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Sensational Californian Syrah

In 1990, there were just 140 hectares of Syrah planted in California. Today there are 6,100. STEPHEN BROOK ponders the reasons behind the explosive growth of the variety and considers its place in the global pecking order.

Californian Syrah can be delicious. Less tannic than Cabernet, and more consistent than Pinot Noir, Syrah is a red wine perfectly attuned to the growing trend to drink red wine young.

Yet the Rhône stalwart and Aussie firecracker has been slow to make its mark stateside. Joseph Phelps in Napa made impressively gamey Syrah in the 1970s, using grapes planted by the Christian Brothers estate in 1959. Another early source was the Estrella River plantings made in 1975 by Gary Eberle in Paso Robles. And there was some 70-year-old Syrah at McDowell Vineyards in Mendocino County. None of those plantings survives today, and no one is quite sure of their clonal heritage.

Craig Williams at Phelps recalls: ‘We planted Syrah on our St Helena ranch, but we couldn’t give it away. Neither could Estrella River. Both of us even made a white wine from Syrah grapes – that’s how bad things were.’

About 80% of existing Syrah vineyards are descended from Eberle’s vineyard, so the selection is known as the Estrella Clone. It clearly produces excellent wine, although new French clones, and some from Australia, are now being more widely planted. Delia Viader in Napa Valley has planted half her Syrah vineyard with French clones, half with Australian.

For most wineries, however, Syrah is a sideline. Even pioneering Rhône Ranger Randall Grahm makes limited quantities of pure Syrah. So I went to see John Alban, who had a conversion experience when he visited the Rhône Valley in the 1980s, and in 1990 planted his entire vineyard in Edna Valley with Rhône varieties rather than the prevailing Chardonnay. His Syrahs are consistently among the top bottlings in California.

‘There have always been some growers who dabbled in Syrah,’ he told me. ‘It wasn’t much of a risk if you also had 12ha (hectares) of Chardonnay or Cabernet. But only more recently has a small group of people been prepared to hang their hat on Rhône varieties. After the wines began to get attention, others jumped on the bandwagon, and because Syrah grows well almost everywhere, the wines are generally successful. With more fickle varieties such as Viognier, it was harder to stay the course and many who were growing it have changed their minds, usually because they’d planted it in the wrong place.

‘I decided to plant Syrah here because I thought this was a spectacular climate for it. When I made that decision, there was no Rhône craze, so I had to think hard about finding the best site to match the variety. The one common feature of Rhône soils is that they are devigorating, and that’s what we needed to find here.’

Age versus youth

Those of us steeped in European viticultural traditions firmly believe that old vines make better and more complex wines than young ones. This, however, is not borne out by the Californian Syrah experience. Many acclaimed Cabernets and Pinots have been made from very young vines, and the same is true of Californian Syrah. When I ask growers about this, they have no sure explanation, but speculate that the more virgin soils of California and the unremitting sunshine conspire to produce happy grapes, rich in flavour from the start.

More important than either the clonal origin or the age of the plantings is the site where it is grown. On this everyone is agreed. Bob Lindquist, who has been making Syrah at Qupé in Santa Barbara since 1982, observes: ‘Syrah is very site specific, rather than area specific. It likes unforgiving soils, such as rocky hillsides.’

Pax Mahle, whose small Sonoma winery produces nothing but Syrah purchased from hillside sites in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, also believes site is crucial: ‘Old vines are not necessarily superior in California, since the newer plantings tend to be from better clones and are planted to a higher density. I’d rather buy fruit from young vines planted in the right spot than from old vines planted in the wrong spot.’

If vine age is not crucial, yield can be. Californian Syrah is vigorous, and most growers prune and green-harvest severely to bring in fully ripe, richly concentrated grapes. A judicious choice of rootstock can also help moderate vigour. On the other hand, Delicato, owners of the vast San Bernabe vineyard in southern Monterey County, obtain high yields from machine-harvested vines and still manage to make a decent wine at a low price.

Most winemakers handle Californian Syrah as they would Pinot Noir. Some favour a slow fermentation, but many Syrah specialists opt for a short fermentation but at high temperatures. The more serious Syrah wines tend to be aged in French oak for 12 months or more, but some winemakers also favour American oak.

Bearing in mind that Syrah is a relative newcomer in California, the overall standard of winemaking is very high, and vegetal tones are rare. However, some wines are marred by jammy overripe flavours; others by a sledgehammer of high alcohol – sometimes over 16%.

John Alban is not too bothered by high sugar levels in his grapes. ‘If one uses techniques such as open-top fermenters and wild yeasts, then this will decrease alcohol levels. It’s true that we routinely attain levels of 14–15?, whereas Rhône wines are more likely to be 12–13?. But we can’t mimic Rhône conditions here. We’re in California, bathed in sunshine, and our wines reflect that.’ Alban’s wines never taste alcoholic, but unfortunately many other wines do have a burning rasping finish.

During my time in California, I organised large tastings in three regions, with a view to seeing whether it’s now possible to discern regional character. The answer is yes. In general, the Syrahs from the North Coast are less balanced than those from further south. Syrahs from Napa and Sonoma tended to be higher in alcohol and burlier in style. Those from Santa Barbara in particular showed the best balance. Less powerful than their Napa counterparts, they were fresher and more elegant. Whereas North Coast Syrahs have a strong plummy character, those from Santa Barbara show a less dense blackberry tone. There were some surprises from Paso Robles, with exceptional wines emerging from the Westside district, the hilly region west of Highway 101.


Rooted in Rock

I was particularly impressed by a wine called Saxum, and went to see Justin Smith, who produces it at his family’s James Berry Vineyard. As we walked through the vineyard, he pointed out the limestone outcrops. ‘This is extremely uncommon in California. It’s fissured limestone with hardly any topsoil. That means the roots can plunge really deep into the rock. Plus the vines have a low pH, whereas in the richer soils of the North Coast they often have much higher pH. That translates into better acidity and vigour in our wines.’

The Beckmen family in Santa Barbara bought a ranch on Purisima Mountain in the Santa Ynez Valley and in 1997 planted 77ha of mostly Rhône varieties. This part of Santa Ynez Valley has some limestone and a thin topsoil. Steve Beckmen sells much of the fruit from this vineyard but also makes three different Syrahs under his own label.


‘The problem with Syrah,’ says Beckmen, ‘is that it can be made in many different styles, and it varies according to where it is grown. The cooler the area, the more peppery and spicy the wines will be. In hot areas, the wines are fatter and lower in acidity, more plummy and fruit driven.’

Randall Grahm points out that American consumers tend to think Syrah should taste like Australian Shiraz. ‘They don’t realise that Côte Rôtie is a cool climate, but in the southern Rhône and in warmer areas of California and Australia, Syrah takes on a more jammy character.’

If Santa Barbara and parts of Paso Robles seem to be producing the finest expressions of Syrah, other regions have outstanding examples. The Reserve Syrah from McDowell in Mendocino can be exceptional, and those from Terre Rouge in the Sierra Foothills are first-rate, but occasionally over-oaked.

I doubt whether most Californian Syrah will have the longevity of a fine Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie. It’s hard to be sure since few elderly examples exist. However, old vintages from Qupé have certainly held up well, becoming more leathery and gamey with age. But ageability is a marginal issue now that even the boldest red wines are being drunk soon after release. There is no reason not to enjoy Syrah while it is exhibiting its youthful splendour of fruit.

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