Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Two California Syrahs

Syrah is the most abused grape. Yes, chardonnay is too often the Switzerland of white wines and cabernet sauvignon is in many hands merely a weed. But syrah is different. Outside of Australia, which churns out oceans of sweet and/or overbaked shiraz, the grape is typically the product of the artisan producer. And yet too many of these wines, particularly those from the new world, are little more than blueberry pancake syrup.

The best syrahs, though, can do what almost no other red wine can do, which is marry elegance and power into a succinct package, and transmit terroir with transparency. In short, they can be profound.

I drank the following 2005 California syrahs with relatively high expectations and at the end of the day I honestly didn't expect to play good cop / bad cop. Really, I only thought I'd be talking about how the two wines differ. But they really illustrate qualitative differences.

Rhys Alesia Syrah Fairview Ranch 2005
Given the praise that Eric Asmiov lavished on Rhys's pinot noir, I went ahead and bought a few bottles of both the 2006 pinot and the 2005 syrah that Rhys makes from purchased grapes and bottles under the Alesia imprint. I haven't opened the pinot but I did open the syrah, the grapes from which were grown in decomposed granitic soil in the Santa Lucia Highlands. I found it disappointing, to say the least. It's incredibly funky when first popped and the wood wasn't yet well-integrated, but the non-existent finish was the bigger problem. These issues were somewhat resolved by day two, and a nice spice note emerged, but the sweet-tannin-and-blueberry-juice character of this wine remained simplistic.

Now, this syrah actually has plenty of acidity, (probably) thanks to the cool-ish climate of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and soil seems right for syrah. Whatever the issue, this is a disappointingly simple wine. Although as so many California syrahs plain old suck, it does OK when graded on a curve.

Lavoro Syrah Sonoma Coast 2005
Without a doubt the best new world syrah I've had comes from the Renaissance Winery, who grow their syrah (organically) in the granitic soils of the Sierra Foothills. That said, the new Lavoro winery has released a syrah that, along with Reininger's 2003 Walla Walla syrah, is a pretty close second. At $45+ it's a special treat.

The Lavoro has muscle, sinew, and grace. It's well balanced, with minerality, acidity, and spice accompanying the smoky black fruit, and even a hint of red currant shows itself subtly. It's fermented as well as aged in oak, yet the wood is well-integrated, and it's very nice with grilled pork, grilled fish, and even green salad. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a food-friendly Sonoma syrah!

But wait — there ain't no granite in the Sonoma Coast AVA! And the climate might just be hotter! So why is this so much better than the Alesia? Perhaps its the in-barrel fermentation regime, which the winemakers claim yields a wine that "is unparalleled in silkiness and texture." Or perhaps the quality is due to the iron-rich volcanic soils. Or maybe it's the climate. I can't really say...

I do have one caveat about the Lavoro: it started to fade after 48 hours. So unlike Renaissance's syrahs (let alone a traditionally-made Cornas) I wouldn't expect to cellar this past 2012. Nevertheless, Lavoro affirms that the new world can produce syrah of restraint and character as well as power. I'm glad to add another such syrah to my list.

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