Thursday, April 30, 2015
A League of Their Rhône Rangers--Part Three
I wish someone would start a Syrah appreciation society, throw an annual Shirazapalooza. Is there one I don’t know about? For God’s Sake, Petite Sirah has a fan club! Really? Petite Sirah? It’s a hybrid variety, the feckless offspring of Syrah, not a grape as God intended. It’s the damned Bruce Jenner of varieties. Syrah deserves its own fan club outside of the Rhône Rangers. It’s nuts to me that so many people ignore the indisputable greatness of Syrah. When you start talking about the varieties that make the great wines of the world, you are an imbecile if you do not have Syrah near the top of that list, and an imbecile if you do have Petite Sirah on that list. No Durifs, ands or buts.
How did the unwashed public come to loathe Syrah? The tired old answer is that too much Syrah in California was planted in the wrong places and made crappy wine which turned folks off to the grape. But you could make the same argument about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Merlot, and they’re still selling a lot of wine. That argument about Syrah is a lazy answer. It’s almost become folklore. When I began drinking Syrah, it was a long time ago, and it was a lot of Rosemount Syrah from South Australia. I realize now what a lousy and manufactured wine that was, as bland and predictable as a Dave Koz concert. Now, of course, you have abominable wines like Yellow Tail Shiraz, which, if a wine can be heinous, is heinous (though if you remove the “h” from heinous you, amazingly, have its perfect aromatic descriptor). If you grew up drinking those cheap Australian Shirazes, as I did, you would have had no idea what Syrah tastes like. Maybe that’s where all this started.
I don’t have any idea what the first great Syrah I tasted might have been. Hell, I don’t remember what the first average Syrah I tasted was. It was probably from California, only because I didn’t really understand French wines early on in my wine tasting life, and rarely bought any. It was probably one of the early Joseph Phelps Syrahs. In the mid-80’s there were but a few hundred acres of Syrah in the state, and it is the late Joe Phelps who is credited with making the first Syrah in California back in the mid ’70's. The first vintages of Phelps Syrah were pretty lousy, if I recall correctly (but what did I know?), and they were followed by a lot of other pretty lousy California Syrahs from a lot of other producers. It would have been hard to fall in love with Syrah at the time based on the offerings from the Golden State.
Somehow, perhaps spurred on by my “discovery” of ’78 Rayas, I became enamored of the wines of the Rhône Valley. And once I found Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas, I was a Syrah convert. I almost feel sorry for wine lovers who have never had the pleasure of drinking a well-aged Chave Hermitage, Jaboulet “La Chapelle” Hermitage, Clape Cornas, Rostaing Côte-Rôtie, Jamet Côte-Rôtie, Guigal “La Landonne,” and, well, maybe even a Chapoutier Ermitage “Le Pavillon.” Those are all crazy expensive now, and I’m being one of those overbearing wine name-droppers we all hate, but how in the world can Syrah, which produces these brilliant wines, not have its own party? It’s shameful.
No matter. There were quite a few wonderful Syrahs at the Rhône Rangers tasting this year. Though, admittedly, I didn’t get around to tasting as many as I would have liked. I had the time, but I didn’t have the willpower. In my glory day, I think it was a Tuesday in 1994, I would canvas a large tasting like this and taste at least an hour or two past when any human could reasonably assess a serious wine. The more one tastes, I think, the more one loses any chance at detecting subtlety or character, and those are two of the most important qualities of great wine. After tasting too many wines in a day, one shifts to simply detecting intensity, which is like judging music by how loud it is. So now, in my dotage, I stop tasting a lot sooner, content to have tasted fewer wines but, I hope, to have tasted them more consciously. Believe me, I see a lot of unconscious tasters at these events, many of whom go on to “rate” the wines. You know the ones, the ones who “tasted” 150 wines in two hours. Ignore them, if simply for their air of superiority. Ignore me because I’m unimportant.
I’ve written previously about Steve Law and his MacLaren Syrahs. Steve is an unabashed fan of wines from the Rhône Valley, a guy who has tasted widely of those wines, and so has a knowledge base that serves his wines well. I tasted eight MacLaren Syrahs, and there wasn’t a dud among them. The only other California producer I know of with that kind of consistency with Syrah is Adam Tolmach at The Ojai Vineyard (just a white Ford Bronco drive away from Santa Barbara), who I think is the best Syrah winemaker in the state. I’ve too often found that a California Syrah producer who makes a great Syrah one year, then makes a stinker the year after. There are dozens of reliable Cabernet producers, and reliable Pinot Noir wineries, but when it comes to Syrah, it seems like there are only a few—and most of them only make one or two different Syrahs. Steve makes several, and Adam makes even more. Their talent for Syrah dazzles.
Steve was showing both his 2011 and 2012 Syrah. I think he’s more passionate about wines from cooler vintages. He almost apologized for the ripeness of his ’12’s, which were, by most California standards, not that ripe at all. He might qualify for In Pursuit of Balance, only he makes unworthy Syrah. His newest vineyard for MacLaren made his best wines, I thought. The MacLaren 2011 Syrah Atoosa’s Vineyard is brilliant. Here’s an example of what I mean when I say you can buy world class Syrah for $40—not a statement you can make for Cabernet. It’s cool climate Syrah, and it shows in its beautiful lean-ness. It’s a champion greyhound of a wine, and I’m not talking buses. Distinctively spicy, with red brambly fruit, it has power and grace, and is absolutely delicious. The 2012 I liked even better. I think it’s just showier at an earlier age--Lindsay Lohan, without the emotional problems. Around 13% alcohol, it shows a lot fleshier and riper than that, which seems to be a characteristic of Atoosa’s Vineyard. Both are, to my palate, wonderful Syrah.
But I think you can buy any of MacLaren’s Syrahs and you’ll be happy you did. Each is distinctive, and you’ll find your own way. Just as you might prefer Cornas to St.-Joseph, or Crozes-Hermitage to Cornas, you might like MacLaren’s Samantha’s Vineyard (a vineyard DuMol uses as well for Syrah) a bit more than the Stagecoach. But they’re all good.
For me, a Rhône Rangers tasting isn’t complete without a visit with Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith of Lagier Meredith, a clever name, though "Steve Carole" might have hit it big when “The Office” was popular. I was lucky enough to be tasting at the Lagier Meredith table with Steve Eliot of Connoisseurs’ Guide, which is always a pleasure. And Carole is as forthright and honest about wine and the wine business as just about anyone I know, which makes her my kindred spirit. You get the feeling that if Lagier Meredith made crappy wine, she’d be the first one to say so. Luckily, the wines are always terrific. So it was great fun to taste there.
Steve Lagier was serving three vintages of their Mt. Veeder Syrah, the ’02, ’11, and ’12. Out of curiosity, I looked up the Parker scores for the wines, and the Lagier Meredith 2011 Syrah received the lowest score of any Lagier Meredith Syrah—90 pts. I was surprised, really. I thought this was lovely Syrah, and very reminiscent of Parker’s beloved Northern Rhône wines. I immediately thought of Cornas, with that tightness and structure that holds fruit with lots of promise, floral right now, with Syrah’s trademark white pepper and deep, dark fruit. My hunch is this will be a beauty a decade from now.
They had poured the 2002 Syrah at one of the seminars, and Steve had some left for the tasting, and it was beginning to show more of the smoky, roasted meat sort of character that older Syrah can develop. There’s still some available to buy on their website, and it’s a very, very nice older Syrah. The 2012 Syrah is certainly of a piece with the other two, the character of the vineyard shining through. Where I think the 2011 needs a lot of space to grow, the 2012 is already luscious. This doesn’t mean the 2012 won’t outlive the 2011, it probably will. But it is brimming with that dark blackberry and plum fruit, which almost overwhelms its floral aromatic aspect, but not quite. The Lagier Meredith 2012 Syrah was one of my favorite wines at the event. I know Carole and Steve know it, but you should, too—this wine comes from a very special site.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Lagier Meredith 2012 Malbec (yes, I know Malbec is not a Rhône variety). Only 37 cases were produced, so you’ll have to buy it from their website (and you should). Steve Eliot and I agreed that it was topnotch Malbec. I cannot remember a Malbec from California that I liked anywhere near as much as I liked this Lagier Meredith wine. It won me over the minute I put my nose in the glass. Very pure, very sweet aromas of blackberry and black cherry. It just smells like something you want to eat. And as plush and as sexy as it is on the palate, it still has Malbec’s acidity and is not the least bit flabby. Someone buy me some of this.
I’ll briefly mention a couple of other Syrahs I liked. Tercero 2010 Syrah White Hawk Vineyard has lots of guts to it, intense and layered with dark fruit and that iron/meaty character of Syrah. Owner/winemaker Larry Schaffer seems to be indefatigible. You can almost feel his energy in his wines. I think that’s a compliment. Anyhow, this is terrific Syrah, and a good deal at $35. I also very much liked the Holly’s Hill 2010 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty Vineyard. I won’t try to entice you to buy it because the website says it’s Sold Out. But Holly’s Hill is a great source for Rhône wines at very fair prices, so you should at least be aware of their name.
To those of you who actually read all this crap down to this last paragraph, thank you. To all the fine wineries whose tables I never got around to, you’re welcome. Next year, I’m not wearing my name tag. And maybe not my pants.