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Syrah's Winning Ways

by Steve Pitcher

Rhone varietals made a very strong statement in the 1998 West Coast Wine Competition, one of the top 20 judgings in the world. Last May in Santa Rosa, California, after five panels of 25 well-honed, professional palates whittled down some 1264 wines from 247 wineries spanning the west coast from California to British Columbia into 848 medal winners -- 115 of which were gold -- the sweepstakes judging brought back 23 gold-medal, best-of-class wines for the two top awards. All of the judges together participated in this ultimate blind tasting, focusing first on the ten whites, and then on the 13 reds; voting was by secret ballot and table talk wasn't permitted. When the votes were counted, Rhone varietals had swept the sweepstakes competition. Geyser Peak's 1997 Venezia Viognier from Alexander Valley ($24) took top white wine honors, beating out some excellent Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings, and a stunning 1996 Kathryn Kennedy Syrah from the Maridon Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains ($38) emerged as the competition's best red wine, surpassing two Merlots, three Cabernet Sauvignons, and single-bottle candidates of Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Meritage (Bordeaux blend), Petite Sirah, a Rhone blend and a luscious, dessert-style Black Muscat.

At about the same time, the Kathryn Kennedy Syrah was voted the top red wine in the Los Angeles County Fair "Wines of the Americas" competition. I can't think of any other wine that has accomplished such a double play. Incidentally, history was also made at the San Francisco International Wine Competition last June when a California Roussanne -- the 1996 vintage from Zaca Mesa Winery in Santa Barbara County ($17) -- won the Sweepstakes White Wine prize. Just a couple of years ago, roussanne, a white Rhone variety, was virtually impossible to find in California vineyards.

This won't be quite such momentous news in the future as subsequent wine competitions -- and curious consumers -- evaluate ever more excellent Syrahs from California, Washington, Australia (where Shiraz, as this wine is usually called Down Under, is enormously popular), South Africa and the Rhone Valley in France, which is the variety's ancestral home. A couple of earlier "Vintner's Choice" columns alluded to the emergence of New World Syrah, one focusing on "California Syrah versus Australian Shiraz," the other on the "Bright Promise of California Syrah." On a more basic level, another column explained the distinction between "Syrah versus Petite Sirah." The best advise this column can provide red wine lovers at this still-early stage in the rise of California Syrah is: (1) sample as many of these wines as you can to determine which ones are your personal preferences, and (2) establish a first-in-the-door relationship with a trusted wine merchant and/or the wineries themselves (if they're small-production facilities with mailing lists) to get a reasonable allocation of new releases now and in the future. Remember, the oldest and earliest customers are the ones who subsequently get special allocation consideration when a wine's popularity causes demand for it to far outstrip supply.

For example, if you're interested in getting some of the sweepstakes winning Kathryn Kennedy Syrah, you should be aware that only 180 cases were made and that the wine is available only by mail order (they pay the shipping costs) from the tiny winery in Saratoga, California, which is otherwise open for sales of six bottles or more by appointment only. Give them a call at (408) 867-4170 and check out their website at www.kathrynkennedywinery.com. Who knows? You may luck out. I tasted a barrel sample of the 1997 version of Syrah with winemaker Marty Mathis a week after the judging and am even more impressed with it than its 1996 sibling, the winery's first Syrah. Fortunately, the luscious, peppery 1997 Syrah will be a bit more plentiful when it's released next year, maybe 400 cases.

As for tasting Syrahs, consider joining the Vintners Club, which is open to all wine lovers, not just winemakers and other professionals in the food and beverage industry. It's a great opportunity to fine tune your palate and broaden your tasting experience, meeting every Thursday at 5:00 p.m. in San Francisco to evaluate 12 wines in a comfortable, no-hassle, blind tasting format. Syrah is a major varietal on the tasting schedule, and members can pick and choose which tastings to attend. For membership information and additional information at no cost or obligation, call the Club at (415) 485-1166.

Importance of Decanting

One thing to remember about tasting Syrah and other red Rhone wines is that for best results, stand the bottle upright for at least a day ahead of time to allow any sediment to settle to the bottom, and then slowly decant the wine into a clean, glass carafe (stopping when sediment begins to appear near the neck of the bottle) and allow it to breathe uncovered for about an hour before service. A lighted candle behind the bottle is the classiest way to keep track of the flow of sediment, although a bare light bulb will also do the trick. If bottle display is important, rinse the empty bottle with water to remove any remaining sediment and transfer the wine from the decanter back into the bottle with the aid of a clean funnel just before serving.

I recently performed this ceremony on a bottle of 1988 Sean Thackrey Orion Syrah from my cellar, with excellent results: the wine was an absolute joy to drink in spite of the fact that 1988 was a weak vintage. Produced from grapes in a Napa Valley vineyard now owned by Swanson Vineyards, which also makes first-class Syrah, the wine offered elegant, appealing scents of blackberries, vanilla custard and a whisper of oak spice, a perfume that was not forward, but persistent. On the palate, the Orion was smooth and round with medium tannins, and delivered layers of flavors focusing on ripe, rich berries, cloves and spice wrapped together around savory oak. A great many 1988 Cabernets haven't fared nearly as well. An excellent resource providing insightful background on most major Syrah producers on four continents is the beautiful book "Rhone Renaissance; the Finest Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines from France and the New World" by Remington Norman, M.W. ($50) published in 1996 by the Wine Appreciation Guild in San Francisco, which can be reached at (800) 231-9463. As comprehensive as this book is, dozens of American Syrah producers are not mentioned, since they have come on line with the varietal since Norman's research window was closed. Many of these producers are in Santa Barbara County, where Syrah has become an overnight success story in the hands of producers like Foxen, Qup», Jaffurs, Andrew Murray, Fess Parker, Zaca Mesa and Bedford Thompson, among others.

Another book to check out for some of the best recipes specifically developed to complement the full range of American-grown Rhone varietal wines is the just-published Rhone App»tit by Jane O'Riordan ($17.95, Toyon Hill Press). Dishes such as Duck Syrah, Grilled Pork Chops with Fig Compote and Provencal Rabbit rise to great culinary heights when paired with a luscious, peppery Syrah. Toll-free telephone orders: 1-800-600-9086 or visit Toyon Press' website at www.toyonhillpress.com.

Over the last few months, the Vintners Club has held three Syrah-oriented tastings, evaluating 36 of these scrumptious wines in various permutations. One tasting focused entirely on Australian Shiraz, another on northern red Rhones and the third on Syrahs/Shiraz from California, Australia and France. The top four wines from these tastings are set out here.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE WINES

1994 Rosemount Estate Balmoral Syrah, McLaren Vale ($40)
This is Rosemount's flagship wine and is produced from grapes harvested from a selection of low-yielding, premium sites in McLaren Vale, where syrah vines have been growing for almost 160 years, and where a few patches of very old vines survive to this day. Deep red-purple in color, the wine's aroma exhibits mild herbaceousness, ripe, plummy, berry-black cherry fruit, a hint of orange peel and clove-cinnamon spice framed in American oak. On the palate, the Balmoral is fairly bursting with ripe, moderately rich, blackberry fruit, vanilla and spice, and the ripe, medium tannins and balanced acidity don't interfere with the velvety texture. Long, lingering finish. This wine should show its best in three to five years, and can be expected to gain more complexity with ten years of ageing.

1995 Cote-Rotie, Brune et Blonde, M. Chapoutier ($45)
Fragrant, perfumed, jammy nose of ripe blackberries, crushed pomegranate seeds and violets. There's lots of ripe strawberry-black cherry fruit on the palate, enhanced by freshly crushed black pepper. A complex, delicious wine that shows fine concentration and depth of flavor, and a wonderfully long, peppery finish.

1994 Jim Barry Wines "The Armagh" Shiraz, Clare Valley ($75)
As the wine's shocking price suggests, this is a fabulous Shiraz that offers up wonderfully complex aromas of raspberries, red cherries, blueberries, black pepper, vanilla, mint and plenty of American oak. The flavors run full throttle, showing ripe, jammy raspberry-boysenberry fruit, vanilla and oak and the texture is almost thick, with medium-full tannins. Hardly an elegant wine, yet not rustic either, just an enormous mouthful.

SECOND PLACE WINES

1995 Geyser Peak Reserve Shiraz, Sonoma County ($32)
Somewhat subdued nose that shows more toasty oak and roasted coffee bean scents now over shy berry fruit, plus a bit of peppery spice. Bold and mouthfilling with just enough ripe blackberry fruit to stand up to the massive tannins. This winewill require several years of cellaring and will reward patience, just like a fine Hermitage.

1994 Cote-Rotie, Bernard Burgaud ($36.75)
A rustic, brawny northern Rhone wine with a forward, smoky nose that mingles berries with anise. While there is lots of black fruits to balance the tannins, the wine is still very young and needs three to five years in the cellar to come together.

1994 Rosemount Estate Mountain Blue Shiraz Cabernet, Mudgee ($25)
Pleasant scents of blackberries and cassis with a hint of mint or tarragon and some warm spice. Lush and smooth in the mouth with medium tannins and medium body, the wine's generous flavors of sweet, ripe blackberry and raspberry fruit and vanilla are interwoven with subtle oak.

THIRD PLACE WINES

1994 Lindemans Shiraz, Padthaway, South Australia ($12)
What a great value! Forward, enticing scents of raw red meat, spicy black fruits, black pepper and vanilla are reminiscent of the northern Rhone. Ripe, concentrated flavors of black fruits and spice have a smoky, gamey edge and constantly expand as the wine airs. Medium-full tannins. A bold, delicious, generous, complex wine.

1994 Hermitage, Belle Pňre et Fils
($45)
Dark in color, almost black, and opaque. Slightly "funky" nose of leather, toffee, blackberries and oak with an earthy undertone. A big wine with chewy tannins, offering peppery spice and plummy ripe black fruits. Best to cellar this one for at least two to three years, or longer.

1993 St. Hallett Shiraz "Old Block," Barossa Valley ($29)
Forward, fruity nose of plummy blackberries and strawberries, plus an unusual note of honey and citrus. In the mouth, the wine offers bright, lively berry-black cherry fruit that's quite ripe, almost raisin-like, plus lots of oak. The brightness comes from high acidity; medium tannins; somewhat short finish with a chocolate note.

FOURTH PLACE WINES

1993 Yalumba Shiraz "Octavius - Edition IV, Old Vine," Barossa Valley ($50)
Forward, appealing, slightly gamey nose of cherries and berries, along with vanilla and spicy notes of clove, anise and black pepper. Nicely concentrated with medium-full tannins, the wine's flavors replicate the nose and show good depth.

1995 Hermitage "La Sizeranne," M. Chapoutier ($49)
Moderately forward, fragrant scents of blackberry-cassis fruit, black plums, rose petals and cocoa, accompanied by hints of leather and loamy topsoil: unmistakably a Rhone Valley wine. Sweet, smooth and ripe in the mouth with delicious black fruits and a bit of freshly cracked black pepper. Fine depth of flavor and nicelyconcentrated, almost dense.

1992 Penfolds Shiraz "St. Henri," South Australia ($26)
Hints of eucalyptus mingle with very ripe, almost raisiny berry-cherry fruit and spice in the nose. The flavors replicate the nose and are nicely fruity and moderately complex. Medium tannins; long, peppery finish.

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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