A Love Letter to Syrah

Though it was a chance sip of Viognier that started me down the path of my wine life, Syrah has always been the most important variety for me. I cut my teeth on Syrah in the Northern Rhone, what a lucky place to start. In Cote Rotie, I marveled at Syrah’s ability to be very savory (black olive, pepper, dried meats) while also being delicate, floral and fruity (higher acid red fruits like raspberry and tart cherry). I tasted in disbelief as smaller producers struggled for relevance and quality, while larger growers like Guigal seemed to always make some of the most highly scoring wines each and every vintage. I tasted how French Oak and toast level could sometimes enhance the smoky bacon character of Syrah,

while other times it covered up the variety all together. Heading south, I came to appreciate the bigger and richer style of Syrah coming out of Hermitage. I fell in love with Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet, though I can barely even afford or justify the high prices now. Crozes Hermitage is the appellation with lesser terroir that snakes itself all around Hermitage. I learned to appreciate these for having a bit less complexity and often a bit more rustic qualities. The wines of Graillot jump out at me as a benchmark example of Crozes. Across the river, there is Saint Joseph, also more affordable and often very fun to drink. I appreciate the wines of Gonon quite a bit for their funky whole cluster earthy notes that are balanced by crunchy red fruits and decidedly un-refined tannins. As Saint Joseph ends, the crazy and complex hills and miroclimates of Cornas come into view.

Here, there is only one variety. Here, Syrah is king! With its more southern location and windswept granitic hillsides, Syrah struggles to exist. Here may be the truest expression of Syrah on the planet. Syrah from Cornas can sometimes fool you into thinking it’s from Cote Rotie, with notes of lilac and white flowers, before it punches you in the chest with the unmistakable rustic tannins and funk that typifies Cornas. Cornas is a decidedly moderate climate, a lot like the Santa Ynez Valley. It is certainly warmer than Cote Rotie, but not nearly as warm as further south in the Southern Rhone or in Languedoc, where Syrah starts to take on over-ripe qualities, not unlike a hot vintage from east Paso Robles. I was never able to intern in France, so my most important abroad experience came from a yearlong “stage” near the Margaret River area of West Australia. I was so naive when I applied and accepted the opportunity that I never thought for a moment that the region may not specialize in Syrah. It turns out that much of lower WA is very cool, and a near perfect climate for Burgundian varieties. So, I went there for Syrah, but I mostly worked with Chardonnay and Riesling, and some inland valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Interestingly enough, the winery made a style of Syrah that more closely resembled the Central Coast of California more than South Australia, which is famous for their boozy, sweeter fruit forward styled Shiraz. Of course, I would not know this for years, until I started making my own versions of Syrah. I attended UC Davis to finish growing up (still haven’t finished growing up) and to learn the science behind winemaking. While this was a pivotal period in my life, I was disappointed that they never really taught us how to make wine. It turns out winemaking is very intuitive and learned over time. It is learned by drinking and exploring and tasting and comparing and traveling and doing. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to have the double BS in Viticulture and Oenology when a vintage throws us a curve ball. But, I have always appreciated the art more than the science, the subtlety more than the obvious. So, this long preamble is really just a love letter to Syrah, and all of its styles. It is why I geek out on trying to find new sources, it is why I keep tweaking and fine tuning the Curtis Estate that we now farm. From these tweaks came our first Estate Grown Syrah since 2005. I love Syrah co-fermented with Viognier, like our Watch Hill and Roasted Slope. I love Syrah with more whole cluster inclusion for its dark brooding qualities, like our Alisos. Though I constantly strive for balance, I do like a bit of toasty French oak in some Syrah, like our new Estate, that helps to moderate the fruit notes from our slightly warmer estate location. So, yes, we do craft a lot of different Syrah bottlings each year. But, we think they are wonderfully unique and special, each with a different story to tell, each with a slightly different inspiration. I hope that you can sense and taste this passion for Syrah in every single sip!

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