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Promise of California Syrah Grows Brighter

by Steve Pitcher

As a fairly recent immigrant from the Rhone Valley in France, syrah has now comfortably settled in throughout most of the growing areas of California. According to state Department of Food and Agriculture figures, reported by the Wine Institute, only 119 acres of true syrah winegrapes were planted in California in 1986. By 1995, the plantings had increased more than tenfold to 1,331 acres, and in 1996, syrah acreage almost doubled to 2,094 acres. In the same time period, only merlot plantings were more impressive in the red winegrape category, increasing from 2,881 acres in 1986 to a whopping 32,883 acres in 1996.

Sales of red wine have increased markedly in the years since the now famous 1991 "60 Minutes" broadcast of "The French Paradox" segment (rebroadcast in 1995) sparked interest in the heart and health benefits of moderate wine consumption. As noted in an earlier "Vintner's Choice" column, Merlot has been the chief beneficiary of that program and other studies that have confirmed and expanded on the matter of the health benefits of moderate red wine consumption. And while a great deal of the Merlot from newly producing vines fills a need for health-conscious consumers, it's generally regarded as straightforward, comparatively simple, red wine meant to be consumed early.

With each new vintage of California syrah, however, winemakers up and down the state (east and west, too) have generally produced ever more distinctive bottlings that capture the varietal's depth of flavors, luscious texture and exciting expression of terroir. Partly this is due to an additional year of vine age, but there's also evident a genuine interest on the part of Syrah-friendly winemakers to create wines of class and substance.

Syrah From Navarro Vineyards
This was brought home to me last August while participating as one of ten judges at the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition held in Philo. For the first time in this Mendocino-only wine competition, a five-judge panel was called on to evaluate a flight of eight Syrahs, where previously, the few Syrahs that were entered were judged among "Other Red Varietals." Of the eight Syrahs, we awarded three bronze medals, two silvers and a gold medal, which went to Navarro Vineyards' first effort in this varietal, a stunning 1995 Syrah made from grapes harvested at the Scharffenberger family's Eaglepoint Ranch in inland Mendocino County near Ukiah. It won't be released until next March, but even now offers a complex, fragrant, appealing nose of plumy black fruits, leather, mint, raw red meat and vanilla, reminiscent of the finest Syrahs from the northern Rhone. The palate is silky with broad, deep, generous flavors that replicate the nose. All this for a mere $16 a bottle. Navarro has plans for a syrah vineyard of its own, to be planted near a ridge top above the winery in the Anderson Valley, a cooler appellation than the Ukiah Valley, site of the Eaglepoint Ranch.

The Eaglepoint Ranch, incidentally, comprises some 1,800 acres, about 75 of which are vineyard, planted primarily to zinfandel, syrah and sangiovese. The 25-year-old vineyard, just south and east of the town of Talmadge at an elevation of about 800 feet, provides grapes for several wineries, among them a new one called Lonetree Vineyards, the venture of John Scharffenberger (no longer actively associated with the Anderson Valley sparkling wine house that bears his name) and Casey Hartlip. The 1995 Lonetree Syrah was also entered in the Mendocino County Fair competition, but didn't get a medal; I personally thought it was gold-medal material, quite similar to Navarro's Syrah made from the same grapes.

Nearby, in Lake County, a cooler growing area than inland Mendocino County, or Napa Valley for that matter, superstar winemaker Jed Steele has contracted with a number of growers to plant the county's first syrah, which will eventually be turned into wine for his Steele Wines label, or perhaps his second label, Shooting Star. Steele's enthusiasm for Syrah is an outgrowth of his sourceing of grapes from Santa Barbara County, and particularly, the Bien Nacido Vineyard there, which produces world-class syrah fruit under conditions fairly similar to those in Lake County. This is an exciting development that deserves close watching.

The surging enthusiasm for California Syrah has not been lost on the Vintners Club, which has increased the number of tastings for these wines, as well as Australian Shiraz, as Syrah is called Down Under. An earlier column focused on comparing and contrasting these New World Syrahs. The latest tasting brought together twelve new-release Syrahs from a variety of California appellations, including Mendocino, Carneros, Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Santa Barbara County. Prices ranged from $16 to $33. Interestingly, no one region had a lock on the top-ranked wines.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1995 Foxen Syrah, Morehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley ($18)
Up to now, tiny (8500 cases) Foxen Vineyard has been known primarily for its rich, distinctively smoky Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, which always attract attention in a tasting of those varietals from Santa Barbara County. As this wine clearly demonstrates, partners Richard Dor» and Bill Wathen can accomplish similar feats of great winemaking with Syrah. The grapes came from the Morehouse Vineyard, a fine site for the varietal located on the eastern outskirts of the town of Santa Ynez, where the temperatures are warmer than the county's best sites for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are located further to the west and north, closer to ocean influences.

Very forward, fragrant, spicy, chocolately, meaty nose of blackberries, clove and toasty oak with an pleasant note of roasted coffee beans. In the mouth the wine is moderately rich with medium-full tannins, offering lots of ripe, brambly blackberry fruit with good depth and concentration, accented by a just the faintest hint of green olive herbaceousness. A delicious wine with fine structure.

SECOND PLACE

1994 Havens Syrah, Carneros ($18)
Classic Syrah scents of leather, ripe blackberry-black cherry fruit, cedar and minerals, accented by whiffs of tobacco leaf, smoky oak, vanilla, black pepper and violets -- lots going on in the nose! On the palate, the wine is generous, with lots of ripe, almost extractive berry-cassis fruit and ripe, chewy tannins. A rich, delicious wine with fine depth of flavor, good acidity and medium tannins.

THIRD PLACE

1994 Joseph Phelps Syrah, "Vin du Mistral," Napa Valley ($25)
Wonderfully aromatic wine offering scents of vanilla, freshly cracked black pepper, intense black fruits, cinnamon spice and smoky oak. Smooth and rich in the mouth offering almost jammy black fruits, a certain meatiness and peppery spice. Medium tannins frame the flavors, which linger in the finish.

FOURTH PLACE

1994 Geyser Peak Shiraz Reserve, Sonoma County ($32)
Fragrant scents of black raspberries and boysenberries, plus notes of mint, leather and a floral component (geraniums come to mind). Sweet, although not too deep, berry fruit is accented by mint and violets. There's a slight bite to the palate; medium tannins and good acidity. Short, eucalyptus-like finish.

FIFTH PLACE

1995 Cline Cellars Syrah, Carneros ($18)
Exhibiting the same bright, intense fruit and smoky-tarry characteristics one finds in the best examples of Hermitage, this hillside Syrah opens with a wonderfully fragrant and appealing nose of blackberry fruit, cinnamon-clove spice, green olive and dried herbs, toasty and vanillin oak. Smooth, rich and generous in the mouth with ripe, jammy berry fruit, green olive herbaceousness and a hint of black pepper. A complex and delicious wine with ripe, medium tannins.

SIXTH PLACE

1995 Ojai Syrah, California ($16)
The syrah grapes for this very "Rhonish" wine came from three different South-Central Coast vineyards - 54% from the Roll Ranch, 33% from Bien Nacido Vineyards and 11% from the Ojai Vineyard. Two percent Viognier was added to the blend in fine French tradition. Deeply fruity while at the same time wonderfully racy, the Ojai Syrah is a serious wine that packs a punch. The tarry, spicy nose shows lots of ripe black fruits, which are replicated on the palate, where it gains meatiness and a mineral component. Smooth, round and jammy with medium-full tannins, this is a thoroughly delicious and captivating wine, and quite a bargain at $16.

SEVENTH PLACE

1994 Swanson Syrah, Napa Valley ($33)
Distinctive nose that almost defies description: a slightly fumy combination of smoke, freshly baked spice cookies, iodine and tar, backed up by jammy black currants and ripe strawberries. One either likes this combo or finds it distracting. Quite tannic and somewhat puckery in the mouth, there's just enough strawberry-cola-like fruit to bring this off. Severely tannic and unusually aromatic, this vintage of Swanson Syrah should be tasted by the winery's fans before stocking up, as it departs from the style of previous offerings.

EIGHTH PLACE

1995 Qup» Syrah, Bien Nacido Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($22.50)
Forward, fragrant nose of raspberries and cherries, accented by warm spice, smoky oak and a bit of bell pepper. Smooth and moderately rich in the mouth, offering ripe berry fruit, cedar, slightly chewy tannins, green olive herbaceousness and a peppery finish.

NINTH PLACE

1995 Gabrielli Syrah, Redwood Valley (Mendocino) ($18)
Grapy, berry-red cherry flavors are enhanced by notes of vanilla, anise and dark chocolate. Moderately rich with medium tannins, the wine's bright, lively flavors replicate the nose and are moderately concentrated and deep. Peppery spice in the medium-long finish.

TENTH PLACE

1994 Cambria Syrah, Tepusquet Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($25)
Rustic, tarry nose showing blackberries, leather, raw red meat, cocoa and medium-high oak char. Complex and generous in the mouth with deep, concentrated flavors that replicate the nose. A mouthfilling wine with medium-full tannins, its rustic qualities may resolve with a couple of years of ageing.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1995 Jaffurs Syrah, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Cedar and vanillin oak are joined by plumy berry fruit and warm spice in the nose. On the palate, there's a good deal of berry fruit, but the acids seem a bit elevated and the wine comes off as tart. It would benefit from service with hearty foods.

TWELFTH PLACE

1994 Andrew Murray Vineyards Syrah, Santa Barbara County ($25)
Somewhat disappointing on this occasion, given this new winery's past success with Syrah and the fantastic potential of its estate vineyards high in the hills in the warmer eastern part of the Santa Ynez Valley. The nose is dominated by a weedy, herbal layer that is almost impossible to penetrate to the shy fruit beneath. Tart and tannic in the mouth with austere, herbaceous flavors and only a minimum of fruit, the wine comes off as shrill and hard to like.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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