High-Flying California Syrah

2006 is another banner year for Golden State Rhône reds
James Laube
Posted: March 31, 2009

California Syrah keeps getting better—and its ranks deeper. Following the very fine 2005 and 2004 vintages, this Rhône Valley transplant hit the jackpot again in 2006, the best vintage for the varietal so far, with dozens of sensational wines. And there's more good news: 2007 looks to be a banner year as well.

In all four vintages, Syrah grapes thrived whether grown in warmer inland climates, cooler coastal sites or mountain locales. All of the variety's major appellations—Napa Valley, Sonoma, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara—excelled. And the overall quality extends to smaller districts such as Edna Valley, Mendocino and Santa Lucia Highlands as well. Though these areas don't produce the same volume as some of the other regions, their wines can be off-the-charts good.

The highest-scoring Syrah I tasted in the past year is from one of those small coastal nooks where red wines weren't supposed to ripen. The 2004 Alban Seymour's Vineyard (98 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $145) from Edna Valley is a dark, savory berry medley of amazing depth, richness and concentration.

Perhaps best of all, the number of Syrah producers continues to grow, with many new stars and many well-priced wines to discover (see "10 Emerging California Rhône Producers"). A few Syrahs carry price tags of a $100 a bottle or more, but most cost far less. Many sell for a third to half of what you'd pay for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon of comparable quality.

Syrah is also compelling as the locomotive for a host of other hearty reds, namely Petite Sirah, Rhône natives Grenache and Mourvèdre and a small but growing number of Carignanes. The grape's versatility is also leading to exciting blends with some or all of these varieties. Syrah's progress is an inspiring tale. The growth and success of this grape and its cohorts has been fast-paced, akin in many ways to the meteoric rise of Pinot Noir.

Since our last report ("California Syrah's Big Push," March 31, 2008), we have tasted more than 500 Rhône-style reds in our Napa office, with a third of these new releases—nearly 185 wines—achieving outstanding quality (90 or more points). Syrah dominated the tastings, contributing 148 outstanding wines out of a total of nearly 375. Even in a great year for Napa Valley Cabernet, you don't expect this high of a percentage of great wines. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available.)

What's more telling is how successful Syrah is in so many different appellations. As growers and winemakers have focused in on where to plant the vines and how best to groom them, there has been a steady ascent in quality. As a result of this fine-tuning, producers are turning out exciting wines in tough and easy growing seasons alike.

In terms of overall vintage quality, winemakers describe 2006 as solid from start to finish, with most adding that 2007 was the easier of the two recent years.

"The two vintages [2006 and 2007] are so different across the board," says Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars, who makes Syrah from several appellations and whose Rockpile Haley Rockpile Vineyard 2006 earned 95 points ($60). "I felt 2006 produced [Syrah] in more of an elegant but powerful style. Lots of layers and intensity. A wine to contemplate."

"2007 for JC Cellars has more intensity at this point," Cohn adds. "Very rich and seductive. I feel 2007 will show better out of the gate and that 2006 may take more time to show its true colors. It still is too early to tell."

Novy's Adam Lee, who also makes Syrah from vineyards throughout the state, says that 2007 was a bit warmer than 2006, which itself was slightly warmer than 2005. In riper years, the grape displays more fruit and berry notes, while in cooler years, when the wines are typically leaner, Syrah can be spicy and peppery, with a beefy, minerally character. For Lee, the 2006s ended up with smoother textures and milder, more integrated tannins. "The concern for 2007 was tannin levels," he says.

This report's top-rated wines speak to this diversity as well as to Syrah's overall rising quality. From Napa in 2006 come the Lewis Alec's Blend ($60) and the Colgin IX Estate ($NA), each rating 95 points. The Alec's Blend is predominantly Syrah, with 20 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet. The latter two grapes round out the sturdier, denser Syrah flavors. The Colgin is tight and concentrated, dark and powerful, yet also elegant and refined.

Sonoma in 2006 turned out the Fisher Hidden Terrace Vineyard (94, $60), a wine of power and intensity, with deep, persistent flavors, while the DuMol Jack Robert's Run (94, $70) shows a similar degree of concentration but with a little more polish and finesse. The Eric Kent Syrah Kalen's Big Boy Blend 2006 (94, $42) serves up loads of spicy notes, as does the Saxon Brown Sonoma Valley Parmelee-Hill Owl Box Block 2006 (94, $38). The best wine from Sonoma in this report overall is a 2005 from Dutton Estate, the Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch Cherry Ridge Vineyard (95, $34), a tightly structured medley of spice, pepper and berry flavors.

The stars from Paso Robles in 2006 include Saxum's Broken Stones (96, $45), Booker Vineyard (94, $55) and Heart Stone Vineyard (93, $55) bottlings; the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel (93, $45); and the Booker Fracture (93, $50). These wines offer riper flavors and also fleshier, rounder textures than the wines from Napa or Sonoma.

My favorites from Santa Barbara in 2006 include the Jaffurs Verna's Vineyard (94, $38) and the Margerum Colson Canyon Vineyard (93, $40), along with two 92-pointers from Herman Story, one a Grenache ($32), the other its Nuts & Bolts Syrah ($36). The vintage was also sensational for the Alban Grenache Edna Valley Alban Estate Vineyard (96, $94) and a pair of Syrahs from Santa Lucia Highlands: the Carlisle Rosella's Vineyard (96, $43) and the Novy Susan's Hill Vineyard (94, $34).

In Santa Barbara, a dry year led to an even ripening of the grapes, with warm weather at harvesttime. Vintner Doug Margerum recalls that the fruit "pretty much came in all at once, as we had significant heat [and] very dry vineyards because of the two-year drought. Sugars were not huge and we had very low pHs in contrast to the ripeness. Wines were very dark and this [harvest] was almost a month later than we usually pick, so there was significant hang time."

Margerum says Santa Barbara winegrowers were blessed in 2007 with what he calls the best vintage for Rhône grapes in the area's history. "It was simply the best Rhône varietal vintage I have worked with, ever." The wines are not overripe, he says, but perfectly balanced, dark and powerful, having reached optimal physiological maturity. "The main issue for me as a California winemaker is that I often need to pick riper than I want, because, at the sugars I want to pick at, the grapes are often not flavored and not ripe physiologically—read, green."

The best 2005 Syrahs from the South Coast in this report include the Dierberg Santa Ynez Valley (93, $30) and a trio of 92-point efforts: Zaca Mesa's Santa Ynez Valley ($22) and Santa Ynez Valley Black Bear Block ($58) bottlings and Barrel 27's Santa Barbara County Head Honcho ($30).

"2006 was a fairly moderate growing season in Paso," says Justin Smith of Saxum. "Ample winter rains, no spring frosts, and mild weather at bloom produced a fairly large crop, similar in size to 2005. The summer was warm, but the heat spells were mild. We got a small amount of October rain, but not enough to produce any rot. The rains actually seemed to benefit the fruit that was still hanging."

"The 2006 wines seem to be more forward than the tannic 2005s, [with] lots of fruit, but because the heat spells were well-timed, the wines don't have the superripe characteristics that the 2003s and 2004s can exhibit," Smith adds.

2007, though, was a dream year for Paso vintners. Smith reports near-ideal conditions: "We saw a small crop, mild weather all the way through, and drought that produced tiny berries that were superconcentrated. We were able to pick at our leisure, and the wines seemed to make themselves." It's a combination that makes for a great vintage.

Looking ahead, 2008 may end up offering high quality as well. But the growing season was a nightmarish mix of drought, nasty spring frosts, an uneven set, heat spikes and a drawn-out harvest, so for now focus on the run of great vintages already out there—2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. Who could ask for more?

Senior editor James Laube is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of California.

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