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New World Syrah: Lush Reds from California & Australia
In the late 1970s, several like-minded California winemakers formed a loosely structured group whimsically called the "Rhone Rangers" with the intention of pooling their experiences in producing wines made from Rhone varietals. The impetus to form the group came from a fascination with -- and love of -- French wines made from these grapes, especially Syrah. The object in mind was to accelerate improvement on the quality curve of such wines in California and to promote them to consumers.
According to an ancient, undated, typewritten list in my files, the early Rhone Rangers included, among others, John Buechsenstein (then at McDowell Valley Vineyards), Lou Preston (Preston Vineyards), Craig Williams (Joseph Phelps Vineyards), Fred and Matt Cline (Cline Cellars), Gary Eberle (then with Estrella River Vineyard, which subsequently became Meridian Vineyards), Adam Tolmach (Ojai Vineyard), Bob Lindquist (QupÈ), Randall Grahm (Bonny Doon Vineyard), Steve Edmunds (Edmunds St. John) and Sean Thackrey.
By the late 1980s, the Rhone Rangers had grown in number and their wines had improved to the point that, in 1989, Francois Perrin, owner of Chateau de Beaucastel, one of the leading producers of Ch·teauneuf-du-Pape, was quoted in the Wine Spectator as saying "I think California has more of a future in the Rhone grapes than with Cabernet or Chardonnay. The climate is more suitable. But 20 years ago, when California was making its way, Bordeaux was considered the model."
Today, California wines made from Rhone varietals have certainly arrived, none more successfully than Syrah, made from the noble varietal that put Hermitage in the Rhone on the map. Yet, the amount of Syrah produced is still tiny compared to Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot; only about 500 acres are currently planted to the varietal. Why, there's probably more Petite Sirah produced in California than Syrah, but that will soon change. By the way, the distinction between Syrah and Petite Sirah, two completely unrelated varietals, was the subject of an earlier "Vintner's Choice" column.
In Australia, Syrah has long been an extremely popular wine, which has only recently been seriously challenged by Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah is usually called Shiraz Down Under, where more than 18,000 acres of the varietal thrive in such wine regions as the Barossa, Clare and Hunter Valleys, Coonawarra and Victoria, making Shiraz the most widely planted premium grape variety in the country. It produces everything from Australia's finest bottlings priced at more than $100 to everyday drinking wines.
While French Rhone wines may have been the inspiration for winemakers in California and Australia, comparative blind tastings conducted by the Vintners Club over the years have uncovered the fact that the quality of many of the French bottlings is not consistent, while the New World wines, made in wineries where cleanliness is considered next to godliness, have a better track record in this regard. The fruit from old vines in the Rhone may be profound, but carelessness in the winery can offset that advantage, resulting in such flaws as volatile acidity (VA), which gives the wine a vinegary quality, and brettanomyces (brett), a wild yeast that imparts a "barnyard" or "horse stable" smell to the wine. The French are also at the mercy of bad weather at harvest and frequent bad or mediocre vintages, more so than New World producers.
At a Vintners Club tasting in April 1996, for example, visiting taster Serena Sutcliffe of the Sotheby's auction house in London found herself compelled to describe many of the 12 northern red Rhone wines she had tasted with terms such as "rank and harsh," "flawed," "unclean," "dirty," "varnish" and "rustic at best." And these were wines from such well-known Rhone producers as Bernard Chave, Alain Graillot, Clape, Paul Jaboulet Aine and Jasmin.
A comparative blind tasting pitting Australian Shiraz against California Syrah should avoid such distractions, at least theoretically. The New World wines should demonstrate skilled, modern winemaking at its cleanest, at least. Fortunately, such proved to be the case. All but two of the wines were well made, with those winding up at the bottom nicked for being comparatively lighter, tarter and less fruity than those at the top and showing the effects of a touch of VA.
Overall, while a California Syrah came in first, the Australian Shirazs were judged as a group to offer greater depth and complexity. This is certainly due to the older vines that produced the Australian wines. But the potential for California Syrah was clearly evident. Enough so as to give validity to Francois Perrin's observation noted above: "I think California has more of a future in the Rhone grapes than with Cabernet or Chardonnay."
To learn more about Rhone wines, check out the new book entitled "Rhone Renaissance, The Finest Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines from France and the New World" by Remington Norman (1996, The Wine Appreciation Guild $50). This definitive, profusely and beautifully illustrated, new reference work describes more than 220 wine estates and evaluates more than 1500 individual wines. The Wine Appreciation Guild in San Francisco may be reached by calling (800) 231-9463.
And once you've decided which Syrah or Shiraz to drink, Riedel has just the right glass to use. After months of research with more than two dozen prototypes and other glasses, evaluated by winemakers, wine writers and other wine professionals in France, the United States and Australia, Riedel offered two specially designed Syrah glasses in 1995. In the Vinum series of machine-made, 24 percent lead crystal stemware, the "Syrah" glass No. 416/7 at $150 for a six pack is beautiful to look at, holds 23 oz., stands 9-1/4 inches high and really allows New World Syrahs to shine because it permits the ripe, comparatively soft, tannins unimpeded access to the palate. In Riedel's Sommeliers series of handmade, 24 percent lead crystal stemware, the "Hermitage" glass No. 400/30 at $88 per stem is recommended particularly for Syrah from the Rhone Valley because it emphasizes the roundness of the fruit. This glass somewhat resembles a Burgundy balloon style, stands 9-3/8 inches and holds almost 21 oz. To obtain a Riedel brochure or learn the location of a showroom near you, call (800) 642-1859.
1994 Bedford-Thompson Syrah, Santa Barbara County ($18) .
The winery was established only in 1993 and has 25 acres of estate vines located in the cool (Region I) Los Alamos Valley in the northern part of the county. The grapes for this first-release Syrah were hand harvested from the Thompson Vineyard in mid-October at two tons per acre. It received open-top fermentation in small tanks with 14 days maceration to maximize the extraction, and was pressed to barrel, where it was aged for 16 months; 25 percent of the barrels were new French and French-coopered American oak.
Quite dark and opaque, the wine's nose offers very fragrant scents of green olive, ripe berry-cherry fruit, freshly cracked black pepper and mild eucalyptus herbaceousness. Quite peppery on the palate, along with plenty of ripe berry fruit to balance the evident oak and green olive notes, the wine resembles a fine northern Rhone effort with ripe, medium tannins and a smooth texture. Distinctive and delicious. Quite an accomplishment to beat out Australia's great Grange on the first try.
993 Rosemount Balmoral Syrah, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($30).
Rosemount is the leading brand of Shiraz in the United States, selling more than 50,000 cases of various styles of the wine in 1995. The limited-production (1100 cases) Balmoral Syrah was drawn primarily from 100-year-old vines in McLaren Vale, an important Shiraz-producing region southeast of Adelaide in South Australia. Forward, intensely fruity nose of ripe cherries and blackberries, plus peppery spice and hints of mint and herbs, as well as toasty oak. Round, smooth, silky and luscious in the mouth offering flavors of blackberries, plums and black pepper enhanced by toasty vanillin from its time spent in American oak.
1991 Penfolds Grange, South Australia ($105).
Grange (formerly called "Grange Hermitage") is the undisputed First Growth of Australia and considered by many connoisseurs as the world's greatest red wine. It represents the summit of Penfold's considerable winemaking skill and vineyard resources, and is made from only the finest Shiraz fruit selected from among Penfold's thousands of acres in South Australia.
The 1991 Grange is the current release and was distinguished from all the other wines in the group by its very slightly brownish red color. In the nose, medium-high-char oak plus cedar mingle with plumy blackcherry-cassis fruit, vanilla, mint and Grange's characteristic note of volatility. Big and rich on the palate with medium-full tannins, the ripe, plumy fruit is accented is notes of green olive, cedar, vanilla and black pepper, along with its hallmark VA, which is certainly within tolerable limits.
1994 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz, Victoria ($24) .
Located in a cool microclimate in the Great Western District of the state of Victoria, Mount Langi is one of Australia's most respected estates and is noted for top-of-the-line Shiraz. In 1996, a group of German investors acquired a controlling interest in the winery, but its talented winemaker, Trevor Mast, will continue to direct vineyard and winemaking operations.
My first-place choice in this flight (as well as in a subsequent blind tasting of 16 mostly Australian Shirazs), this wine is absolutely stunning. Fragrant, appealing scents of green olive and ripe brambleberry fruit enhanced by a good dose of freshly cracked black pepper are replicated on the palate, where the berry fruit comes across as ripe, sweet and intense, and the complex flavors are thoroughly enhanced by the black pepper and wonderfully vibrant acidity. Hard to find, but worth the search.
1993 Joseph Phelps "Vin du Mistral" Syrah, Napa Valley ($24) .
Joseph Phelps was the pioneer of Syrah in modern California winemaking, who acquired budwood from an experimental university planting for his estate vineyard and produced the first post-Prohibition, commercial bottling of varietally labeled California Syrah in 1974 (released in 1977). The "Vin du Mistral" Rhone varietals series includes not only Syrah, but also Viognier (an exotic dry white wine), a rose (blended from grenache and mourvËdre) and a Ch’teauneuf-du-Pape style blend of several Rhone varietals called "Le Mistral," the 1993 version of which won the best-of-show red wine award (970 red wines were judged) at the prestigious San Francisco Fair International Wine Competition in 1996.
This 1993 Syrah is a bit more tannic than the preceding wines, but offers more than enough ripe blackberry fruit to be harmonious. The spicy, licorice-like aromas are attractive and appealing, exhibiting plenty of toasty oak and intriguing notes of vanilla and mocha. In the mouth, the wine is rich and generous, almost jammy, with excellent acidity and attractive notes of green olive and toasty oak.
1993 St. Hallett Shiraz "Old Block," Barossa Valley, South Australia ($26).
This is 100 percent Shiraz, harvested from 80- to 100-year-old, shy-bearing, deep-rooted vines. Using traditional open-top fermenters, each parcel of fruit from the "old blocks" was fermented separately and then matured in American oak barrels for two and a half years. Only the very best parcels were then selected for the final blend resulting in this outstanding Shiraz exhibiting classic Barossa characteristics. Fragrant old vines berry-cassis scents lead to a rich, full-flavored palate with layers of velvety cherry-berry fruit, dark chocolate and cinnamon spice. A complex and elegant wine with good concentration and ripe, medium-full tannins.
1993 Fess Parker Syrah, American Tradition Reserve, Santa Barbara County ($28).
Winemaker Eli Parker selected the fruit lot by lot from the estate vineyard in the Foxen Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley. It was fermented in open-top tanks and then aged for 14 months in 90 percent French oak and 10 percent American (40 percent new) oak. He blended in 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the North Coast for added complexity, which is sometimes done in Australia, too. Moderately intense nose of ripe, plumy, berry-cassis fruit, green bell pepper, dusty cedar and vanilla. The bell-pepper herbaceousness is also evident on the palate in combination with the spicy, berry fruit. A very slight "dirty" note in the finish kept the wine from scoring higher, although some tasters found this minor evidence of brett attractive.
1993 Henschke Shiraz, Keyneton Vineyard, Mt. Edelstone, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($35).
I liked this wine better than the group (my second-place finisher) probably because of its intriguing minty-eucalyptus character, which shows up in the nose and on the palate. Intense scents of black fruits (cherries, berries, plums) are enhanced by an unexpected blueberry note, along with the herbaceous quality. Round, smooth, silky and luscious in the mouth with delicious, complex flavors of ripe cherry-berry fruit, black pepper spice and oak. Very distinctive wine exhibiting a definite vineyard character.
1993 Geyser Peak Shiraz, Reserve, Alexander Valley ($32).
Winemaster Daryl Groom is no stranger to this varietal, inasmuch as he made Penfolds Grange Hermitage from 1985 through 1989 before he took over winemaking duties at Geyser Peak. A blend of 80 percent syrah, 10 percent malbec, 8 percent petite sirah from an old hillside vineyard and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon, this wine seems nevertheless to lack the complexity of those above, although it is certainly fragrant in its fruity, cherry-berry nose, and delicious, with a smooth, silky, luscious mouthfeel. This wine was the first-place finisher in an earlier Vintners Club tasting of Syrah versus Petite Sirah, which was reported in my January 1996 column.
1994 Yalumba Shiraz, Family Reserve, Barossa Valley, South Australia ($13).
Toasty American oak, black fruits with a hint of rhubarb and warm spice define the pleasant nose. Mouthfilling with medium-full tannins, the palate is rich and full with sweet, ripe plum and prune flavors, a touch of black olive and just the faintest suggestion of VA (volatile acidity), which could also be attributed to super-ripeness. Also, there's plenty of American oak evident.
1994 Eberle Syrah, Fralich Vineyard, Paso Robles ($18) .
Fruity black cherry-raspberry nose that suggests Beaujolais-like carbonic maceration may have played a part in the wine's vinification. Very slightly rich in the mouth without much complexity, the flavors exhibit red fruits (cherries, strawberries, plums). Pleasant, but low key.
1992 McDowell Valley Vineyards Syrah, Estate, Mendocino ($15).
V ery definitely flawed by volatile acidity, which imparts a vinegary character to the nose and flavors, the winery acknowledges it had a bottling problem with this wine which caused some of the production to turn out as this wine did. The problem has since been corrected, so great improvements may be expected from this winery -- which has probably the oldest Syrah vines in the state -- in the near future. As a hint of that promise, at the 1996 Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, the winery's 1994 Syrah captured a silver medal and the 1995 McDowell Valley Vineyards Viognier ($15) was the White Wine Sweepstakes winner.
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.