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Hot Syrahs from Cool-Climate California Vineyards
Written by Kate Soto

Syrah is one of the most evocative grapes in contemporary winemaking, known for its distinctive split personality. Deeply affected by growing conditions, the Syrah in your glass will vary wildly depending on where it is grown. In cool climes, a meaty, smoky, black-peppery muscularity shines through, with layers of olives, herbs, and minerals. When grown in warmer regions, however, it becomes ripe and fruit-centric, with sweet blueberries, blackberries, and pepper at the forefront of its profile. A native of Northern Rhone, it’s the world’s seventh most planted grape. At one point, it was poised to take over California, yet today it only accounts for 3 percent of the state’s grape crush. After a few misstarts (some attribute the Sideways-launched Pinot craze as the theft of its thunder), it may finally be in position to discover its true West Coast potential.

California has had Syrah plantings since the 1880s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that it began to have any kind of significant foothold in the state. Mostly thanks to the Rhone Rangers, an ad-hoc group of California producers smitten with Rhone varietals, plantings increased from 200 acres in the 90s to 17,0000 by 2004. Key figures were Randall Graham of Bonny Doon, Joseph Phelps (who released the first commercial California Syrah in 1974), John McCready, Bill Crawford, Fred Cline, Steve Edmunds, and Bob Lindquist. Another influential factor was a partnership between Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the American importer Robert Haas, who created a Rhone-centric winery in Paso Robles called Tablas Creek Vineyard. They imported clones of the 13 CdP varietals and made them available to other growers.

Given its mutability, and the state’s varied microclimates, the landscape of California Syrah being currently produced is curious and eclectic--and can be hard to navigate. In cooler regions such as Santa Barbara, which benefits from east-west orientation and Pacific breezes, the best wines can be akin to their savory Cote-Rotie or Hermitage counterparts. In sunny Napa, Syrah can find more in common with fruity Barossa Valley Shiraz. To add a wrinkle to the complexity, Syrah is a grape that relies heavily on key winemaker decisions for its final expression, namely: How ripe (how early to harvest)? How oaky? But if you want exciting wine, you’ve got to begin with exciting fruit, and right now in California, cool-climate vineyards are decidedly where it’s at.

Melville Vineyards and Winery in the cool Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara, has chosen the route of the less oaky, and achieved this by aging its 2011 Syrah, Verna’s Vineyard in neutral 10-year-old French oak until it was bottled in August 2012. Ron Melville and sons, with winemaker Greg Brewer, sourced the grapes from their estate vineyard in Cat Canyon, which is predominantly Lompoc dune sand with clay loam and Monterey shale dispersed throughout. They fermented 40 percent of the fruit in whole clusters, with a total of 30 days skin and stem contact. The juice rests on its lees without sulfur until racked in May and bottled in April. All of these efforts preserve an intriguing rusticity to the wine. It maintains a medium weight that belies its 14 percent abv. Deep magenta in the glass, it gives off a lively blend of sweet and savory notes: spice, charcoal, black currant, sausage, and cocoa. The palate is smooth with notes of cranberry and balsamic. The acid--and thus the wine--retains its vitality throughout.

Moving north along the coast to the western edge of the Salinas Valley is another notable Syrah producer: the Pisoni Winery, in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Gary Pisoni was one of the early pioneers of the area, and he still oversees all viticultural and winemaking activities on his estate, perched at 1300 ft. Two Syrahs from his second label, Lucia, show truly how much Syrah is affected by terroir factors: same vintage, same grape, different vineyards, two very different wines. His 2010 Syrah, Gary’s Vineyard is grown on a sloping hill with alluvial soils and plenty of fog and wind in the summer. The wine reflects an intense minerality, along with hints of spice, fig, and violets. As it opens up, the palate reveals plush strata of blackberry, currant, and earth. It finishes on a long creme de cassis tip. The wine is luscious and the tannins are chewy, which makes for an interesting textural angularity. The weight veers to the medium-heavy.

Lucia’s 2010 ‘Susan’s Hill’ Syrah experienced the same cool vintage, but is a much rounder wine. The vineyard is on one of the highest vineyards in Pisoni’s holdings, with coarse, rocky soils and a great deal of wind. The grapes are ripe and concentrated, which is reflected in the glass. The wine is spicy, with concentrated black pepper, as well as sage, thyme, slate, and blackberry. In your mouth, it is velvety and voluptuous, with soft rose petal and plum notes.

Even farther north in the Russian River Valley, the Davis Family Vineyards is making an enchanting, earthy Syrah from its Soul Patch Vineyard. The vines are organically farmed by Guy and Judy Davis and their son, Cole. This inky magenta-black juice has muscle, and shows aromatics of black pepper, forest floor, bay leaves, prunes, and herbs. The palate is relatively juicy, with notes of sweet black fruit, especially for a wine with such gripping tannins. There’s a smoothness here with an underpinning firmness. It’s a bit tight at first sniff, and will benefit from a decant, but opens up onto deep, herbaceous black fruit. The Syrah is co-fermented with 3 percent Viognier, in Cote-Rotie style. It’s mostly aged in French barrels, but some is aged in Puncheons, which are about double the size. This allows for more micro-oxygenation and less exposure to the wood surface area. The result is a very balanced approach to oak in the wine. This one will age well, so drink one and cellar one.

California is at a bit of a crossroads with Syrah. Long touted as the "next big thing," the varietal still hasn't created quite the consumer buzz that it has the potential to do. But it's still a relative newcomer to the state. As winemakers continue to zero in on the perfect terroir, a distinctively California style is beginning to emerge: savory and deep with just a touch of that hedonistic lushness that California is known for. IT might not ever compete with Cabernet for market share, but wherever someone's grilling up lamb chops or a peppery steak, Syrah will be there. And it'll be white hot!

Spain's Secret: Terra Alta and Vinos Pinol

The Piñol family has been making wine for four generations in the Terra Alta region, a small DO at the southern tip of Catalonia, Spain. The family is devoted to expressing the heritage and terroir of this neighbor to Priorat, and is one of the few wineries making wine from the Morenillo grape, a virtually extinct indigenous varietal. And the result is more than mere novelty. Morenillo is a thin-skinned, late ripening grape that expresses terroir as well as Pinot Noir and is capable of great depths of flavor. Vinos Piñol’s Finca Morenillo 2010 has a black plum color that radiates with cherry highlights in the glass. Grown at 400 meters on 75-year-old vines, the wine is concentrated and medium weight. The nose is caramelized with hints of vanilla, mushroom, chalkiness, and a lively earthy funk. It gives way to a palate of cherries, milk chocolate, and nutmeg. It’s very smooth, but has nice firm tannins and a long finish on a cola note. Only 50 cases of this wine are produced, and it’s continually won scores of 90+ from Tanzer, Parker, and other wine press since its first vintage in 2009. This rare wine is not to be missed.
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Interview with Anabelle Sielecki of Mendel Wines

Architect, mother, wife of a diplomat: Anabelle Sielecki wears many hats, but for the last 12 years she’s been occupied as proprietor of Mendel Wines, a small-scale winery in Mendoza, Argentina, focused on producing high-quality wines in a limited volume. Sielecki founded the vineyard and brought Roberto de la Mota on board, son of Argentina’s “Winemaker of the Century,” Raul de la Mota. Together, they’ve set out to carefully cultivate their grapes and craft their wines into reflections of Mendoza’s unique terroir.
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Bodegas Riojanas: Deep Roots and Forward Thinking

In 1890, when Bodegas Riojanas was founded, the Rioja region was in the midst of a vigorous exchange of ideas with Bordeaux winemakers. The phylloxera epidemic hit Bordeaux hard, and had vintners looking to Spain for new land to cultivate and new wines to drink. With the help of a new railway, Rioja was exporting up to 500,000 hl (13.2 million gallons) of wine to France a month. All of the winemaking expertise the Bordelais brought with them ushered in a golden age for Rioja. One tool in particular was to become integral to its vinous identity: oak barriques. It wasn’t the first introduction of oak to the region, but it was the first to stick. Before this time, the expense of oak had made it unfashionable. Riojans generally aged their wine in large stone lagos where vineyard workers would crush grapes with their feet. Once the French reintroduced oak and showed what it could really do, however, its popularity soared. The Riojans opted to import their wood from America to save money, and thus a style was born: long-aged, heavily influenced by oak, and expressing the distinctive smooth vanilla, herb, and coconut notes imparted specifically by American wood.
In the midst of this flurry of vinous activity, Bodegas Riojanas was created.

There's gold in them there hills, and it's liquid.

In terms of wine, Alsace might as well be its own country. Geographically, it practically is—sandwiched between France and Germany; it is isolated from each by natural barriers (Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east). Though the region has certainly drawn inspiration from the two countries (both of which have laid claim to it over the centuries), its wines are like nothing else: opulent, exotic, terroir-driven whites with remarkable ability to age. Alsatian wines tend to be single-varietal, single-vineyard, and almost all—90 percent—are white. And most intriguingly, you don’t have to choose between crisp and refreshing or fat and luscious. Many of these wines somehow manage to split the difference, balancing high-octane corpulence with zip. Thanks to rain and wind cover from the Vosges Mountains, plus a cool, sunny climate, even the homeliest grape can become an aromatic bombshell. There’s gold in them there hills, and it’s liquid.
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Journey to the Piedmont Unknown!

Wine has been made in Piedmont for centuries, but it was the French influence while the region was part of the House of Savoy that most shaped what's happening there today. During the 18th century, French enologist Louis Oudart helped the marchioness of Barolo develop a wine after the style of Bordeaux from the native Nebbiolo grape. Powerful, aromatic, and age-worthy, Barolo wine became favored by the nobility and dubbed the "King of Wines." Since that time, Barolo wines and, more recently, those from Barbaresco and the Langhe, have stayed in the spotlight for their ability to show sheer power and nuance. Yet with Piedmont's dense concentration of wine-producing zones (52 DOCs--more than any other Italian region), there's no reason to stay on the beaten path. Discoveries--and deliciousness--abound when you branch out beyond the famous DOCs.
Read more about the aromatic precision in lesser-known appellations

The Idea Man David O'Reilly Tells All

David O'Reilly started his career in wine like many do--with an unused liberal arts degree (in his case, philosophy). And though he's charted his course through a different field, his Pacific Northwest winery Owen Roe, David is definitely one with ideas. Originally from Belfast, he named his winery with a nod to his roots after the 17th-century Irish activist, Owen Roe O'Neill. Since 1999, Owen Roe has garnered a reputation for luscious Oregon Pinots and, increasingly, structured and dynamic Syrahs, Cabernet Francs and red blends from Washington.
Continue Reading about Owen Roe and David's other labels

Terroir Champagne - A Growing Norm

“My philosophy is exactly Burgundian, but in Champagne…I am always for pure parcels. I never blend a parcel—it’s one parcel, one grape, one year,” declares Cedric Bouchard in the recent “Champagne Unveiled” Wine Spectator article (2013). Cedric Bouchard is just one voice of many growers and even large Champagne houses that are choosing to treat the bubbly pleasure as a distinct wine of place instead of just a celebratory, luxury item.
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Holiday Sparklers Meet their Match

‘Tis the season, and that means one thing: sparkling wines. We’ve chosen a few off-the-beaten-path beauties that will pair amazingly with appetizers at a holiday fete.
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Jazz Up Thanksgiving Traditions with Novel Pairings

At this time of year, your wine-pairing mojo will finally get its rightful place in the sun. There’s no more epic meal in the American repertoire than Thanksgiving, but the hodge podge of sweet and savory often leaves diners scratching their heads on drink selections. And just how do you pair with green beans and yams and gravy? There are classic solutions: Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Beaujolais (Bernard Vallette, Domaine Jean-Paul Dubost)--all Thanksgiving stalwarts that have earned their rightful place at the table.
But why not mix it up this holiday with a few off-the-beaten-path options that’ll make this feast truly sing?

Horse & Plow

We are partners with many leaders in natural, organic and biodynamic viticulture and vinification. Working with Zev Rovine and his import portfolio has been eye-opening on how producers can push beyond farming, further into the natural world, by using minimalist approaches to winemaking to create a more natural and true representation of what the land provides us (these are the types of wines our ancestors most likely drank). We are strongly committed to supporting these growers and producers, but with an overall objective to sell delicious, authentic wines (delicious over dogma!). We are happy to see more and more domestic growers following organic and biodynamic farming practices. We\'ve partnered with Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagins to bring Illinois their organic, handcrafted, small batch California wine. Horse & Plow and The Gardener are the newest additions to our natural viticulture portfolio.
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