Sunday, April 8, 2012
To find a spot where it can use the full timbre of its voice is a great achievement. After our most recent tasting of Syrah from Sonoma County, mostly from within its coastal appellation, I’d argue that the Sonoma Coast is a gorgeously good match of grape and place. (So is Bennett Valley, as per a couple of excellent non-coast wines in the lineup.) I say this as Syrah struggles through yet another identity crisis – arguably overplanted in California and continually under-enjoyed.
But our look at a couple dozen wines from the 2009 and 2010 vintages, both on the cooler side, was a case study in the aromatic power of Syrah – and affirmation that 2010, in particular, offered a great push toward the nuanced end of the pendulum of California style. For all the discussion of its robustness, Syrah seems to show its most compelling side in truly marginal areas, where it struggles well into the season (late October, early November). It’s no surprise that many spots in Sonoma’s coastal areas fit that description; it’s no surprise that Sonoma’s coast is often deemed Pinot Noir territory, as the two grapes cohabitate far better than you might guess ( sfg.ly/HiJJJg).
But our tasting wandered across the Sonoma map, which may be a hint that the cooler vintages (or less willingness to lead grapes into the dramatically ripe realm) provide a road map for Syrah’s redemption from purgatory on the dusty wine shelf. The Sonoma Coast, in wine terms, stretches across half the county – including not only the true coastal stretches but also the full corridor of the Petaluma Gap, where the wind lashes in from the ocean at Bodega Bay and makes its way toward San Pablo Bay. That wraps in the Lakeville area between Petaluma and Sonoma, which remains a lesser-known sweet spot for Syrah. If Lakeville is a comfortable spot for the grape, there are edgier realms, like Clary Ranch in the Middle Two Rock Valley, toward the western end of the Petaluma Gap, where viticulture is virtually an extreme sport. These are not easy places to grow this particular grape. But great wine is never easy. And perhaps great Syrah shouldn’t be easy. Increasingly, the Sonoma Coast is proving that – and making the case for the true greatness of this grape in California.
Tasting notes: Sonoma Coast Syrah
2009 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah ($36, 12.6% alcohol): Pax Mahle set out a stellar Syrah lineup in 2009. This blend of three of Mahle’s valued sites – Majik, Armagh and Nellessen – fermented all with whole grape clusters and no new oak, shows the power of the cuvee. Intensely aromatic. Peat moss, kalamata olive, ground pepper and dark mineral all factor in, plus savory-edged plum and tart berry fruit. So lean in its demeanor, but texturally brilliant in its dense (though not hard-edged) structure.
2010 Arnot Roberts Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40, 12.2%): Clary Ranch is always the most polemical wine made by Duncan Meyers and Nathan Roberts. No different in 2010, which yielded a stellar range of Syrahs by these two. Clary is always a razor dance with ripeness, and this shows an ethereal, almost stark, quality. Layer upon layer of scents: green and Szechuan peppercorn, green olive pit, brine and a deep mineral note to round out wild blueberry and plum fruit. Savory and remarkably powerful. While it’s more confrontational than the fennel-tinged Griffin’s Lair Vineyard Syrah ($55, 12.5%), it also aims – and hits – higher.
2010 Sandler Connell Vineyard Bennett Valley Syrah ($20, 11.6%): Winemaker Ed Kurtzman (August West) gets this Syrah fruit from this otherwise Pinot-focused site off Santa Rosa’s Grange Road. It shows the nuanced possibilities in Bennett Valley. Impressively lean and full of distinct white pepper and sandalwood aromas, plus wild blueberry fruit and a minerally, chewy side.
2009 Waxwing Cellars Sonoma Coast Syrah ($25, 14.5%): Veteran winemaker Scott Sisemore tapped fruit from the Flocchini vineyard in the Petaluma Gap for his own San Carlos label. It shows the best of Syrah’s tangy, funky side, accented with intense pepper spice and a stylish, sweet plum fruit that balances its deep savory character. Deeply expressive.
2009 Baker Lane Sonoma Coast Cuvee Sonoma Coast Syrah ($28, 14.1%): Stephen Singer blended his Sebastopol estate fruit with a neighbor’s grapes for this affordable, early-drinking bottle, full of pretty sage and peppercorn highlights, and a mellower licorice and blackberry counterpoint.
2009 Landmark Steel Plow Sonoma Valley Syrah ($32, 14.3%): Winemaker Greg Stach keeps showing this Kenwood label’s growing talents in the Rhone-inspired world. This latest Steel Plow, from the Kivelstadt vineyard near Sonoma Mountain, is opulent and dark in its nature, full of black pepper, charred meat, a touch of brown spice and India ink.
2009 Anthill Farms Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast Syrah ($35, 13.5%): The team at Anthill turned out an intense Syrah lineup in 2009, but the Peters – a wine that seems to have mood swings – is stellar when you catch it in the right moment. Subtle, with accents of sage, citrus leaf, juniper and black olive. But there’s a velvety texture and lots of blue fruit that matches its tannic backbone. A masterful effort, and perhaps a bit more approachable right now than its Campbell Ranch ($30, 13.9%) counterpart.
2009 Peay La Bruma Sonoma Coast Syrah ($47, 13.4%): There’s great stylishness in the Peays’ cellar-worthy 2009 wines. Grown on their Annapolis estate, where struggle with the fog is a constant, the Bruma is slightly more approachable right now, with winemaker Vanessa Wong evoking a subtle sandalwood accent in the deft use of oak. Clear blue fruit matches its rich earthy scents, all framed by powerful mineral energy on the palate.
Panelists: Jon Bonné, Chronicle wine editor; Sarah Elliott, wine director, Commonwealth.
This article appeared on page G – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle