Nearly two decades ago, it was a sip of cool-climate Syrah that revealed to me the sensory magic of wine—the way that fermented grape juice can taste more like cured meat, dried flowers and cracked pepper than just simple fruit and smoked wood. To this day, Syrah from cooler regions, whether the wind-whipped Northern Rhône or California’s ocean-chilled Central Coast, still fascinates my palate most.
Such spice, game and floral notes aren’t for everybody, and the style can be quite divisive at parties, with half loving the wine and the other half believing something ran afoul in the bottle. But for those who do opt for challenging complexity over casual comfort, Central Coast Syrahs offer this style in spades.
The most extreme example of this style is from Stolo Vineyards. Grown just miles from the rugged San Luis Obispo County coastline, Nicole Pope’s wines are redolent with stunning pepper notes. The compound that causes these expressions is called rotundone, which also shows up in peppercorns and rosemary. Pope isn’t sure why levels spike in cooler climates, but has heard they increase as grapes mature. “Maybe because we have a much longer growing season, the rotundone levels could build up higher, before sugar and ripeness levels are reached,” said Pope, who often picks her Syrah in mid- to late-November.
In Santa Barbara County’s Sta. Rita Hills, producers such as Melville Winery have been interrupting the region’s heavy flow of Pinot Noir with such Syrahs for decades. Chad Melville founded Samsara Winery in 2002 to push these extremes, and Winemaker Matt Brady continued that tradition when Melville sold the brand to Joan and Dave Szkutak in 2017. “Cooler growing regions allow us to get full physiological ripeness without excessive sugar, letting the savory and umami characteristics shine through,” said Brady, whose customers gravitate toward his spicier wines. “I’m thinking about uni, and how much I love it, and the flavors you get from uni aren’t conventional—they’re more singular, distinctive, unique, focused,” he said. “That’s how I feel about cool-climate Syrah. And now I want some uni.”
Winemaker Ernst Storm makes wine for a new Sta. Rita Hills property called Donnachadh Vineyard. “Just like Pinot, Syrah is excellent at capturing site when picked at the right time, and more so at cooler sites,” said Storm. “I have been drinking a lot of Northern Rhône wines lately, and the drinkability, texture, and depth of some of the wines is what inspires me.”
And then there is the McPrice Myers Les Galets from the Arroyo Grande Valley, the first wine I’ve ever scored at 98 points. Based today in Paso Robles, Myers typically produces richer wines than those listed above, but started his career in 2002 exploring cooler sites, including this Laetitia Winery-owned vineyard, which he’s sourced since 2004.
“I could hang it out until Halloween, and the chemistry wouldn’t change much, but the development I got was amazing,” said Myers. “At the same time, the wine didn’t lose any freshness or energy. I’m looking for a certain flavor profile and a certain power. There’s got to be something that intrigues me.”
When a winemaker who can exemplify the power of Syrah runs into a cool-climate vineyard, the sum seems greater than its parts. Unfortunately, the Les Galets block was ripped out after the 2017 harvest, making this bottling the last of its kind. All the more reason to discover the wonders of cool-climate Syrah today.
Cool-Climate Syrah to Look for
McPrice Myers 2017 Les Galets Syrah (Arroyo Grande Valley); $55, 98 points. This stunningly complex wine offers aromas of roasted lamb, soy, iodine and cracked pepper lifted by lavender and lilac on the nose. The palate explodes with cracked green peppercorns, roasted game, blackberry compote and a hint of espresso. Hedonistically rich, this is awash in savory style that will please any wine lover. Editors’ Choice.
Stolo 2018 Syrah (San Luis Obispo County); $46, 97 points. This extremely cool-climate style of Syrah can be divisive, but this is a brilliant version for those who crave the savory experience. Aromas of underripe blackberry, seaweed, green peppercorn, rosemary, lavender and charred lamb lead into a palate that bursts with acidity. Flavors of violet, bay leaf, wet rocks and more pepper decorate the purple fruits. Editors’ Choice.
Melville 2018 Donna’s Block Syrah (Sta. Rita Hills); $48, 96 points. Cracked black pepper, black currant and dark violet make for a cool-climate expression with tons of floral smoothness. There is heft to the sip, where black pepper, dried herbs and black fruits are sliced by a zesty acidity.
Samsara 2017 OM Reserve Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $75, 96 points. Stunning aromas that are hallmarks of cool-climate Syrah show on the nose of this bottling, including black peppercorn, cracked asphalt, oozing tar and fresh black raspberry. It’s as savory as can be on the palate, where cracked pepper, dried blueberry and purple-flower flavors combine with an iodine-like squid-ink element. Editors’ Choice.
Camins 2 Dreams 2018 Zotovich Vineyard Syrah (Sta. Rita Hills); $46, 95 points. Dense and dark aromas of black currant, black pepper and violet are brawny and lavish and yet extremely elegant on the nose of this single-vineyard, cool-climate expression of Syrah. The palate is smooth and creamy, with polished tannins that stand up just enough, allowing flavors of boysenberry, pepper and sagebrush to lead toward a lavender-dusted finish.
Foxen 2017 Tinaquaic Vineyard Old Vines Dry Farmed Syrah (Santa Maria Valley); $56, 95 points. The dry-farmed, old-vine blocks of this vineyard made very compelling wines in this vintage. This bottling begins with stony aromas of chiseled slate as well as savory tones of thyme, rosemary, olive and black pepper, surrounding cassis in a fernet-like manner. The palate is tense with tannin, delivering flavors of black and green olive, cracked pepper and a violet-blackberry core. Editors’ Choice.
Waxwing 2018 Lester Family Vineyard Syrah (Santa Cruz Mountains); $35, 95 points. The cooler climate of this vineyard presents dynamic aromas of peppercorn, bay leaf and charcoal alongside fresh plum and violet on the nose of this bottling. The high-acid palate falls in line accordingly, offering peppery spices against the tightly woven black-raspberry core.
Donnachadh 2017 Syrah (Sta. Rita Hills); $45, 94 points. Bloody meats, squid ink, black raspberry, crushed rocks and char show on the nose of this bottling. The palate is loaded with dried herbs, lavender and black plum flavors, finishing with a pinch of white pepper.
Beauregard 2016 Forager Series Syrah (Santa Cruz Mountains); $35, 93 points. A lighter shade of ruby in the glass, this vintage is redolent with cool-climate hallmarks, showing singed tobacco, cracked pepper and cigar ash on the nose along with a brighter streak of lavender. The palate is also very savory, with underripe plums, sansho pepper and more ashy flavors.
Solminer 2015 Delanda Vineyard Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); $40, 90 points. Light red-currant and pomegranate-juice aromas are dusted with light herbs, cracked pepper and a hint of game on the nose of this bottling from the winery’s home estate. The wine is tangy and bright on the palate, where green peppercorns, tart red fruit and penetrating acidity carry into the finish.