One of the pleasures (and privileges) of being a wine columnist is that you can call up a winemaker and say, "I'd like you to haul out some of your old bottles for me to taste." Although I did couch my request a little more gracefully than that, it’s pretty much what I said to Tom Dehlinger of Dehlinger Winery in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley.
Now, it helps that I do know Mr. Dehlinger. I've written about his wines with unconcealed admiration in my two books on California wine. So he knows that a request of this nature, which I don't make lightly, surely has a purpose.
"What I've got in mind," I said, "is that I believe strongly that one of the problems that Syrah producers have is that the best Syrahs really need cellaring. I think they need about 10 years for greatness to reveal itself." Then came the kicker: "And my purpose in pillaging your cellar is to prove this point, because I think Dehlinger Syrahs are a perfect example of what I'm talking about."
Now, I can't tell you whether Mr. Dehlinger felt he was being flattered or strong-armed, but he was indisputably graceful in acceding to my request. "You bet," he replied. "Come on over and we'll open a few bottles to see if you're right. By the way," he added, "I'm not so sure that you are."
For those of you not familiar with Dehlinger Winery, the short version of the story is that Tom Dehlinger, 63, planted his vineyard in the Russian River Valley about 13 miles from the Pacific Ocean in 1975. It's a small winery producing a total of about 7,000 cases spread among Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Trained at U.C. Davis, Mr. Dehlinger is one of the most methodical and meticulous winemakers I've met.
One other feature of Dehlinger Winery is its 3 acres of Syrah planted in 1989 exclusively to what's called the Estrella clone, named after the Estrella River Winery in Paso Robles, which reportedly obtained Syrah cuttings in the mid-1970s from the Chapoutier family's Hermitage vineyard in the Rhône Valley. It's a well-regarded clone that typically delivers a rich berry and jam fruit quality.
Not surprisingly, Dehlinger's Syrah plot is precisely mapped, divided into five zones reflecting soil variations and growing characteristics in the petite site. (All of Dehlinger's 45 acres of vines are similarly mapped, a system Mr. Dehlinger put in place long before computerized geographic information systems appeared. As I said, he's methodical.)
Upon my arrival at the winery, we first walked through the vines, specifically to lay eyes on the Syrah section. Dehlinger's vines are lyre-trained, which involves a substantial amount of hardware to create a vineyard architecture that has the vine canopy forming a wide "U" shape.
I asked if he would continue with this approach, which is no longer popular among most California producers, and Mr. Dehlinger agreed that it’s no longer appealing for him either. "As we replant, which we're now doing because of phylloxera, we'll change to a vertical shoot positioning approach. The lyre training is much too labor-intensive."
After examining the Syrah vines, we returned to the winery, a utilitarian affair that's been expanded in recent years to create additional temperature-controlled barrel-aging space. We went upstairs to a small tasting room, accompanied by one of Mr. Dehlinger's two daughters, Eva, a recent Stanford graduate who is now assisting her father in the winemaking. (Eva’s sister, Carmen, handles customer service and sales.)
"I figured that this was a good representation of what I think you're after," said Mr. Dehlinger with a grin. Arrayed before us were five Dehlinger Syrahs: 2007, 2005, 2002, 1998 and 1994. That indeed should do the trick, I confirmed. I felt that the Dehlinger Syrahs would be perfect; the Russian River Valley creates a ripe, lush style of Syrah, with soft tannins and blueberry notes thanks to the area's cool climate. If my thesis were correct—that Syrah really needs about a decade to show its stuff—this progression of wines would prove it.
We talked about this before diving in. "As I mentioned to you over the phone, I'm not so sure you're right," he said. "Personally, my rule of thumb—for all wines—is never drink anything that's not at least three years old. And with Syrah, I think you should start when it's five years old."
Our positions made clear, we retired (metaphorically speaking) to our respective corners and started tasting. Eva, for her part, looked on with obvious amusement at these two old dogs growling over the same bone.
We agreed that it was best to taste from youngest to oldest. As you might expect, the 2007 was delicious but "primary," with a deep, bright, blackish color and hints of blueberry and jam.
The 2005 vintage was designated "East Face," a 1-acre subplot that's only been offered in three other vintages. It too was still quite primary, with a bright, fresh color identical to the 2007’s, but with the nascence of an attractive gamy note absent in the younger wine.
With the 2002, yet more gamy notes appeared and, for the first time, the finish was appreciably longer and more lingering. Still, the appearance was bright, fresh and youthful, as was the abundant fruit. So far, so good, I thought. The progression from exuberant fruitiness to something more nuanced and dimensional is proceeding just as I predicted.
The 1998 proved problematic. The color had transitioned to a mature-looking deep garnet that still was fresh (no bricking at the rim), but the fruit seemed to be breaking down slightly. It was pleasant, but you got a sense that the wine's prime time had passed. It seemed a bit tired. As you might imagine, I was disturbed to discover this, as this wine hardly buttressed my thesis. Then again, my colleague James Laube could have said with satisfaction (and a grin), "I told you so." He gave the vintage a score of 82 points in Sonoma, and the 1998 Dehlinger Syrah 88 points—which all these years later seems, as the French might say, à point.
Then came the 1994. Bingo! Here it was: a virtually perfect mature Syrah that threw into sharp relief how very limited, if tasty, the younger Syrahs were. The '94 delivered a rapturous perfume with the slightest hint of mint along with the most delicious scent and taste of ripe fruit alloyed with Syrah's signature gamy note. The texture was silky and supple. Here was Syrah at its most seductive, layered with flavors.
Was Mr. Dehlinger convinced? "Well, that 1994 is awfully fine. And I agree that the '98 is a bit past it. It was better about three years ago. I can see your point," he conceded. (I took it as a concession, anyway.) "But there's a lot of pleasure to be had from the younger wines too," he quickly added.
A discussion ensued about the various pleasures of drinking wines, with Mr. Dehlinger advocating for "hedonism" (in the best sense) while I, for my part, plumped for the side that says Syrah is much more than its appealing, but simplistic, fruitiness of youth and that ample time is needed for its intrinsic greatness to be revealed.
"I think that the real problem with Syrah isn't the need for age. Instead, it's that there are more bad versions of Syrah out there than of any other grape variety," he asserted. "The wines get stinky in the winemaking due to low nitrogen concentrations. Pinot Noir, for example, has 350 parts per million nitrogen in the juice. But Syrah has only 100 parts per million. You've got to deal with that. Syrah needs more racking.
"Oh, and one other thing," he added. "There's too much oak. Too many producers use too much oak. It takes away the magic of the wine."
I, for one, want to keep the genie—or, “the magic” as Mr. Dehlinger so poetically puts it—literally in the bottle, for a decade. Mr. Dehlinger finds Syrah youthfulness to be as rewarding, in its fashion, as full maturity. Here we parted company.
"I only have a case and a half of the '94 left," said Mr. Dehlinger. I thought he looked rueful. But maybe I was imagining it.
There you have it. Is it oak? Or is it time? Or is the genie, the magic, available with Syrah at any age?
Scott Oneil — Denver, CO — July 6, 2010 12:42pm ET
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel — Wine World — July 6, 2010 6:06pm ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — July 6, 2010 6:52pm ET
Alan Rath — Bay Area, Ca — July 7, 2010 5:09pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — July 8, 2010 2:07am ET
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — July 8, 2010 9:36am ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — July 8, 2010 5:31pm ET
Robert Hight — CA — July 12, 2010 10:53am ET
Matt Kramer — Portland, OR — July 12, 2010 11:12am ET
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