With all the critical fuss about the nuanced, acid-driven wonders of pinot noir and chardonnay grown in chilly regions, you may not know that other types of wine grapes also produce unique aromas and flavors when cultivated in fog-soaked, wind-whipped places like the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley.
For many fans of Central Coast wines, syrah quickly rises to the top of that cool-climate list, as the widely planted varietal — which is typically deep, brooding, and jammy with red and black fruit when grown in the hot sunshine — develops a distinctly spicy and savory side when the average temperature is turned down a dozen or so degrees. That’s been noted for centuries in the Old World wines of Côte-Rôtie, at the northern tip of France’s Rhône Valley, and such syrahs also have quite a bit of history closer to home, with Qupé Wines founder Bob Lindquist loudly banging this drum from Bien Nacido Vineyard near Santa Maria for 30-plus years.
The style caught my attention nearly a decade ago and never let go. The first time I ever agreed with the often whimsical descriptions peddled by tasting rooms was while sipping a cool-climate syrah from Foley Estates in the Sta. Rita Hills back in 2005. The note said “black pepper,” and, lo and behold, I could smell and taste that that pepper was palpable, both on the nose and the tongue. The experience changed my outlook on wine, in effect redirecting a lot of my journalism career, as well.
So when Eric Railsback of Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant mentioned that he’d been wanting to investigate cool-climate syrah from the Central Coast a bit more as one of his New Year’s resolutions, it seemed like the perfect time to throw a bit of a tasting party in my backyard. That went down on February 19, when about a dozen winemakers/industry insiders and Argentinian chef Rodrigo Gimenez (rgcocinero.com) converged underneath my redwood trees to taste from 18 bottles of wine and talk about what we all hoped would continue to emerge as a trend in winemaking.
But, as we noted such flavors as balsamic vinegar, the aforementioned pepper, gamey flesh, forest floor, mushrooms, and cola, I quickly learned that it will continue to be an uphill battle. “It’s probably the hardest thing to sell,” said Joshua Klapper, whose La Fenêtre brand includes about 10 percent syrah. He told the story of sharing a sample with his investor/business partner. “Mmm,” replied the partner, “it smells like lost money.” Fabien Castel, of The Ojai Winery, concurred: “Fans of the Northern Rhône don’t seek it out on the West Coast.”
Ryan Zotovich feels that “consumer education” is key to making the public aware of how stellar these wines can be, while Kevin Law of Luminesce Wines believes a bit of mystery still exists, explaining, “I don’t know if we’ve quite figured out where to grow syrah yet.” Having worked with syrah from Paso Robles and every Santa Barbara County appellation for the past 14 years, John Falcone of Gainey appreciates the unique wines from the Sta. Rita Hills. But no matter where you grow syrah, said Falcone, “farming practices need to be adjusted accordingly to achieve balance in cool or warm sites.”
While pinot and chardonnay remain the workhorse wines for Melville Winery, Chad Melville considers cool-climate syrah “one of his passions” and makes a good amount of it under his personal Samsara label. “Syrah can take on a lot of different characters, and in the cold climate, what comes out is a more feminine style, elegant, perfume-y, mesmerizing aromatics with an acidic backbone, yet it has the power of the inherent character of the grape,” said Melville, who explained it’s tough to do well. “You have to farm it aggressively. It’s not easy. If it was, there’d be a lot more cool-climate syrah out there.”
While it doesn’t appear that these wines will start disappearing from shelves anytime soon, it’s a good bet that, as Americans continue tuning into which grapes offer truly individual expressions when grown in interesting places, cool-climate syrah will emerge as a better-known Central Coast entity. Consider yourself warned.
Santa Maria Valley
The Ojai Vineyard Solomon Hills Vineyard 2009
The Ojai Vineyard Solomon Hills Vineyard 2010
La Fenêtre Bien Nacido Vineyard Z Block’, Santa Maria Valley 2009
Sta. Rita Hills
Samsara Turner Vineyard 2010
Ampelos Estate Vineyard 2006
Zotovich Estate Vineyard 2011
Samsara Melville Vineyard 2010
Jaffurs Ampelos Vineyard 2011
Foley Estate 2011
Gainey “Las Brisas” Evan’s Ranch 2011
Melville Estate 2012
Melville Donna’s Vineyard 2011
La Fenêtre Edna Valley Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard 2009
Vallin Santa Ynez Valley 2012
Bonaccorsi Larner Vineyard 2010
Luminesce Thompson Vineyard 2010
Arnot-Roberts North Coast 2012
La Fenêtre Alisos Canyon Vineyard Santa Barbara County 2010
Most of these winemakers and wineries will be in attendance at various events during the Santa Barbara Vintners Spring Weekend, April 10-13, as well as during Les Marchands’ Santa Barbara County Wine Futures tasting on April 19. See sbvintnersweekend.com and lesmarchandswine.com for more info and tickets to those events.