As I had mentioned, when Jason Drew, one of our favorite California winemakers, first emailed me about the inklings of a Syrah tasting & get together I was quite hyped. I really enjoy well grown & well made Syrah.
Prior to the actual event, I had very little information as to what would happen or who would be attending, but figured if Jason invited me, it would be my kind of tasting AND a wonderful opportunity/forum for discussion & learning.
Therefore, after giving considerable thought as to what I wanted to bring to such a tasting, I settled on 2 wines. I was hoping these 2 wines would help shed some kind of light on what Syrah could be & therefore provide kindling to provoke thought.
I brought the 2013 Château Fontanès “La Petite Sérine” to show tasters a specific Syrah vine not commonly seen outside of the Northern Rhone Valley of France. Over the years, I was told it was at least part of the “secret” to the wines of Chave in Hermitage, Gentaz in Côte Rôtie, Clape & Verset in Cornas, 4 of the greatest Syrah producers & wines of all time. While there is much variation & therefore controversy about this vine selection both in California & even in France, this particular cutting, I was told by this domaine’s owner/winemaker Cyriaque Rozier, came from 3 of the top proponents of this vine in the Northern Rhone. He planted (& subsequently organically & biodynamically farmed) them in his vineyard down in the Pic St Loup of southern France & its limestone influenced soils. When I tasted this wine for the first time, I was really taken by its intricacies, etherealness & incredible transparency. In short, it was NOT fruit driven! There was a time not that long ago when I would taste en vogue, acclaimed French “country” red wines from that neck of the woods & more often than not, found them to be markedly too much about Syrah…..whose grape varietal print really dominated the resulting wine, thus obliterating other nuances. This was certainly not the case here. Although one could tell it was Syrah, it was NOT blatantly so & it did not over shadow the “sense of place” qualities & nuances. Secondly, this wine offered a much more classy edge to it in comparison to its neighboring peers, again, without being too much. Lastly, this wine is just a fraction of the cost of the Grander bottlings listed above.
Interestingly, when one tastes through the Syrah based line-up from a producer such as Clape, one could readily sense the difference between those grown in their flatter parcels & those grown & produced from the Cornas hillside. California, in my opinion, has not yet worked through all of that yet. So, my thought was to taste a Syrah, produced from a top quality vine, which is organically & biodynamically farmed, in a “less than Grand” terroir. I was hoping this would bring a different slant on what Syrah could be & thereby provoke very different thoughts & questions of possibilities from a different angle.
The second wine I brought, a 2009 Côte Rôtie “Les Roses”, is from a joint project of iconic Rhone Valley winemaker Louis Barruol & superstar importer/Rhone master, Kermit Lynch. The previous year, I had received a note from the Kermit Lynch team which stated–“Louis had barrels from seven vineyard parcels on the roasted slope. I finished by blending four of them together, 40% of it from the vineyard Champin. The result has me sailing high, thinking back to the glory days when Marius Gentaz, René Rostaing, and Robert Jasmin were producing classics; classics that hopefully made me very demanding when it comes to Côte Rôtie“. The 2009 “Les Roses” is a blend of the lieux-dits Fongeant and Rozier from the Côte Rôtie , again featuring the Petite Serine vine. Here, in my mind was yet another example of how the Petite Serine vine could manifest itself. I didn’t know exactly what wines would be shown at this tasting since it was BLIND, but wanted to make sure tasters had a chance to taste this old heritage vine, grown in a “Grand” site (s) nonetheless.
In essence, I would suggest one focus should be on finding better vine material, other than or in addition to ENTAV & Tablas Creek clones.
I was clearly reminded on a visit to the Cornas hillside with Olivier Clape one year, when asked about vine selection, he confided they had replanted one of their Cornas parcels with a new, hot fandango clone, which everyone gaga-ed over. Judging by his facial expression & body language as the conversation continued, however, I don’t think the family was too thrilled over the results from that planting. I also would surmise, this parcel does not make it into their “pride & joy” Cornas bottling. Plus, they also knew & understood it would cost too much to redo. If I were in their shoes, I would therefore not put all my eggs in one basket, unless it was a massale selection that is happy & has proven itself for a long, long time in the area. Or perhaps finding an offspring of a massale selection, which shows great promise & planting it in a small area at first to see how it does.
The second important focus would be finding better sites to work with.
As a reminder, there are vineyards in France, which are designated as Cotes du Rhone & there are those designated as Cornas, eventhough they are not that far apart as the crow flies. It just took time, often multiple generations, sometimes centuries to fully uncover & validate those differences. I get it.
Still, in the meantime, one can make a pretty “good” Syrah, from a lesser than Grand site like what the Château Fontanès, is, using a very highly regarded, proven vine selection, as the first stepping stone.
I was hoping tasting these 2 wines would encourage more discussions & questions on those two fronts.