In the debate over which grape varieties ultimately will account for the standing of the American wine trade, syrah is like the presidential candidate who isn’t pulling impressive numbers. It’s off on the fringes of the stage. Little is asked of it. Even when it speaks as forcefully as it can, it’s often less than enthralling.
If only syrah could seize one key primary or caucus, its backers suggest, it would have the traction to propel it to the center of the stage.
Such a caucus was held in January at the Geyserville restaurant Diavola. I was among a handful of wine writers who gathered in the equivalent of a nominating convention’s back room for a blind test and judgment on a flight of wines to see if at least one syrah would represent the varietal proudly.
All 12 wines were “cool-climate” syrahs.
What’s a cool-climate syrah? The group hadn’t much discussed this beforehand, other than to concur that the wines wouldn’t be from relatively warm growing areas. We more or less had agreed that the more impressive syrahs we’ve tasted in recent years had been from comparatively cool enclaves. In California, that would include Russian River Valley, Mendocino Ridge and Edna Valley.
Each of the four writers had rounded up three syrahs. I was responsible for the California candidates. Other groups were drawn from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, all of which are seen to have generally cooler climates than California.
When scouting for my syrahs I concentrated on appellations close to the Pacific Ocean, often cooled by fog, occasionally high, all traits I associate with comparatively cool growing conditions. The vineyards wouldn’t be hit with a lot of afternoon sunshine and heat. Technically, they would fall into the cooler two regions of five “heat-summation” zones defined decades ago by UC Davis calculations on temperatures during a typical growing season.
Those sorts of places have been responsible for the kinds of syrah most satisfying to my palate – syrahs with inviting floral aromas, fresh blueberry fruit, suggestions of bacon fat, revitalizing acidity and – the most seductive characteristic of all – heaping dashes of black pepper. On the alcohol front, they’ve been closer to 13 percent than 15 percent.
At this Judgment of Geyserville, the syrahs were grouped by region, but tasters weren’t told the identities of the regions until after the wines were tasted and graded, the thinking being that such a strategy would help isolate similarities in the syrahs from each area.
On that count, I don’t think the sampling was large enough to pinpoint definitive parallels, though the British Columbia contingent seemed the earthiest and the Oregonians the fruitiest and sleekest. The Washington trio was the most elusive for its wide-ranging diversity.
The panel concurred that the California delegation was the only one in which all three wines warranted gold, largely for their brightness, fidelity, energy and complexity. The Californians included the overall most popular wine of the night, the Drew Family Cellars 2013 Mendocino Ridge Valenti Ranch Syrah ($45), an easy gold for me solely for its zest, spice and length.
Winemaker Jason Drew suspects but doesn’t know for sure whether the Valenti Ranch vineyard is in Region I on the UC Davis heat-summation scale. He notes that the plot is just 6 miles from the Pacific Ocean, atop a ridge 1,350 above the coastal settlement of Elk. It faces east, getting more early-morning rather than late-afternoon sun, and it is cooled by maritime breezes sweeping up the Greenwood watershed. “This reduces yields and berry size, resulting in wonderful intensity and complexity of flavors,” Drew says.
The other California gold-medal wines were the peppery, polished and persistent Lagier Meredith 2013 Mount Veeder Syrah ($48), and the exceptionally complex and substantive Qupé 2011 Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Syrah ($35).
Two wines from Washington were awarded gold, the fruity, herbal and readily accessible Ross Andrew Winery 2010 Columbia Valley Boushey Vineyard Syrah ($40) and the focused and equally friendly Palencia Winery 2012 Yakima Valley Syrah ($30).
From British Columbia and Oregon, one wine each got gold, the meaty, spicy and layered C.C. Jentsch Cellars 2013 Okanagan Valley Syrah ($30) and the lean, oaky and sweetly fruity Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards 2013 Umpqua Valley Winemaker’s Reserve Syrah ($39).
In sum, seven of the 12 wines were awarded gold medals. All the others won silver. The strong showing of the entire field speaks to the authority of syrah from cooler climates throughout the West Coast. In short, if you want a syrah more likely to please than to disappoint, look for one from a relatively cool setting, which in California includes Russian River Valley, Mendocino Ridge, Mount Veeder and Edna Valley
For more perspectives on the Judgment of Geyserville, fellow panelist, sommelier and wine writer Ellen Scott Landis has published her take on Ellen on Wine; Andy Perdue, wine columnist for the Seattle Times, will publish his roundup this week, as will Eric Degerman, CEO of the website Great Northwest Wine.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.