Hoping to gain superb syrah

VINTAGE POINT

Wine: California wineries are making inroads in using the Rhone Valley's Cote Rotie and Hermitage as models.

January 02, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

As recently as the mid-1980s, a Marylander seeking examples of California syrah had to go to extraordinary lengths to round up a few bottles.

Transcontinental phone calls, trips to Washington and the aid of fellow collectors were required to put together enough examples for a representative tasting. Back then, only a handful of American wineries were experimenting with the classic red-wine grape of the Rhone Valley. Eventually the wineries would become known as the Rhone Rangers, but that came later.

What a difference a decade and a half make. Now, it seems everybody's jumping on the syrah bandwagon. More California syrahs can be bought in a single trip to a local wine store than could be found in a nationwide search back then.

The models for a successful syrah are Cote Rotie and Hermitage, two classic but then little-known red wines produced in the northern Rhone. Both have been known to reach the pinnacle of red-wine excellence, but they travel there by different paths.

Hermitage is known for its manly power and the complexity it develops with age; Cote Rotie for its fragrance, feminine elegance and subtlety. What they have in common is relentless black-raspberry flavor and a certain athleticism as they perform gymnastics all over the palate.

California winemakers are still puzzling out what the syrah grape yearns to do in that state's vineyards. Some are aiming to make California's answer to Guigal's Cote Roties. Some seem to take Jaboulet's "La Chapelle" Hermitage as their model. Both are worthy aspirations.

Some winemakers have been lured by the Australian experience with syrah, which is known there as shiraz. A handful of California wineries have recently adopted that name for the grape in what strikes me as a statement of limited, largely commercial aspirations. One can only hope consumers reject this confusing diversion.

My recent tastings of California syrah yielded these conclusions:

Some California winemakers have no clue what syrah is about, but slowly the quality is improving.

Syrah is not destined to be an inexpensive wine in California. Budget versions generally fail to capture either the classic Rhone style or the brash Aussie style.

Excellent syrah won't be cheap but need not be extravagantly priced.

The last statement is based primarily on my tasting of two syrahs: the 2000 Bonny Doon and the 1999 Fess Parker, both $20.

The Bonny Doon is an extraordinary wine with an extraordinary label, which sets out exactly what winery owner Randall Grahm intends to do:

"Proper syrah is perfumed elegance; its power is in its ability to enchant, to captivate, rather than overpower. One is disarmed by its apparent freshness, its strangeness." Precisely. That's as apt a description of Cote Rotie as anyone could write, and Bonny Doon's syrah delivers all that in a nonprestigious California blend. Savvy consumers will pounce on this wine with the full force of their checkbooks. You can cellar it five to 10 years, but you don't need to.

The Fess Parker (yes, as in Daniel Boone) from Santa Barbara County was nearly as impressive at the same reasonable price. It's a full-bodied wine with pure black-raspberry and blackberry fruit and hints of wild game, chocolate and herbs. It has its own style, but it's distinctly a syrah. When $20 wine is that good, it's hard to work up enthusiasm for more expensive wines, but several other California syrahs deserve a salute for capturing the varietal's unique character:

1998 Lafond Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley ($30). This wine does as fine a job of emulating the Hermitage style as the Bonny Doon does with Cote Rotie. It's a bold, complex, penetrating wine with ample black-raspberry, blackberry and black-pepper flavor.

1999 La Crema Syrah, Sonoma County ($24). This concentrated, complex wine reminds me of Hermitage from a ripe vintage in that it needs time to fully express itself.

1998 Andrew Murray Vineyards Syrah, Roasted Slope Vineyard, Santa Barbara County ($35). Cote Rotie means roasted slope, so it's clear what Murray is aiming for. The blackberry and black raspberry are there, but the tannin level and peppery flavors are more reminiscent of Hermitage. It's a complex, concentrated wine that needs some cellaring.

1998 Selby Sonoma County Syrah ($26). A little more tannic than the Bonny Doon, a little less powerful than the Murray, this wine offers a core of wonderful black-raspberry fruit. Open ahead of time and let it breathe.

1999 McDowell Syrah ($12), 1999 Qupe Central Coast Syrah ($20) and 1997 Preston of Dry Creek Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, Vogensen Ranch ($25). There's a village near Hermitage called Cornas that produces full-bodied, tannic wines that are similar but not quite as expressive. These three remind me of a well-made Cornas, with the edge to the McDowell despite its lower price.

My tastings of less expensive syrahs yielded little to cheer about. Fetzer's 1999 Valley Oaks ($8) is a pleasant, medium-bodied wine for early consumption, but the others were disappointing. Only one deserves a mention, and that as a warning: Unless you're into weedy, stinky, harsh and nasty wines, do not go near the 1999 Meridian Shiraz ($10). It's the worst wine I've tasted in a long time that didn't have the excuse of a contaminated cork.

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