I don't see many sub-13 percent alcohol wines these days.
Most of the wines reviewed by Wine Spectator are north of 14 percent alcohol, and for sure California has some of the ripest wines going, so I was understandably intrigued when the bag came off of a Syrah I'd liked in a recent blind tasting and it turned out to be lower alcohol.
The 2010 Sonoma Coast Syrah from Cep ($28, 500 cases made), a second label of Peay, is a mere 12.8 percent. It's a first-class effort, dense and peppery, with a firm, structured mix of dried berry, mineral, cedar and sage, ending with a crushed-brick edge. It certainly isn't a rich, fleshy style, but it has lots of character. I was surprised by the 12.8, and would have never guessed that based on the quality.
The wine is an example of what may lie ahead for California wines from the coastal appellations. It is from the true Sonoma Coast (in the recently approved Fort Ross-Seaview AVA), which is one of the coolest areas in California. It's right on the coast and the Pacific breezes protect the vineyards from getting too much heat. In some years that chilly weather can be a problem, as the grapes struggle to ripen; when they are finally ripe, it's at lower sugar levels (resulting in lower alcohol levels). The key is flavor development.
"We like cool-climate Syrah because it's not just fruit," said Andy Peay. "You also get all these other flavors of white pepper and blood and iron and meat and floral notes. The challenge for us is being able to get it ripe—we're picking into November." Peay said the Cep Syrah is made from barrels that don't necessarily fit with the desired flavor profile for the Peay Syrahs, along with some purchased fruit occasionally.
"As far as the alcohol level with [the Cep 2010 Syrah], that just reflects where we are—it's got to be one of the coldest Syrah vineyards in the world," Peay said. "We are lucky if we're getting 22 Brix … It's important to have enough weight on the palate, and that is the role of alcohol for us. Balance being the key, and alcohol being one of the components that need to be in balance. If it were 11 [percent alcohol], it might feel too light on the palate, but at 12.8, I think that wine feels fine."
As California wine styles evolve (see our new blogger Talia Baiocchi's commentary on the changing perception of "balance" among California wines for more on this controversial topic), there will be deliberate attempts to harvest grapes at lower sugars without sacrificing flavor. But some sites, like the Sonoma Coast's coolest vineyards, will draw the line on sugar and ripeness themselves.