Tuesday, July 14, 2009

4th of July American Syrah

Back from Maine (ten fantastic days) and mostly dug out now. Not much to discuss from the last two weeks overall; we drank pretty well, but there were no real themes except for one night. On the 4th of July I found myself thinking we should be drinking Zinfandel. We ended up drinking two tasting sets of Syrah, plus one extra bottle, all from California, certainly patriotic.
My father had purchased some four bottle tasting kits put together by the Chalone Wine Group a number of years ago. They featured wines from the Chalone family of wineries, Echelon, Chalone, Jade Mountain, and Edna Valley. All of the wines were 2001 vintage and we were lucky enough to have another addition from Santa Ynez, also from 2001. (We also tasted an Aussie Shiraz, but it was from 2005 so I am not including it here).
The wines below are presented in the order we tasted. Although you will not find any of these available on shelves currently, it should give a good idea of viability for aging.
Echelon Syrah 2001, Clarksburg - Echelon was created in the late 1990's as a relatively inexpensive option in the Chalone Wine Group. Most (all?) of the fruit was purchased and the 2001 did not carry the current designation of Esperanza Vineyard. While Echelon has gotten more single vineyard focused, they now call this wine Shiraz, a classic California marketing move to capitalize on the more sellable style coming from Australia. My experience has been that Shiraz from California still carries a bit of a stigma and confuses more customers than it entices. At any rate, the grapes come from Clarksburg, well east of Sonoma, nearly all the way to Lodi. The wine was a bit tired, the fruit mostly faded. There was an appealing middle though, offering earth and tar notes. The finish faded quickly as well, leaving just the mid-palate. I enjoyed that middle, and it worked well with slabs of grilled beef, but it was no longer a pleasure to drink.
Chalone Syrah 2001, Chalone - Yes, the AVA (American Viticultural Area) is named after the winery. As if wine wasn't confusing enough. The appellation is located ESE of Monterey, in close proximity to Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco. The famed Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producer Calera is NNE of Chalone. No surprise then that the specialties of Chalone are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They planted Syrah in the 1990's and according to the website, the 2002 vintage was the first release. I can testify that they either released small quantities of the 2001 or mislabeled some of the 2002 vintage. My bet is on a limited production of 2001. The 2002 vintage spent 18 months in French barrels, one third were new. They also blended in 3% Viognier. Perhaps a bit of explanation here. Viognier is very aromatic and traditionally in the northern Rhone was often co-fermented with Syrah. The result was, counter intuitively, a darker wine with more pronounced aromatics in its youth. Syrah, despite its intensity, is quiet on the nose when it is young. Viognier brings up some Syrah aromas, not Viognier aromas, when used in small quantities. Blending wine later does not alter the color, but still brightens the perfume. Unlike some northern Rhone Syrahs, California versions do not generally need more pigmentation.
The nose offered deep purple fruit and some moderate oak with red berries as well. I found this wine remarkably fresh on the front end with older, more mature fruit on the finish. There a more pronounced woody note appeared along with a hint of leather; the leather is new and almost sweet smelling, not weathered and slightly earthy. This would have paired well with mushroom based dishes and lighter grilled meats. Impressive, especially for a wine they did not release! I think it could have aged well for another two years, but I enjoyed it's mix of freshness and maturity.
Jade Mountain Syrah 2001, Napa Valley - Jade Mountain began in 1988 and produces only Rhone styled wines. Their style has always been a bit chewy in their youth and I always believed they would age, but had not had any of their wine more than a year or two past release. Some of the chewiness can no doubt be attributed to this approach, quoted from Diageo's website (Diageo owns Chalone Wine Group, who in turn owns Jade Mountain). "Jade Mountain practices high-risk winemaking by pushing the limits of grapegrowing and winemaking until the grapes have surrendered all the flavor and structure possible." This does not sound like a gentle handling to me and is therefore likely to extract more tannin.
The technical sheet states 100% Syrah, but then mentions co-fermentation with Viognier so who knows? Earth is a strong component, with minerality too, making this very reminiscent of the classic French style. I found it a bit rough on the palate, classic Jade style. It did work much better with food as one would suspect with a wine of this style. We had grilled fillet and I had mine with mushroom sauce. Mouthwatering acidity still thrived along with a subtly funky earth note. The 2nd bottle proved much softer and more drinkable on its own. The second was clearly a better example, even offering some intriguing notes of violets on the nose.
Edna Valley Syrah 2001, Edna Valley - In another stroke of brilliant marketing by the Chalone group, the AVA is named after the winery. Located just south of Paso Robles, but much closer to the coast (five miles or so) thus sharing more climate similarities with the AVAs of Santa Maria, Santa Ynez, and Santa Rita Hills. The Paragon Vineyard partnered with Chalone Winery to create the Edna Valley winery in 1980. Chardonnay led the charge, establishing their best known wine. Pinot Noir followed and then the winery made one of the first Syrahs from the area. According to the technical sheet for the 2003 vintage (no older vintage information was available), they produce 100% Syrah, but add "a small amount of Petite Sirah." They show it to be 100% San Luis Obispo County, which is not an AVA, but that allows them to add some fruit from the much warmer Paso Robles AVA. Confusingly, the wine still carries a designation of Paragon Vineyard, in the Edna Valley AVA. And people complain about French labels?
Anyway, the wine was a bit closed, but with lovely purple fruit - no better way to describe it. The color of this wine was the most intense, bright, and lively of the tasting (both bottles). A great silky palate with a touch of juicy earth. I know that makes little sense, but that was my impression. Clearly not dank, funky earth, but fresh loamy stuff, perhaps with berries growing in it. Sweet oak and some pepper, the only wine with that classic Syrah hallmark, made this the hit of the tasting for me. I found it classic and impressive. Well done. I look forward to trying a Syrah in current release to see how it compares. Despite the confusing labelling and somewhat misleading information on their tech sheet, I found this wine compelling.
Beckmen Estate Syrah 2001, Santa Ynez Valley - I have always enjoyed the wines from this winery, and I looked forward to tasting a wine with some age. (Note, we drank a wonderful 2002 Marsanne from Beckmen over the Maine visit as well. It went beautifully with cashews). They focus almost exclusively on Rhone varieties and have planted seven clones of Syrah over 18 vineyard blocks. Their tech sheets do not go back to 2001, but the 2003 is 100% Syrah, aged in French oak, 40% new. They were certified biodynamic in 2006, bravo!
I found an iodine/tar nose at first that faded a bit, but remained throughout both bottles. The palate, however, was gorgeous, silky, and full of ripe, pretty fruit. Although the wine was clearly not consistent in flavor throughout, I found it lovely and delicious. The nose was off-putting for many tasters, but everyone loved the rest of the wine. I found the nose interesting and mildly distracting, it was not a wine I wanted to simply smell. The palate so grabbed me though that I chose to overlook the nose and enjoy the rest of the ride. Perhaps drinking this a year or two earlier might have mitigated the intense aromas.

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