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Up From the Cellar: Two Syrahs

Six years on, these two cool-climate Syrahs from Washington and Australia are going strong
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 19, 2013 5:07pm ET

Usually I try not to inflict wine-geek stuff on unsuspecting guests, but I knew that our friends coming for dinner Sunday loved full-bodied red wines and had some great ones in their own cellars. So to drink with dinner I pulled out a couple of New World Syrahs that I think of as candidates for modern standard-bearers. I did not feel at all guilty, especially when I learned that none of them had ever tasted either wine.

I chose Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz Pyrenees Malakoff 2007 from Australia and Owen Roe Syrah Yakima Valley Lady Rosa 2006 from Washington for several reasons. First of all, the wineries have gotten plenty of ink and they have been making these wines only recently—since 2004. They are distinctive, and I have consistently rated them both in the low to mid-90s. Australia, long known for its Shiraz (its name for Syrah), is finally beginning to get some love around the world for its cooler-climate styles, of which this one is a fine example. As for the Washington wine, it eloquently makes the case that Syrah belongs right up there with Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties as the state's calling card.

The people involved with both wines sport some impressive track records.

Northern Rhône star Michel Chapoutier branched out to Australia about a decade ago, avoiding the well-trodden regions of South Australia to focus on the neighboring state of Victoria, known for its cooler temperatures and steelier wines. He teamed up with the owners of Jasper Hill in Heathcote (the impressive results are available here in the U.S. as a Shiraz called Cluster M45) and started his own project, in partnership with the Terlato family (of the import firm and owners of a string of wineries in California plus joint ventures in Italy and this one in Australia).

Terlato and Chapoutier acquired vineyards in Pyrenees, on hilly land in central Victoria, about 125 miles northwest of Melbourne. The 46-acre Malakoff Estate, all Shiraz, gets only about 1 ton per acre. I have always found the wine from this vineyard to define minerality in red wine. They taste like they have been filtered through pebbles. And that's a good thing, folks. It adds to the depth and savor. Amazingly, this wine sells for only about $30.

Owen Roe's winemaker, David O'Reilly, excels in both Oregon and Washington. His Oregon Pinot Noirs, Washington Syrahs and Cabernets can vie with the very best, or capture quality in moderately priced bottlings that exceed expectations. He deals with some spectacular Syrah vineyards in Washington, including DuBrul in Yakima Valley, the source for this one. In the hills on the northern side of a valley that is among Washington's coolest red wine regions, DuBrul is owned and farmed by Hugh Shiels, whose family makes Côte Bonneville and Carriage House Cabernet-based wines from the grapes there, all top-tier stuff. The original price, $45, was easily justified.

Although Syrah has mysteriously fallen out of favor among Americans, I didn't have to convince my friends around the table that Syrahs were worth drinking. And I didn't have to prime them with any of the above information. I just poured the wines and let them discover all by themselves what they had to say. The wines got exactly the response I wanted—big smiles all around, and a quick return to the glass to sniff out and taste all the complexity and character in them.

So how did these wines show six years on, now that they have reached a secondary stage of aging?

My published review of the Malakoff noted "oodles of crushed stone and slate character riding over the bass notes of ripe plum and spice." I called it "textbook Victoria," and suggested we start drinking it in 2012. The stony flavors have morphed into something closer to tar and black pepper, but the underlying rocky character was still there, playing against dark fruit in a nubby-textured, expressive glassful. If anything, it seems to have gained on my original rating of 92 points. Call it 93 this time, non-blind of course.

When I reviewed the Lady Rosa I called it a ripe, heady style, with a jolt of acidity to keep the rich plum, dried blueberry and mocha flavors in check, rating it 93 points. It emphasized its fruit much more than the Aussie wine, but had earthy, smoky notes sneaking around the edges and into the finish. Side by side with the Malakoff, surprisingly, it did not seem distinctly bigger or broader. Its natural acidity had absorbed into the fabric of the wine, and the result was a refreshing purity and deftness, hiding its muscle. I wouldn't change my score, but I admit that I drained this glass first.

Both wines ably accompanied roast chicken with roasted carrots and quinoa. Then we just communed with the wines as conversation flowed over the next hour. Both wines developed in the glass, becoming more complete and complex.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 20, 2013 11:37pm ET
Hi Harvey, very interesting comments. Personally speaking, I confess that tar and black pepper flavors usually put me off. To me, that kind of palette all too well represents cooler climate wine, to the point of austerity. Licorice? Great! Charcoal? Nice! But tar is the same kind of dealbreaker that herbal edges are, to me, so I think I can appreciate how the other glass emptied first. I must get around to trying the Lady Rosa (coincidentally, I happened to drink an Owen Roe 2003 Seven Hills & St Isidore Cabernet that was just spectacular tonight.)

What strikes me are the distinctions you make between the two bottles. In light of our recent exchange about this kind of comparison in the "Blind Tasting" thread... Do you think that the cross-boundary comparison helped to contrast the styles? Would independently held retrospectives from each region have revealed the same degree of contast, in your opinion? Was there anything you noted, for example, that you might not have identified in another context? Thanks for sharing the notes... I'm off to find Lady Rosa!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 20, 2013 11:54pm ET
Thanks for your comments, Don.

On the tar and black pepper, those characteristics don't necessarily translate to austerity. There was plenty of fruit, and this was not anything anyone would call a skinny wine.

As far as whether tasting the wines together helped to contrast the styles, well yes, that's what I was after. But the outlines of the wines' structures and flavor profiles were pretty much defined in the original tasting notes. It was just interesting to me to see how each one developed into something different, but related, with time in the bottle.
Whit Thompson
Rochester, NY —  March 25, 2013 9:34am ET
Drank a bottle of the 2007 RiverAerie Syrah Columbia Valley last night, and it was really delicious. You gave it a 92 when it was released, and I'd say it more than lived up to that. Not sure if the wine qualifies as a cool climate syrah, but between the drinking experience and the bottle cost, it was a fine example of what Washington does really well.

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