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The beauty of good wines like the Solpman, Ojai and Arnot-Roberts is that they have points of view. Like good books, theatre or food, they are not intended to appeal to everybody.

Searching for distinctive character of California syrah

Jan 24, 2020 5:50 AM

SOME wines confirm assumptions. Others shock the system.

Good syrah, especially when made using traditional methods like fermenting the grapes with their stems, can be one of those jarring wines. Depending on one's experience and expectations, it can delight or appal.

I adore syrah, and the more extreme, the better. Yet when I recently opened a bottle of Louis Sozet Cornas 2014, a traditionally-made syrah wine from the northern Rhône Valley of France, for dinner, a friend did a double take.

The Sozet Cornas, made in tiny quantities by an ageing vigneron, epitomises how unusual these wines can be. Its set of flavours - peppery, meaty, herbal and earthy - was one my friend had never encountered in a wine before. He was intrigued, but he was not sure whether he liked it or not.

His reaction was a valuable experience. For him, it was an introduction to a radically different sort of wine, which, to his credit, he did not reject out of hand. For me, it was a reminder of how a wine that I have come to know well and love might be perceived from a fresh perspective.

Shock value can be intriguing, but it alone is not enough to make a wine worth drinking.

Distinctive wines have identities derived from the inherent characters of the grapes, the places they were grown and the people who produced them. They must also be delicious, a subjective quality that varies like one's musical taste.

For the last few weeks, we have been drinking California syrah, which is generally much less extreme than the bottle of Cornas I opened. Yet the wines still managed to surprise a few readers.

The three bottles I recommended were: Stolpman Vineyards Ballard Canyon Estate Grown Syrah 2016; the Ojai Vineyard Santa Barbara County Syrah 2016 and Arnot-Roberts Sonoma Coast Syrah 2015. They ranged in price from US$28 for the Stolpman to US$45 for the Arnot-Roberts.

The beauty of good wines in general is that they have points of view. Unlike the supermarket wines we tasted a year ago, which are focus-grouped and crowd-tested for the broadest possible appeal, effectively sanding off all rough edges until they achieve the homogeneous appeal of a news anchor, these wines are presented as is.

That is, they convey the character of the grapes as seen through the prisms of the places in which they are grown and as they have been shaped by the people who produced them. That is the formula for good wines, which, like good books, theatre or food, are not intended to appeal to everybody.

None of the three California syrahs tasted quite as unusual as the old-school Cornas, but the 2015 Arnot-Roberts came closest. Possibly, this was because the grapes were fermented entirely with their stems (the same traditional method used in the Cornas) rather than destemmed, a more modern technique that generally yields a darker, fruitier wine.

These days, most conventionally fermented red wines are destemmed. But the practice of retaining the stems, sometimes called whole-cluster or whole-bunch fermentation because the bunches of grapes are left intact, still conveys a meaningful stylistic and cultural message with a handful of red grapes, particularly syrah and pinot noir.

The Arnot-Roberts was snappy and savoury, with an earthy, meaty set of aromas and flavours that included violets, herbs and olives. It was intense, yet light and full of energy. Its alcohol level was just 12.5 per cent, partly because the grapes came from relatively cool areas of the Sonoma Coast, and partly because that is the preferred style of the producers.

By comparison, the Ojai was less intensely savoury and herbal. It was still floral, with syrah's characteristic meaty, peppery, olive aromas and flavours, but it had a spine of red fruit, perhaps because the syrah was blended with 22 per cent grenache and 3 per cent sangiovese.

I hadn't realised this in advance. Most syrahs are either 100 per cent syrah or blended with a little viognier, as is traditional in Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône. But all varietal wines in California may be blends, so long as the variety after which a bottle is named makes up at least 75 per cent of the mix.

The Ojai was still an excellent wine, I thought, aromatic and lively, but less exotic than the Arnot-Roberts. Most of the grapes came from the eastern part of the Santa Rita Hills in western Santa Barbara county.

The Stolpman comes from Ballard Canyon in eastern Santa Barbara county, a warmer site than the Sonoma Coast or Santa Rita Hills, and the wine tasted riper and lusher than the other two. It had some herbal qualities, more anise and menthol than leafy and brambly, but it was by far the most mainstream of the wines, in the sense that the primary flavour was fruit.

Though it was 100 per cent syrah, and 50 per cent whole bunch, it still was the least distinctive of the three, and harder to immediately identify as syrah. Nonetheless, it was balanced and energetic, not bad at all.

It was evidence, though, that the character of syrah is hugely dependent on where it is grown, as was pointed out by one reader Randall Grahm, the long-time proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard and a leading advocate for California syrah. (By the way, he recently sold the brand to WarRoom Ventures, a small wine company.)

In California, it has often been planted in sites that were too warm, yielding generic red wines without the character that, in an extreme version like the Sozet Carnas, can make you sit up and take notice.

These three wines offered a sort of sliding scale of syrah, with the Arnot-Roberts furthest on the distinctive edge. Of course, many other variables go into winemaking, like, as Mr Grahm also mentioned, clonal selection. But site is crucial.

Interestingly, it was generic fruitiness that people found to be an issue rather than the more distinctive qualities of syrah that can be polarising.

Regardless of how people feel about the grape, the quality of the syrahs from California is getting better and better; the grape has spread far from its home in the northern Rhône, with great examples coming from Washington state, Australia (where it is often known as shiraz) and South Africa.

Intrepid readers might want to revisit the Rhône syrahs we tasted earlier, from Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph.

And if you are looking for a winter treat, I highly recommend tracking down a bottle of Cornas. NYTIMES