Last week, a handful of California Syrah producers gathered in Sebastopol, Calf., in advance of the weekend’s Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco to host a seminar and tasting dubbed “A Question of Balance.” They sought to prove to a small group of journalists and wine professionals that Syrah, the great red variety of the Rhone Valley and of California, is still a wine to be reckoned with.
It has been hard lately to find people who agree. Syrah has experienced an unprecedented critical and popular malaise among consumers and tastemakers alike. Not since Merlot, post-”Sideways,” has a variety experienced such wholesale, categorical indifference.
Winegrowing practices have certainly contributed to the lack of interest. Ripeness levels have become untenable; alcohols routinely spike into the middle teens; flavors are rich, jammy and undelineated; textures are unbalanced, flabby and overextracted. The wines have been dumbed down to the point where consumers can’t distinguish one bottle from another and have largely given up trying.
And yet among these practitioners, Syrah remains one of the most thrilling varieties in the ground in California — if only the public would listen.
Bob Lindquist of Qupe Winery, who has been making Syrah for more than 25 years, made no attempt to hide his frustration: “If I hear one more person say ‘I can’t sell Syrah,’ I swear I’m going to wring their neck,” said the normally mild-mannered winemaker in his opening remarks.
So to bring attention to Syrah’s other expressions, Lindquist gathered an all-star lineup of what might be called alternative, underground Syrah producers, winemakers who have seen the direction of Syrah in California and have deliberately stepped out of the mainstream. These wines, from both established and new wine entities, are so dramatic and head-turning that they represent a reclamation of what Syrah was like in its early years in California soil, back when it was wild and new.
Joining Lindquist was Stephen Singer of Baker Lane, Rajat Parr of Parr Selections, Wells Guthrie of Copain, Jason Drew of Drew Cellars, Duncan Arnot and Nathan Lee Roberts of Arnot-Roberts, and Keven Clancy, representing Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John. Patrick Will, importer of E. Guigal wines in Ampuis, was also on hand to show two exquisite wines from the Northern Rhone — wines that have served as touchstones for all those in the room.
Setting aside the Guigal wines, these bottlings came from mostly cool coastal or near-coastal sites, vineyards scattered across the state of California, from Los Olivos to Ukiah. That’s a range, Google Maps tells me, of 400 miles. There was a range in flavors as well, in that particularly Syravian spectrum that includes so many sauvage and savory elements, from bacon fat to woodsmoke, from olive to lavender. And yet for all of their differences, the Syrahs on the table possessed some notable similarities:
1. Freshness, not heat
Each wine displayed relatively low levels of alcohol. None was more than 14.2 percent and many were in the 13-percent range; a few even came in under 13 percent, a level that is usually associated with the Northern Rhone.
You’d think these wines would reflect a kind of affront to palates accustomed to pillowy fruit, ripe flavors and bulky, extracted textures; and in a way, they were. But so much else was going on in these wines that few missed what wasn’t there.
What was there, instead, was energy. Unlike fruit harvested at surmaturite levels of ripeness (where shriveling and desiccation is common) fruit harvested at these sugar levels goes into the fermenter in a fresher state, and the better wines retain an assertive vitality of flavor.
2. Scents of place
Each wine had beguiling aromatics, one of Syrah’s true hallmarks. Whether it evoked an herbal range of, say, bay laurel and olive, or of more sanguine or savory elements of meat, blood and bacon fat, these were aromatically compelling red wines — something that cannot be said for most American Syrahs. This is not to say that these wines lacked fruit, far from it. But when you lifted your glass to smell the wine, you did not think of pots of jam.
3. The grape, unmasked
Each wine eschewed the flavors and aromas of new oak barrels. No producer present used more than a small percentage of oak. The result was a reacquaintance with Syrah’s more compelling organoleptic attributes, with firm, gripping tannins and a finish — the lingering aftertaste of the wine – that accented the wine’s vinousness, with leading flavors of tanbark, Pu-erh, Yunnan, Darjeeling teas, unsweetened cocoa, or simply, of soil. All California wines come from California soil, but fewer and fewer actually taste like it; Syrah can, and these did.
Among certain winemakers, Syrah’s exotic flavor profile and graceful intensity seem almost to inspire chance-taking. Over and over, these producers described viticultural and winemaking practices, some traditional, some radical, that have all but been abandoned in “safe” conventional winemaking. Extreme weather sites, dry-farming, dense, leafy canopies, early pickings, indigenous yeasts, whole cluster fermentations, reductive winemaking, low- or no-dose sulphur and “pressing dirty” – all of these practices contributed to the uniqueness of the wines on the table.
The alt-practice most frequently mentioned was whole-cluster fermentation, a method common in France where the grapes remain on the stem in the fermenter, allowing the juice to steep with a percentage of stem contact. The practice invariably adds a distinct spice note to the wines — sage, green olive, lavender, the bergamot-scent of Earl Grey tea. It also mitigates the more demonstrative fruit elements in a wine, filling in the pot of jam with other savory notes, which add complexity and length. The practice has been controversial: After all, the big publications typically award the big scores to big, fruit-forward wines.
Oddly enough, whole-cluster fermentation was fairly common among early Syrah producers in California, who adopted the techniques of their favorite Northern Rhone producers. But as ripeness levels grew, and such flavors were rewarded by high scores, the practice fell out of favor. Now it’s making a comeback among new producers of Pinot Noir and Syrah.
Not all of these wines were successful. Certain efforts were more intellectually stimulating than delicious. But it felt like the right direction to take for a moribund category in desperate need of a stimulus package. In the end, the tasting suggested a closing of the circle for the variety and offered positive proof that a balanced Syrah, at long last, may not be an attribute in question for long.
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.
Photo: Participants in the “A Question of Balance” Syrah seminar. Credit: Dan Fredman.