Unlike the Rhône Valley in France, there is not one region in California that far exceeds any others for syrah. A well-respected veteran syrah producer once told me that he chose the Central Coast because its climate mimicked the northern Rhône, with the warmest temperatures coming in September often after somewhat cool months in July and August. In the eastern part of the state, high altitude vineyards benefit from dramatic shifts in temperature between day and night, producing some of the same effects. These areas, as well as others in western Sonoma and Mendocino counties tend to make syrah with an equal balance of fruit and spice, usually with as much structure coming from acid as from tannin. As such, a number of producers have sought out grapes from these spots in efforts to make more Rhône-like syrah. Though not inexpensive, the following three wines are stunning examples of cool-climate California syrah that offer a good amount of complexity for the price:
Qupe Syrah, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Topolovino, 2010 (Edna Valley, CA) Qupe is one of the early syrah pioneers in California, setting a very high standard for this grape since the mid 1980s. The Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard is a biodynamic vineyard planted in 2005, and while the vines are still young, there is potential to make some serious juice here. With an array of berries underscored by white and black pepper and a zesty acidity, it is a zesty, joyful wine. Suggested Retail: $24
Edmunds St. John Syrah, Fenaughty Vineyard, 2011 (El Dorado County, CA) Berkeley resident Steve Edmunds has been working with the Fenaughty Vineyard since the 1980s and started making a varietal syrah from there in 1997. It ages very well and if you choose to put this away (for five to 15 years) you won’t be disappointed, but if you can’t wait, chuck it into a decanter. With violets, black olives, chocolate and berries, it is explosive now, in spite or perhaps because of its youth. Suggested Retail: $30
Wind Gap Syrah, Nellessen Vineyard, Green River, 2012 (Russian River Valley, CA) Nellessen is a steep vineyard in the western part of Russian River. In its distinct blue fruit and black-pepper character, this wine reminds me of Crôzes Hermitage. Light but not faint, it has hints of hickory, bacon fat and spice against a backdrop of juicy, tart boysenberries. It should age well over the next five years or so but it is drinking very well now. Suggested Retail: $36
Some of these wines can be found at Arlequin Wine Merchant, K&L Wine Merchants, Paul Marcus and Vintage Berkeley.
Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.