Serious Syrahs for Drinking Five Years From Now

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most of us drink wine soon after we buy it. Even bottles that could easily age for years if safely stored in the cool, dark recesses of a traditional wine cellar--something that few of us who live in California ranch houses have ever seen--tend to be consumed rather quickly.

There is nothing wrong with drinking wine whenever you feel like it, but there can be substantial benefits to laying some bottles away (even in the bottom of a dark closet) for some future enjoyment. White wines can age perfectly well, as a flight of nearly 30-year old Chardonnays ('71 Spring Mountain, '72 Mayacamas and '74 ZD "Winery Lake") showed at a special dinner we held last year to celebrate the new millennium.

For years, and even today, the California wines generally thought to age the best have been made from Cabernet Sauvignon. True, there are those of us who have also laid away Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Petite Sirah, but only the latter, which is notorious for a structure that remains sturdy long after its fruit has left the building, makes any pretense of aging in the manner of Cabernet.

Now, with the increasing popularity of the true (non-petite) Syrah here in California, we are beginning to find that there is another wine worth cellaring. True, we do not yet have decades of experience with California Syrah, since it has only been available in any kind of volume for the past eight to 10 years. But we do know it ages well when grown in the northern parts of the Rhone valley. The single most exciting wine at our millennium dinner was a '61 Jaboulet Cote-Rotie from the Rhone.

At a recent vertical tasting of Syrahs from Edmunds St. John, we tried wines spanning eight years, from 1987 to 1995. The oldest were among the first wines the winery made, and they did seem a little tired. But the newer wines, starting with the luscious, fruity 1990, held up beautifully. And the hits of the tasting were the '92s and '93s. Those ripe and immensely deep wines showed enough depth and structure to last at least another decade, maybe more. They also captured the grape's blackberry and spice character better.

While we were disappointed with the lack of aging quality in those first few efforts, the more recent wines clearly proved that Syrah grown in cooler climates of California is going to have long aging capabilities.

The wines recommended below will all improve in five to 10 years, becoming smoother and more complex. They are heartier, hardier bottlings than the Syrahs recommended here a couple of weeks ago for immediate enjoyment at summer barbecues.

You need a place to store wines and the temperament to wait for them to mature, but if you have those, then Syrah is a wine that deserves a place in your cellar.

* 1999 Beaulieu Vineyards "Signet Selection," Napa County, $22. Ripe fruit, rather than defined varietal personality, is the main attraction of this full-bodied youngster, yet it never loses sight of the pepper-and-berries character of Syrah. It is moderately rich in oak and, though it inclines to softness, it has a sufficient spine of firming tannins and never lapses into heaviness.

* 1999 Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Barbara County, $22. Young, deep and possessing the fruit to age, this multilayered Syrah will need time to marry its oak, peppery spice and ripe berry flavors to its tannins and toughness. It has good extract and a rich, fleshy feel on the palate, and it should come together quite nicely over the next four or five years.

1998 Domaine Terre Rouge "Sentinel Oak Vineyard, Pyramid Block," Shenandoah Valley, Amador County, $28. There's no mistaking the varietal nature of this blockbuster Syrah, which works despite being somewhat overripe and over-extracted. Its fruity richness runs into increasing astringency in the mouth; if complex, it's also very tough at the moment. Five years or so of aging should fix that.

* * 1999 Edmunds St. John "Wylie-Fenaughty," El Dorado County, $28. Steve Edmunds thinks this is his best Syrah yet, and certainly its intense and highly concentrated aromas of blackberry and pepper are reasons to agree. Its flavors are right in step with the precision and intensity of the nose, and the oak, while an attractive accent, never threatens to take control--very much in Edmunds' philosophy of letting the fruit speak. A big-bodied, firm and fleshy wine, it tightens a touch at the finish and promises to improve for a decade or more.

* * 1999 Gregory Graham Wines, Napa Valley, $26. One of my favorite Viognier producers shows an accomplished hand with Rhone reds in this finely crafted Syrah. The wine is keyed on concentrated, young and very lively varietal fruit with elements of ripe berries overlain by lots of very rich, lightly toasted oak and wisps of pepper and violets. Quite long on the palate and beautifully balanced with plenty of weight, good acidity and fine tannins, it will improve for six to eight years and could hold even longer.

* 1998 Havens Wine Cellars, Carneros, $24. This bold version of Syrah will never be mistaken for a wine of restrained elegance, but it does boast seasonings of pepper, game, dried grasses and earth as well as its apparent but somewhat understated ripe black cherry fruit. Moderately full in body and fleshy in feel, this age-worthy effort is for those who enjoy the expressive, complex side of the variety's personality.

$ * * 1998 Jade Mountain Winery "Paras Vineyard and Hudson Vineyard," Napa Valley, $23. Here is a big, deep, full-bodied wine whose generous personality is matched by its all-too-noticeable alcoholic ripeness--yet that very same ripeness gives the wine its outgoing blackberry, boysenberry and dried-plum fruitiness. Scads of sweet oak and a fair measure of varietally specific gaminess, spice and black pepper fill out the wine and make it into one of the most bold and dramatic of the current offerings. Oversized in many of its parts, to be sure, it will hold up for several years of aging.

1998 Selby Wines, Sonoma County, $18. This medium-deep Syrah is nicely ripened and not too heavy and is always focused on peppery, berry-like fruit. It shows a bit of an acid snap on the latter palate that counters its first sensations of spread and suppleness, and its tendency to stiffness should diminish with three to five years of age.

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Definition of Symbols

* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$ Good value for the money.

x Below average quality, to be avoided.

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