At a recent wine tasting in San Francisco, I sat down to blind taste a dozen Syrahs from the Rhône Valley and California. The idea was to guess which wine came from where, and it should have been easy, but it wasn’t. Sure, some of the French wines were easily pegged as French, and some of California’s were unmistakably American.
But in more than half the wines tasted, the country of origin was difficult to discern, and that is a not-so-backhanded compliment to the California contingent. These wines were as fresh and invigorating as their French counterparts, not only herbaceous but also aromatically ethereal, with scents of flowers and Mediterranean herbs, wood smoke, violets, lavender, rosemary, bergamot and a panorama of peppercorns — white, black, Longan, pink — the gamut. All had come from cool-climate vineyard sites.
Syrah sales in the U.S. are stubbornly moribund despite the passionate exhortations of countless winemakers, sommeliers, writers, retailers and hard-core fans. Consumers insist they don’t like the variety, though it’s never entirely clear what it is they don’t like about it.
Probably, though, what they dislike is its unpredictability. As with Riesling, another grape that seems to inspire consumer skittishness, styles for California Syrah are so all over the map that many aren’t willing to risk the $20, $30, $40 or more on a bottle whose flavors they can’t be sure of. What if it’s sweet or blunt or fat or a thick, black-fruited jam pot? Or what if it’s “weird,” which is to say savory or feral, giving off scents of blood and bacon and cured meats, of ink and iodine and tarmacadam, flavors better stored in a dungeon instead of a cellar. How do you know? Who dares to make that leap of faith?
But in cool climate you can trust. In California’s best Syrahs, from the likes of Arnot-Roberts, Baker Lane, Edmunds St. John, Bonny Doon, Piedrasassi, Anthill Farms, Big Basin, Radio-Coteau, Qupé, Ojai — and the three producers below — you can be assured that the fruit isn’t too ripe at harvest, that the flavors will be generous but thrilling and that the textures will have some snap and tension, and be as uplifting as any red wine in California.
To achieve these marks, producers must work with vineyards cool enough to restrain the ripening sequence, so the grapes achieve some phenolic maturity before the sugar levels peak. Such feats are relatively routine in places like the fogbound Santa Maria Valley, the Pacific-adjacent Yorkville Highlands and Mendocino Coast, and the wind-whipped slopes where the tasting’s top wine, Wind Gap’s Syrah from Nellessen Vineyard, is located.
So go ahead, protest all you want that Syrah isn’t for you, but if you haven’t tried at least one of the wines mentioned here, you simply don’t know what you’re missing.
The tasting featured wines of the 2013 vintage, but you’re most likely to find 2014s in the market at present.
Wind Gap Nellessen Vineyard Sonoma Coast Syrah
From an intensely cool vineyard in the southern reaches of the Russian River Valley, this wine has gorgeous aromas of pink peppercorn, currant, plum and anise. Its flavors follow a spicy line, but the texture — firm but not hard, with a chewy give to the tannins — is sensuous and vibrant. About $40 at the Wine House and Esters Wine Shop.
Halcón Yorkville Highlands Alturas Syrah
Halcón is a fairly young vineyard planted by Paul and Jackie Gordon in the Yorkville Highlands of Mendocino County. This wine has a scent of bergamot and black pepper, with fleeting aromas of dark soil. Its flavors are dense but balanced, with a firm grip of tannin and a meaty, muscular finish. About $32 at the Wine House, Hi Time and the Wine Exchange.
Drew Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyard Syrah
From a high-elevation site not eight miles from the ocean, Drew’s Perli Vineyard Syrah leads with scents of wood smoke and tincture of lavender, which with air becomes ethereally floral, like violets. It’s assertive and generous, with cool fruit flavors and tannins that are grippy but not hard, and will complement a steak. About $48 at Wade’s Wines and Lou Wine Shop.