With cooler temps still blanketing the Midwest, it’s a good time to dig into a hearty syrah; and with so many syrahs to chose from, I’ve decided to stay close to home on this one: the 2008 Nicholson Jones Selection Syrah, Napa Valley.
The local connection is St. Louisan Cal Nicholson, the man behind Nicholson Jones wines, which produces small-batch wines from crisp sauvignon blancs to opulent cabernets. His winemaker is Julien Fayard, who grew up in France and tillage in Bordeaux, Loire and Provence before coming to Quintessa Winery in 2003. Both Cal and Julien’s approach to wine-making is to produce French-style wine from California fruit, resulting in wines that that have balance. This is a 100-percent syrah from two vineyards: Sugarloaf Mountain (83 percent) and Stagecoach (17 percent), and aged 21 months in French oak. Only 150 cases were produced. It’s big and bold, as Julien wanted to make a syrah styled after northern Rhône.
Let’s dip in:
Color: dark and concentrated with purple hues
Aroma: bosenberry, black cherry, blackberry, violets, white pepper
Taste: see fruits above, with an earthy mineral component upfront
Mouthfeel: velvety mid-palate some grip on tannins, with a smooth finish
Yes, Côte-Rôtie (great northern Rhône wine), California style. Well done, Julien!
Northern Rhône makes great, brooding, age-worthy syrah. Northern Rhône is small compared to southern Rhône, which produces almost 10 times as much wine. So supply and demand explains why some of these wines command high prices. Some of the great appellations are: Côte-Rôtie AOC (known for its aromatics, which makes sense as wines are allowed to use up to 20 percent viognier in this syrah); Cornas AOC (tends to be slightly more masculine with 100 percent syrah); Hermitage AOC (syrah with up to 10 percent of two 2 permitted white grapes, marsanne and rousanne); Crozes-Hermitage AOC (outlying appellation of Hermitage, with syrah and up to 15 percent marsanne and roussane); Saint Joseph AOC (syrah with up to 10 percent marsanne and rousanne).
As you head down to southern Rhône, it is dominated by the grenache grape and many more varietals, including syrah. Syrah is widely grown here and used in the blends that represent this region such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau and Côtes du Rhône. Further south, syrah is grown widely and used a lot in blends but also can be found straight.
Rhône has influenced many other parts of the world with winemakers trying to emulate Rhône-style wine. Australia probably has been the most successful with what it calls the syrah grape, shiraz. They copied Côte-Rôtie by adding viognier to shiraz. With its warmer climate, Australia produces shiraz that is big, fruit-forward and jammy in style compared to Rhône. Australia has been making good wine for many decades; and back in the 1990s, it was importing huge amounts of wine to the U.S. Unfortunately, they also imported a lot of mediocre wine with lower price points (and animal prints on the labels) to sell to the up-and-coming American wine consumers. Australia still is good value for the money; and if you stay above the $10 price point, you can get a really tasty bottle of shiraz or a blend.
The U.S. has been very successful with syrah all along the West Coast, from Washington State to Southern California. Washington State, being further north, enjoys two additional hours of sunlight, allowing for greater ripening to produce full, rich and big concentrated wines.
Syrah also is used in a lot of blends from this region. Some syrah is produced in Southern Oregon, such as the Rouge Valley, where it is warmer. Moving down towards California, from Mendocino down to Santa Barbara, the warm weather is very agreeable to syrah. A group of winemakers who love Rhône wines has formed a group called the “Rhône Rangers” to produce and pay tribute to Rhône varietals such as syrah. The style in California varies, due to climate and soils, from ‘brooding’ to jammy.
Syrah—once thought to be the next popular grape varietal, like merlot and pinot noir—gained a lot of steam, but did not really catch on. However, it has increased its planting and production around the world, particularly in Argentina, Chile, Switzerland, South Africa and Spain.
If you are searching for something big and bold, look no further. The many shades of syrah certainly will bring out the bold in you.
Tasting Tip: With a higher-alcohol wine like syrah/shiraz, make sure to serve at correct temperature (about 65 degrees). When served too warm, the wine will not display the fruit as it should, and this tends to make the wine flat-tasting and not vibrant.
Wine Recommendation: If you get a chance to taste a northern Rhône, do not pass it up. Try a good shiraz from Australia’s McLaren Vale, which produces big but balanced wines.
Certified Sommelier Stanley Browne is the owner of Robust Wine Bar in Webster Groves, Downtown at the MX and in Edwardsville.