It’s Syrah month here in Paso Robles. At the beginning of the year, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance launched a “varietal of the month” program that cycles through the major grapes grown here, and are supporting it with a grower blog, a winemaker interview and a new installment of the Paso Wine Man video series:
In celebration, we decided to open up every vintage of varietal Syrah we’ve made, going back to our first-ever varietal red wine: the 2002 Syrah that we made three barrels of for our new wine club back when three barrels was plenty to make it around to all our club members. Since then, we’ve made a Syrah each year other than 2009 and 2011, when spring frosts cut our Syrah crop sufficiently that we sacrificed the varietal Syrah to protect our blends.
One other element of interest was tracking how the three-year stretch (2005-2007) when we added 10% Grenache to our varietal Syrah changed the wines’ expression. For all our commitment to blending, at this vantage point at least the group generally preferred the wines we made pure. Our tasting notes:
- 2002 Syrah (100% Syrah): A dusty, spicy, minty/menthol-elevated nose. In the mouth, it’s mid-weight, with an inky soy-like darkness and a little cedary oak. There’s the classic Syrah creamy texture, and still firm tannins on the end. A nice showing for this wine, which was more youthful than any of us expected.
- 2003 Syrah (100% Syrah): A higher-toned, balsamic and meat drippings nose with a chalky minerality showing through. More of the tangy meat drippings on the palate with dark red fruit. Less density than the 2002 but more elegance, and in a very nice place now.
- 2004 Syrah (100% Syrah): The nose just screams Syrah, with meat, pepper, mint and mineral components. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, showing blackberry and pepper and dark chocolate, and black cherry coming out on the finish. Opulent compared to the first two wines, with fruit/acid/structure all in synch. A consensus favorite of the earlier vintages.
- 2005 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): This began a three-year experiment where we put 10% Grenache into our varietal Syrah. A rich, gamy, wild meat and juniper nose. The mouth is less juicy and more savory than the 2004 with flavors of olive tapenade and meat drippings, and still with big tannins that come out on the finish. My dad noted that the addition of Grenache made it taste more like Tablas Creek but less like Syrah. One to wait on, we agreed.
- 2006 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): A similar nose to the 2005, focusing on the savory, meaty, balsamic and tapenade-laced nose, but somehow more gentle. The flavors reminded me of the drippings from a garlic and rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb, with additional, and welcome, flavors of blueberry and licorice. Medium-weight and in a very pretty place for drinking now.
- 2007 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): Less giving on the nose than the previous wines, a little kiersch liqueur note but not much more. The mouth is big, rich and creamy with flavors of milk chocolate and good acids but with massive tannins. We all thought that there was a ton of potential but that the wine was still so tightly wound that its complexity was still masked by a layer of baby fat and those huge tannins. It did open up with time in the glass, so a decant is suggested if you must open one now.
- 2008 Syrah (100% Syrah): An inviting nose of pine forest, juniper, and tangy blackberry. The mouth is reminiscent of the 2004, but with an added dramatic saline minerality that I loved and lingering flavors of bacon and blackberries and cream, but firmly dry. The finish is energetic and elegant with a brambly soy note. A consensus favorite among the younger vintages.
- 2010 Syrah (100% Syrah): A nose unlike any of the previous vintages, inky and foresty, smelling dark and saturated. On the palate, powerful flavors of black licorice, chalk, and bacon, with a creamy blueberry note and a long, berry-laced finish. The palate is terrific but the nose still coming around, which suggests a short-term rest in the cellar.
A few final conclusions. One, that Paso Robles really is a spectacular place for Syrah. We found a combination of the grape’s classic savory, bacony, blackberry notes with a creamy minerality and acidity that everyone around the table attributed to our limestone soils. That set the wines apart from many Syrahs made elsewhere in California, and from the great Syrahs that come from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, none of which have limestone and all of which show a lower-acid, lusher profile. The wines were instead reminiscent of Cornas, the Northern Rhone’s sole limestone-rich red appellation, perhaps a bit less polished than its better-known neighbors just to the north, but with an energy and vibrancy that we all were proud of.
Two, we generally agreed that we preferred the purer expression the Syrah character in the wines that were 100% Syrah to the more Southern Rhone character of the three vintages where we added 10% Grenache, though those wines were appealing in a different way, with more garrigue and mid-palate texture, and had their proponents as well. The tasting was a good reminder that relatively small percentages make a significantly difference in the finished expression.
Finally, our favorites were 2004 and 2008 in large part because of how each, in its own way, spoke powerfully of the Syrah grape in all its glory: meaty and minerally and fruity and creamy: the classic flavors that my wife Meghan called “butter in a butcher shop” when she first tasted it out of foudre. They also finish with substantial tannins but don’t come across as blocky or heavy. I’m expecting a similar evolution with our 2010 Syrah that is going to wine club members next month. We’re all in for a treat.