What happens when you put together a handful of California's best Syrah vineyards with a crack winemaking team?
How about the 2009 Carlisle Sonoma County Syrah, featured in the May 18 Wine Spectator Insider. It's a good story and then some.
For one, it earned a 97-point rating and it is an amazingly complex, deep and layered wine that drank well for three days after it was opened and tasted in one of my blind tastings. For another, it sells (or sold) for $25. Those kinds of numbers—rating and price—don't usually go hand in hand. But it's nice when they do because it proves it can be done.
Winemaker Mike Officer has found a wonderful groove of late, with a string of great wines in recent vintages. He seems to improve with each year, both with Zinfandel and Syrah. The 2007 vintage, a grand one by most measures, was particularly strong for Carlisle, with some high-water marks, while 2008, a more challenging year, also showed the strength of his vineyards and winemaking.
The 2009 Sonoma Syrah is a wine whose sum is greater than its parts, and it's a good lesson both for winemakers and consumers. So-called appellation, or county blends, can be every bit as good or even better than single-vineyard wines. It's easier to discover that in blind tastings than if you're staring at an expensive wine from a particular site.
"As I've told our customers in the past, I don't see our county wines as inferior to our vineyard designates," Officer wrote this week when asked about the Sonoma cuvée. "They're just different. Jay [Maddox, the winemaker] and I have always enjoyed coming up with them as they challenge us to come up with a blend qualitatively equal to our vineyard designates. Why then do we price the county wines for so much less? Mainly because there's a perception in the marketplace that a county wine in a portfolio of vineyard designates should be cheaper. I also like having something at this price point [even if we lose our shirt on it] as it encourages people unfamiliar with our wines to give Carlisle a try."
"Given the vineyards that went into this wine," Officer went on to say, "I'm not surprised you enjoyed it."
The wine is a blend of Syrahs from James Berry Vineyard (owned and farmed by Saxum in Paso Robles and about 23 percent of the blend), Papa's Block, one of Carlisle's best vineyards, Steiner Vineyard (a soon to be new vineyard designate on Sonoma Mountain) and Rossi Ranch. "Even the Rossi Ranch Syrah could have stood on it's own but with so many vineyard designates in our portfolio, I decided it was best to not introduce another. And what was I thinking putting James Berry and Papa's Block in a $25 bottle???? [Saxum's] Justin [Smith] delivered us magnificent fruit in 2009. Yet, unfortunately, I felt we did not do the fruit justice. The wine was good, even very good, but I wasn't confident it was worthy of the vineyard's lofty reputation. It was a similar situation for Papa's Block. Additionally, given the demand for Papa's Block and how little we had of it in 2009 (a lot of the crop was lost to botrytis, we only picked unaffected clusters), I felt the easiest thing was to use it in our Sonoma County."
I've found that winemakers who make up to a dozen different wines, as Officer and Maddox do at Carlisle, like to tinker with blends. Often times it's more fun to test different cuvées. And many times a winemaker can make a better wine using different sources and blends than he can from a single site.
As it is, too many wines carry vineyard designations and loftier prices than should. A single site can be both great and limiting and quality can vary each year. If you only use what you have from a single site that will be the expression. But that doesn't mean it's going to be better. And as the Carlisle 2009 demonstrates, the wines they make surprise even winemakers. Sometimes the wines they think will be the greatest aren't. And then there are these kinds of surprises. Too bad there aren't more.