are not necessarily the best of friends. But chill it down, and they can be buddies.
JF: That’s right. Summer, it’s not just for white wine and rosé . I want to shift gears from this really unique Syrah in Ballard Canyon to move onto the Santa Cruz Mountains. And that’s a region that’s always been kind of, I’ve never been there, but kind of magical to me, just because some of my favorite wine drinking experiences have been drinking the wines of Mount Eden there. The Cabernet, the Chardonnay, and the Pinot Noir. But I actually hadn’t heard of Syrah from the Santa Cruz Mountains, so that’s why I wanted to talk about the second wine that Samuel Lewis Smith 2016 Sandstone Terrace Syrah from the Santa Cruz Mountains, 94 points, Editors’ Choice. What’s your experience with Syrah in the Santa Cruz Mountains?
MK: Sam Smith, the winemaker there, he started actually down in Santa Barbara County, he worked for Margerum Wine Company down here, which makes a lot of great Rhône wines, now they also make some Pinot and Chardonnay. But he started down here, worked here for a few years, and now he’s the winemaker at Morgan Winery, which is actually one of the more famous wineries in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and throughout Monterey. So that’s his primary job. And then this is his side label, or his personal label is this Samuel Lewis Smith.
So he’s really focused on making really I think fairly small batches of really hands-on wine every vintage. So I think in last year’s release was really only this Syrah, and then one Pinot Noir that he made from Albatross Ridge which is this other crazy vineyard above Carmel Valley. By anyways, so he’s really kind of adept at finding these sites that have not yet been used. So he was able to find some Syrah from there. And it’s an excellent wine.
Like you thought, there’s not a lot of it out there.
Another great example of Syrah from Santa Cruz Mountains would be Big Basin, which is a fairly well-known brand. It’s not a big brand, but it’s fairly well-known. And they’re at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains. And that’s where the proprietor there, Bradley Brown grows, he grows a lot of Syrah. Really at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by redwood trees. Santa Cruz Mountains is mostly dominated on the coastal side by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and then on the more inland side by Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some of the Bordeaux varieties like Cab. Just like what Mount Eden does. They kinda nail the three main ones.
JF: Yeah, and do you see this wine, the Samuel Lewis Smith as one you wanna hold for a few years, or more than a few years in your cellar? Or crack it open now? Or works both ways?
MK: You know, I think like you suggested buying two bottles of any wine and doing the cool trick. You should also buy two or three bottles of every wine and drink one now, and drink one in five years, and drink one in ten years. Then you’re really gonna get to taste the life of the wine. I do recall that wine having a really solid amount of structure, whereas the Stolpman was much more of, like I said, joyous fun wine to really chill down and drink right now. I believe the Samuel Lewis Smith wines will hold for quite a long time. You know, it’s just a really well-made wine. And it has the acidity to keep it alive, and then some tannins to kind of hold it up too. So I think that one’s gonna last quite awhile.
But it is quite delicious now. So I would be remiss in not advising you to drink at least one of the bottles as soon as you get it.
JF: We gotta open up a retail wine shop where I’m like, “Buy two bottles,” and you’re saying, “Oh, buy at least three.” Everyone’s gonna be walking out of there with at least a case. And then of course you’d get a case discount too.
MK: That’s right. Yeah. Yeah, we’d be good at that.
JF: We’ll have to talk about that offline.
Matt Kettman: Yeah.
JF: And I did hear you mention the Santa Lucia Highlands, so for the third wine, for a third Central Coast Syrah, I chose the Joyce 2016, hopefully I’m saying this right Joyce 2016 Tondre Grapefield Syrah, 91 points, Editors’ Choice. What can you tell me about this Syrah as far as where it fits in with the Samuel Lewis Smith, or is it more of its own unique expression?
MK: You know, the way it fits in with Samuel Lewis Smith is that like the Santa Cruz Mountains not having that much Syrah, the Santa Lucia Highlands do not have that much Syrah either. You get so much more money for Pinot Noir from regions that are known for Pinot Noir than you do for Syrah. Most places that had Syrah have ripped it out and replanted Pinot. But there are still a few Syrah plantings left. And there’s actually some I think smart vineyards that are actually putting in a little bit more Syrah in the Santa Lucia Highlands right now. But overall it’s declined quite a bit over the years.
I was looking it up earlier today, I couldn’t actually find anyone else that made a Syrah from Tondre Grapefield. So I get the sense that Russell Joyce, who’s the winemaker for his family winery, Joyce Cellars, I get the sense that he might take it all and make it all. And he must get a fair price for it, because I think that bottle’s only like $25 or so. Which for a wine, any wine from the Santa Lucia Highlands, that’s a pretty good price. And that wine is also kinda actually fits a little bit in between the Stolpman and the Sam Smith wines, in the sense that it is really … I remember it being very fresh and vibrant, but also it had a little more structure than maybe the Stolpman did.
So I think it’s a nice kinda fit in between there. Joyce Cellars is kinda one of the, there’s this kind of new guard of Monterey County wine makers, and Russell Joyce, who’s I think only in his mid-30s, younger guy. But he’s taking the label that I believe his father founded, and he’s really kinda upping the quality level, putting more of a younger, hipper vibe to the labels, a little more colorful, a little less old school. And then he’s really ambitious about betting on, especially the Carmel Valley. So he and his wife took over this property right in the middle of Carmel Valley. And developed their new tasting room, they put another tasting room in there. Chesta Rosa Winery is also in this spot. And then they built something, I believe it’s called the Wine House, something like that.
And it’s essentially a, I believe it’s a wine bar/retail shop/small restaurant. And outside of it are bocce ball courts, and lounge chairs, and all this kind of outdoor fun. And it’s right in the middle of Carmel Valley. So the Joyce family really paid for all that, and are kind of betting on that region. So they make wines, they make a lot of Santa Lucia Highland wines, but they also make some Carmel Valley wines. And they’re keeping it kind of fun. So this Syrah really fits right into that program.
They’re also doing, they do a Gamay wine, which is really cool. And they do a Rose of Gamay I believe. So they’re exploring varieties that are really kind of more or less brand new to Monterey County at this point. Or maybe they were there many, many decades ago, and now they’re back again like Gamay.
JF: Yeah, and I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention you wrote up a nice little exploration of the Santa Lucia Highlands if you’re a wine tourist, where to go, where to taste, all kinds of things. That’s Exploring California’s Santa Lucia Highlands, that’s on winemag.com. I haven’t been to that area, so I don’t know what, you obviously just gave us a nice little slice of what’s available there. But is it a region that’s exciting for wine tourism, or has a lot of possibilities? What is your take?
MK: Santa Lucia Highlands is a little bit funny, because Monterey County, the government is very I guess aggressive in protecting the historic farming philosophies, and the farming traditions of Monterey County. So they’ve made it, and I think that’s a good thing. But they’ve made it very difficult for wineries to open tasting rooms in the region, they’ve made it very difficult for any kind of real hospitality to emerge in that area. So Santa Lucia Highlands sits above the floor of the Salinas Valley. So there’s all these little kind of quaint, but fairly poor farm towns. Like Gonzales, and Greenfield, and places like that, that don’t have a lot of hospitality infrastructure. At least not the level of hospitality infrastructure that the modern California wine tourists would expect.
So there are a handful of places in the Santa Lucia Highlands that do have tasting rooms, and it’s beautiful to visit. You can see almost all the way to Monterey Bay on a clear day. And all the way across the Valley to the Pinnacles National Park. So it’s really beautiful. But not a lot of people go there, because there’s just not a lot of tourist infrastructure. So that article you mentioned, I spent a little bit of time just kind of explaining what I just explained. But then I also say, “If you really wanna taste a lot of these wines, you really have to go into Carmel by the Sea, or Carmel Valley,” where most of the tasting rooms are.
So I think in Carmel by the Sea, there’s something like 20 or two dozen tasting rooms. And then the same is true in Carmel Valley, there’s like two dozen tasting rooms in a mile stretch of road. So that’s if you wanna bang out Santa Lucia Highlands tastings, you’re gonna be better off trying to do it in the Carmel Valley or Carmel by the Sea. That said, it’s certainly worth a day trip to drive through and check it out. And there’s rumors of a potential kind of glamping option that might go in along the Arroyo Seco river. Although, like I said, it’s a struggle getting any of those things approved. So that’ll take probably a number of years to even get close to construction.
But hopefully I think in the future there’ll be some places that come online. I think it’d be a smart place to build something if you could. Maybe the cities around there would be more hospitable to that sort of thing. But right now, your best bet is gonna be staying at a chain hotel or motel in Salinas, or one of those little farm towns around there.
JF: And finally Matt, we’ve taken a quick little tour of Syrah around the Central Coast, and just kind of to bring it back full circle, you’ve recently championed Syrah as age worthy from the Central Coast. We’ve talked about three totally pretty different, unique wines that different styles, different regions. Syrah in the Central Coast, where do you see it going from here? Do you see it growing, or just more of a thing where there’s gonna be producers who just love working with it, it’s maybe not their bread and butter, but it’s certainly something that they’re passionate about?
MK: You know, I think it depends on which part of the Central Coast. If you look at Stolpman, they’re in Ballard Canyon, which is really a small appellation, and it’s basically an appellation that was made for Syrah. Syrah is always gonna be really strong there. In other regions I think it’s gonna probably play second fiddle for a long time, for the years to come.
The one thing I will say, though, is that Syrah, and especially cool climate Syrah is kind of a favorite wine for many winemakers, for many sommeliers, for many wine professionals. People can’t get enough of it. So as the American wine customer gets more and more educated over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them shift in that direction too. If you see people who used to like Cab and maybe Pinot Noir shifting to liking this cool climate Syrah. Because it frankly is one of the most interesting wines out there.
And once you’ve gotten used to other varieties of more noble varieties, or these standard varieties that our chocolate, vanilla, strawberry world likes, I think Syrah offers this really nice portal into a whole different wine experience. And when you’re talking about throwing some age on those bottles too, it becomes even more interesting. So I don’t know. I have high hopes for Syrah. But people have been singing its praises for decades now. So I don’t know what’s gonna happen.
Maybe this’ll be the third or fourth rebirth of Syrah in the years to come. But you know, I guess it’s like a phoenix. The phoenix of the California wine world.
JF: Rising from the ashes.
MK: Keeps rising from its own death. Its own demise. So maybe, I don’t know maybe we’ll enter a new era of Syrah popularity. I hope so, because I think it’s good stuff.
JF: I agree. You’re preaching to the choir here. Well thanks Matt, for joining me and talking about Central Coast Syrah. It’s a great journey, great education. And I hope someday to hang out with you in the garage, drinking ’87 Qupe.
MK: Yeah. We’ll do it. I’ll go track down some more bottles.
JF: You got a folding chair waiting for me?
MK: I actually have a vinyl covered couch in my garage now.
JF: Oh wow, okay. I’m gonna look at flights right after this.
MK: Yeah, all right.
JF: Thanks again, Matt.
MK: Okay, thank you.
JF: And thank you for listening to the What We’re Tasting Podcast. What We’re Tasting is sponsored by Vivino, buy the right wine. The wines we talked about this episode were the Stolpman 2017 Syrah So Hot, the Samuel Lewis Smith 2016 Sandstone Terrace, and the Joyce 2016 Tondre Grapefield. Find What We’re Tasting on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes, leave a comment, and tell your friends. What We’re Tasting is a Wine Enthusiast Podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com.