The Cool Edge of Syrah

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in: Drinking

Discussions of Syrah may be all about style, but in the end, all styles come down to location. “In California, the overriding factor is climate,” says Qupé’s Bob Lindquist, whose Syrahs from Bien Nacido Vineyard are not only iconic, they’re also perhaps the first Syrahs to be called “cool climate” in California. “Because we have so much sun and great weather, especially during harvest, we can let fruit hang if we want to. But we’ll get more mature flavors and better balance if the grapes have to struggle to some extent.”

It stands to reason that the cooler the place, the greater the struggle, the slower this development. After decades of planting in the Napa Valley, in Paso Robles, in the Sierra Foothills and Dry Creek Valley, places where ripeness is not a problem for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is now being grown in regions that not long ago were thought to be too cold for Pinot Noir. Some, like Ojai Vineyard’s Adam Tolmach, embrace this marginality, who laid out his preference in a recent article by Corie Brown in the Los Angeles Times: “When grapes are grown on the edge of where they will ripen,” he said, “you are in the right place.”

Climate and timing

You could say that California’s original Syrah producer, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, spent its first 15 vintages learning this lesson, step by painful step.

“Joe was driving the search for this pepper thing,” says Craig Williams, who was Phelps’ winemaker for more than 25 years. “It was something that he thought California could do because it had these granitic soils, the same as Côte Rôtie” in the northern Rhone.

As the Phelps team, which included Williams, Walter Schug, Bruce Neyers and Damian Parker, evaluated their Syrah bottlings in vintage after vintage, it dawned on them that soils were not the leading factor in their search for spice; it was climate.

For Williams, one turning point came with his first visit to the Rhône in May of 1982. Williams and his wife had spent some time in Burgundy with Kermit Lynch and were driving down to the Rhône through Beaujolais. “I was thinking Côte Rôtie — Roasted Slope — it’s got to be hot, right? I’m going to be in swim trunks, a T-shirt and flip-flops. But it’s cold there, really cold! It’s more close to the Côte d’Or than the rest of the Rhône Valley.”

So Williams went farther south, to Hermitage, and met with Gerard Chave of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave. He asked him when he typically picked Syrah. “Ideally, we like to pick it before it snows” was the reply.

Williams was stunned. In Hermitage, Syrah didn’t even get fully ripe until October, several weeks later than Napa. “I’m thinking if I pick past September 10th, I’ve got raisins,” he says. “Something here was amiss. I guess you could say the light bulb finally went off.”

During the next several years, Williams started moving all of Phelps’ new Syrah plantings progressively southward to cooler areas. They started with a planting in Yountville, augmented by an acre in the Stags Leap District, then planted in Coombsville and Carneros, and even farther south, to inland Monterey County. By the mid-’80s, none of Phelps’ Syrah was coming from the Napa Valley.

The wildness in Syrah

Cool-weather Syrahs weave an array of complex aromatics — white and black pepper, violet and lavender, the wisp of smoke and mineral, all of which are reminiscent of the great northern Rhône Syrahs from Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. California producers Failla, Melville, Peay, Wind Gap, Copain and Arnot-Roberts all specialize in cool-climate Syrahs. Dipping your nose in some of these wines is like walking into a room-sized peppermill. The wild is back.

There is wildness of a sort in warm-climate wines, too, such as the wines from Paso Robles, where many Rhône specialists have settled, growing Syrah to maximum ripeness, often blending their fruit with more structured varieties like Mourvèdre, Carignane and Grenache. In warmer sites, the aromatics deepen, the fruit aromas fall to blackberry, cassis, black fig and plum, accented by mocha and meat scents. The textures thicken and the wines are often high in alcohol, bringing to mind the southern Rhône, or Shirazes from Australia’s torrid Barossa Valley. These wines, from wineries such as Clos Mimi, Saxum, Denner, Villa Creek, Booker and Linne Calodo, are fairly unbridled in their power, displaying the kind of amped-up fruit expression that Robert Parker Jr. loves to call “hedonistic.”

And hedonism, you could say, is just another edge, just as there are edges of extract, of concentration, of ripeness, color, saturation, and even, I suppose, of reason. Syrah seems designed to flirt with all stylistic tightropes. Just this year, Clos Mimi released an 18% alcohol Syrah that Parker referred to in the Wine Advocate as having been made in an “Amarone style,” adding, “This is not for everybody, especially those incapable of thinking ‘outside the box.’” Something tells me that that box is a long way from Hermitage.

Ehren Jordan

Ehren Jordan.
Photo credit: Failla Wines

In fact, the only grape variety to inspire comparable forms of extreme behavior is zinfandel. And no winery is better known for extreme zinfandel than Turley, which happens to be made by one of California’s more insightful Syrah producers, Ehren Jordan. Jordan makes Syrah for Neyers Winery, as well as for his own label, Failla. He may have no trouble committing extreme zin, but Jordan doesn’t feel Syrah deserves the same treatment.

“What I do with Turley is appropriate for Zinfandel,” says Jordan, “but to my mind a wine with 15% alcohol is not what Syrah is.” Having worked two vintages in Cornas, in the northern Rhône, with Jean-Luc Colombo, Jordan arrives at his conclusion from a uniquely French perspective. “I think they’re pretty delicate wines,” he says. “They’ve got more in common with Pinot Noir than with the Syrahs of Australia, which for me are a lot like zinfandel.”

Jordan has found sites on Sonoma’s Far Coast and in southern Napa that give him cool-weather spice notes, which he augments by fermenting his fruit whole cluster, where the grapes stay on the stem, which contributes various spice notes to the finished wine. As a result, his wines at Failla — edgy, exotically spiced, and delicate all at once — may be an affront to the average lover of Austalian Shiraz or, for that matter, the average lover of Turley zin.

Ideal growing conditions

The place where the Phelps Rhône program ended up was in inland Monterey County near King City, east of Tassajara and Big Sur, not too far from the original Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards planted by Chalone — about 30 miles from the ocean, but still receiving breezes from Monterey Bay. Craig Williams describes the vineyards as “a warm spot in a cool place.”

That phrase fairly well defines the ideal conditions for growing Syrah in California, places where inherently cool temperatures slow the development of the grape so that phenolic ripeness can stay abreast of sugar ripeness, while at the same time, its intense warmth brings out those phenolics to maximum expression. Qupé’s Hillside Estate bottling at Bien Nacido Vineyard is one such place. John Alban’s estate vineyard is another. Hudson and Hyde vineyards, in Carneros, could both be described thus, as could Alder Springs in Mendocino County, and the vineyards of Ballard Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley — and not least, Washington state. In the next installment we’ll look more closely at these places.

Bob Lindquist

Bob Lindquist.
Photo credit: Qupe Wine Cellars

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