The outlook for Syrah - and other Rhone-style varietals - is definitely improving in California. And as we see more wines from the stellar 1999 vintage, things should only get better as the year goes on. The quality of Petite Sirah, too, a Rhone-like grape with deeper historical roots in California, is on the upswing, and there’s also the recent development of California Shiraz. In Australia, Syrah is called Shiraz, and that nomenclature has been transplanted to California by Australian winemakers working in the state. California Shiraz did not make much of an impression this year, but give it time. I think that winemakers will eventually get the upper hand and produce exciting wines with the grape.
Regardless of whether the label reads Syrah or Shiraz, these varieties and their Rhone cohorts, such as Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier, along with California’s “unofficial” Rhone, Petite Sirah, are adding a fascinating diversity to the California wine scene. The timing couldn’t be better, as more wine lovers move beyond their security-blanket varietals, willing to explore different tastes and styles. Also, as prices for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot soar, Syrah and Petite Sirah look much more attractive.
Those who still think of California wines mostly in terms of Cabernet and Chardonnay are missing a much bigger and exciting picture. The Rhone-style reds, with their distinctive beef, leather, earthy berry, mineral and tar flavors, are making an impact and creating a strong presence. Plantings of Syrah, for instance, have increased from 413 acres in 1991 to 10,298 in 1999. And while its acreage trails the big three - Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot, in that order - Syrah is now nearly as widely planted as Pinot Noir and Grenache.
This report focuses on wines we’ve tasted in the past six months. Overall, 163 wines were tasted, and 24 scored an outstanding.
For Syrah, the 1999 vintage should be an eye-opener and a crowd-pleaser, even for those with a passion for this wine. Winemakers have made steady progress with this variety throughout the past decade and the wines simply taste better, even in a challenging year such as 1998, than they did in previous vintages. Winemakers agree that 1999 is a superior year in terms of grape growing and overall quality, even with a small crop.
“It’s been a bumpy road with Syrah,” admits Craig Williams of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley. But you wouldn’t know it by tasting their rich, complex and flavorful Napa Valley 1997. Another terrific Syrah is Lewis Napa County 1998, a lush, juicy, toasted-oak style wine. In the Paso Robles area, former Bordeaux winemaker Stephan Asseo’s Stephan Vineyards has an outstanding Syrah-Cabernet blend from 1998, his first vintage.
Even though Syrah gets the lion’s share of attention among Rhone-inspired reds, the revival of interest in Petite Sirah - by both winemakers and consumers - is a compelling story. A small explanation first, however: Petite Sirah is not technically a modern Rhone varietal because it isn’t one of the primary grapes planted in France’s Rhone Valley. Yet because it shares the flavor profile of the true Rhones, it is included in this report
.In 1985, Inglenook, then a prominent winery in Napa Valley, made 15,000 cases of Petite Sirah. But they shipped 11,000 of those cases to England, recalls Dennis Fife, then Inglenook’s general manager. “Basically the [American] public didn’t know what was going on [with Sirah], but of course the English did.” The surge in popularity of Syrah in the 1990s has definitely helped open doors for Petite Sirah. “The market is as good as it’s ever been [for Sirah],” says Fife. “If you want to make good Sirah, you need to get good prices, which allows you to be choosy about your grapes and have tighter yields.”
Most of the Petite Sirahs now in the market are a result of fine-tuning, as marginal vineyards and wines have been weeded out. Also, winemakers have become better equipped to pick and choose the best vineyards for the variety, and they are more adept at battling things like chewy tannins and bitterness, the latter often an issue with Petite Sirah.
For the most part, the Petite Sirah market is in vintage transition, from 1998 to 1999, but we found some delightful 1997s from Mendocino. Lolonis Redwood Valley Orpheus Private Reserve is lush, with pepper and wild berry flavors, and Edmeades Mendocino is smooth and polished, too. Two other top-rated Petite Sirah producers are Rockland, a tiny vineyard in Napa Valley, with a fine 1998 that’s dark and complex, and Ridge Vineyards, with its Napa County Dynamite Hill 1997.
One of the more pleasant surprises was the quality of two Grenaches (though if you look at their producers, you’d be less startled). Ridge Dry Creek Valley Lytton 1998 is a decidedly elegant and richly flavored wine, while Alban Edna Valley Alban Estate Vineyard 1998 is brimming with lively flavors. These wines make it seem like it’s only a matter of time before more Grenache grapevines go into the ground and more jazzy wines emerge.
Then there’s Mourvedre, a grape championed by Cline in a pair of winners from Contra Costa County vineyards. There’s the Ancient Vines 1998, a thoroughly delicious tar and berry flavored wine and, close behind in quality, the Small Berry Vineyards 1998. The best Shiraz we tried was the 1997 Voss from Napa Valley, though it tastes more like a California Syrah than it does most of the best from Down Under. Fascination with Rhone-style wines doesn’t stop with reds. The whites, led by Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, and blends thereof, are improving as well.
The future seems bright, especially for the Rhone-style reds. Thousands of new vines are coming on line and as the best sites emerge, the wines will steadily improve.
1997 Ridge Petite Sirah Napa County Dynamite Hill Dark, ripe, rich and peppery, with floral, blackberry, stewed plum and earthy mineral and oaky flavors, finishing with firm, chewy tannins. Drink now through 2010. 820 cases made.