Organolepticians Number 82 (May 27, 2010)
The first wine I ever made from Syrah grapes was barely ten and one-half percent alcohol. I hadn’t intended it to be so low; twelve and a half to thirteen percent would have been more like it. But being pretty new at the winemaking business in 1985, I left the assessment of ripening up to the vineyard manager that first time, and I’d certainly have to say he didn’t get it right.
If we’re paying attention, we learn from the times when things don’t go quite as planned, and one thing I learned is that Syrah at ten and one-half percent alcohol can be pretty nice wine. It had a very pleasing flavor, though it may have been a bit more convincing had the fruit hung for a few more days, by which time it would have also produced a slightly higher alcohol level. (Another thing I learned is that I would need to figure out how to make my own assessments about ripeness)
That vineyard was in Paso Robles, on the sprawling plain east of town. It was a very large planting of Syrah, undertaken at a time when almost no other wineries in California had shown any interest in Syrah, an oversight that, a few years later, led the vintner who planted it to produce a “white” Syrah, just to be able to find some use for the enormous volume of grapes being generated.
The fact that Syrah in California has been thought of, for most of the past twenty-odd years, as being very dark, full-bodied, powerful wine makes a certain kind of sense, at least in the abstract. California is generally a warm place, with a long, mostly dry growing season, one that starts early and hangs around almost until the Winter holidays in many years. But this abstract sense strikes me as neither informative nor useful, since California’s geography boasts stunning variability in elevation, proximity to the ocean, marine airflow patterns, mountain airflow patterns, soil moisture-retaining capacity, soil vigor, wind and sun exposures, topography, and so on, that profoundly influence the nature of wine produced on any given site.
In that same twenty-odd years the number of vintners producing Syrah in California has gone from a couple to several hundred, and, in the marketplace, the variety has gone from “unknown” to “obscure” to “coming on strong” to “the next big thing” to “we can’t sell that.” Somewhere in between “obscure” and “coming on strong” a path-of-least-resistance opened up between Syrah and the consumer’s wallet, featuring a parade of wines made in what might be described as a ripe, easygoing style. Since the parade was originally fairly small, and very lively, more and more producers began to participate. Whatever it was that originally drew a positive response from the market rather quickly became something to augment, in order to draw ever more attention. If a little bit of something (ripeness, oak, extraction, you name it…) gets your wines noticed, then a lot is even better! Surely it’s no surprise that after a certain point, a lot of consumers began to feel that most Syrah wines tasted way too similar, and, by the way, too heavy, too sweet, too strong, too woody, and just not much fun.
When I started making Syrah I didn’t know very much about it, yet I probably knew quite a bit more than a lot of people, from having spent a dozen years in the retail end of the wine business in an era in which California wines were still a relatively small part of the wine landscape. I’d drunk the great Syrah wines from the Northern Rhone: Côte Rôtie, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, from a considerable range of producers, as well as numerous Australian (Shiraz) bottlings. But it was a bottling from a colleague in Santa Barbara County I’d tasted in April of ’85 that had convinced me that lovely Syrah could be made here, and it was the memory of that wine that propelled me toward making some myself.
I didn’t feel I had any kind of handle on what “Syrah-ness” was, back in 1985. (I had even less certainty about Mourvèdre-ness, when it came to my first encounter with that grape). But perhaps a lucky side to working with a grape that was so obscure, was not feeling the weight of expectations that might be there with more “established” grapes. I had the luxury of being able to let the grapes instruct me regarding their essential properties. Even luckier, I stumbled onto a truly great planting of Syrah in California, back in 1986, when I began to work with grapes from the Durell Vineyard.
Even nearly 24 years later, the memory of the first vintage of Durell Syrah grapes fermenting is astoundingly vivid to me. The aromas coming from the fermenter late one night, were unlike anything I’d imagined! There was startling spiciness, a captivating, hickory-like smokiness, and the deepest wild blackberry smell, all intertwined. I felt transfixed, caught up in some miraculous, exotic olfactory spectacle! This was still fermenting!. And it seemed so gorgeous, just as it was, that the thought of doing anything that might alter what was already there was inconceivable to me.
I worked with those grapes for 13 years, until the vines succumbed to Phylloxera. During those years I devoted my efforts with those grapes to becoming more and more attuned to the natural expression of that place, through those grapes. It became, in a certain way, a deepening conversation between sentient beings, as they become better acquainted.
The wine from that first encounter, in 1986, is still fresh and youthfully vibrant, thanks, no doubt, to its fine structure. As a beginning vintner, with so little experience on which to draw, I relied on the way my nervous system reacted to the sensory cues I got from tasting: first the grapes, and later, the wine. I seem to be wired to like wines in which structure is paramount, yet because of a commensurate need I feel for balance, the structure toward which I gravitate tends in the direction of weightlessness and away from imposition.
Syrah is still pretty new in California, and I’m still learning how to work with it, and I don’t feel I can say I’m completely happy, yet, with any wine I’ve made from it. That’s okay, though; I’m not the easiest guy to please. Philippe Faury in St. Joseph is making what might be my favorite Syrah wines from anywhere – they’re so pretty! Lucky guy, he’s got those wonderful old vines in that ancient soil, and centuries of vinous wisdom in his DNA, I’d bet. There’s the measuring stick!
27 May, 2010