There are two ways that we try to work systematically through the collection of wines in our library. At the beginning of each year, we taste every wine we made ten years earlier. These horizontal retrospectives give us an in-depth look at a particular year, and a check-in with how our full range of wines is doing with a decade in bottle. I wrote up the results from our 2012 retrospective tasting back in January. And then each summer we conduct a comprehensive vertical tasting of a single wine, where we open every vintage we've ever made and use that to assess how the wine ages and if we want to adjust our approach in any way. This also serves as a pre-tasting for a public event in August at which we share the highlights.
In looking at which wines we'd done recent vertical tastings of, I was surprised to learn that we'd never done a deep dive into our varietal Syrah. Some of that can be explained, I think, by the fact that we don't make one every year. A wine you don't have aging in the cellar isn't as top-of-mind as one that you're tasting in its youth and wondering how it might evolve. But it's still an oversight, since Syrah is a famously ageworthy grape and one that we often note in our 10-year retrospective tastings is still youthful at a decade in bottle. So, it was with anticipation that our cellar team and I joined together and opened every vintage of Syrah, from our first-ever 2002 to the 2021 that we blended recently. Note that there are several gaps in the chronology, as Syrah's early sprouting makes it susceptible to low yields in frost vintages (like 2009 and 2011) and its dark color and reliable density means that there are years where it all gets snapped up in our blends to give them more seriousness (like 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018):
Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver, and Director of Marketing Ian Consoli. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our website if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released. I can't remember why we never made a web page for the 2002, but if you have questions about it let me know in the comments and I'll answer as best I can.
- 2002 Syrah: The nose and the bricking of the color at the edge of the glass both show some signs of age, with aromas of meat drippings, mint, and aged balsamic at the fore. With a little time, the fruit (in the guise of chocolate-covered cherry) comes out. The palate is more youthful, with flavors of black plum, baker's chocolate, and foresty earth, still-substantial tannins, and good acids. There's a dustiness to the tannins that betrays the wine's age, but overall it's still in a position to go out another decade. A great start to the tasting.
- 2003 Syrah: A softer, more inviting nose, with aromas of nutmeg, black raspberry, leather, flint, and juniper spice. Quite pretty on the palate, with flavors of leather, gingerbread, olive tapenade, and and soy marinade. The finish was brooding, with umami teriyaki flavors and nice acids keeping things fresh, though the tannins were mostly resolved. Felt like it was toward the end of its peak drinking, with the fruit elements perhaps not likely to last much longer.
- 2004 Syrah: An immediately appealing nose of red and black licorice, cassis, leather, menthol, and a meaty, earthy note. The palate showed lovely sweet blueberry fruit, semi-sweet chocolate, and chalky tannins, plush and long. A nice lightly salty mineral note came out on the finish. One of our consensus favorites from the tasting, and absolutely at its peak.
- 2005 Syrah: A slightly wilder nose than the 2004, with aromas of aged meat, leather, soy, and minty eucalyptus spice, like a hike in the high Sierra. The mouth is similar, but with a nice dark-red-fruited element too, currant or a raspberry reduction. Lovely texture, with some tannin left and good acids on the finish that left lingering notes of chaparral and chocolate powder. Another favorite, and also seemingly right at peak.
- 2006 Syrah: A nose that was more impressive than appealing: iron filings, teriyaki, and crushed mint, with some black raspberry coming out with air. The palate is plush upon entry, with notes of chocolate-covered cherry, marzipan, and mocha, then big tannins come out to take over, highlighted by solid acidity. It felt to us maybe not quite at peak yet, with the acids highlighting the tannins in a slightly unflattering way.
- 2007 Syrah: More youthful on the nose than the wines that preceded it, but in an immensely appealing way: black fruit and brambles and pepper spice, with a meaty venison note that made Neil comment, "Now that's a glorious nose". The palate is mouth-coating, with blackberry and black licorice notes and chalky tannins. As good as this was, it still had the structure and balance to age, and would be amazing right now with a rosemary-crusted leg of lamb.
- 2008 Syrah: A quieter nose in comparison to the 2007 (which was admittedly a tough act to follow), with Provencal herbs and wild strawberry notes, and a little cherry compote character in which we thought we detected a touch of oxidation. The palate was pretty but undramatic, with dried red fruits and sarsaparilla notes, nice texture, and a little saline minerality on the finish. We weren't sure if this wine, from a good-not-great vintage, was nearing the end of its life or if it's in a phase it would come out of. I'd lean toward the latter.
- 2010 Syrah: A strange nose at first that we variously described as horseradish, hops, and sun-dried tomatoes. That blew off to show aromas of soy, aged meat, pepper spice, and grape candy. The palate was a little more traditional but still something of an outlier, with flavors of bruised plum, bittersweet chocolate, cola, and sweet spice. There's still some tannic grip. This wine, from our coolest-ever vintage with very long hang time, was always likely to be different from its neighbors. If I had to guess, I'd think that it is going through a phase and will come out the other side into something fascinating. But I'd hold off on opening one for now.
- 2013 Syrah: A lovely dark nose of cola and minty black fruit, with additional notes of anise, roasted walnuts, and lavender florality. The palate has medium body, nicely poised between fruity and savory elements. Chalky tannins come out on the end highlighting flavors of plum skin and menthol.
- 2014 Syrah: Dark but inviting on the nose, with notes of blackberry, eucalyptus, anise, and candied violets. The palate shows lively tangy black raspberry fruit, with lovely texture and chalky tannins. The finish shows notes of chocolate and a graphite-like minerality. This is still young but shows tremendous potential, and was our favorite of the "middle-aged" wines in the lineup.
- 2017 Syrah. Notably different on the nose with a green peppercorn note jumping out of the glass from the higher percentage of whole-cluster fermentation we did in 2017. Under that, aromas of soy marinade, black olive, and high-toned pomegranate fruit. The palate shows flavors of dried strawberries, new leather, and a little cedary oak. The finish is gentle and composed, with the lower acidity you also get from whole cluster fermentation. I thought this was fascinating more than actively pleasurable, and am happy we dialed back the stem percentages in more recent vintages.
- 2019 Syrah: A more classic nose of black cherry, anise, crushed peppermint, and violets. The palate is tangy with flavors of plum skin and baker's chocolate, chalky tannins, and lingering texture. Youthful but impressive and delicious. There's just a hint of the green peppercorn stem character in this wine, and I liked the balance we struck.
- 2020 Syrah: Just bottled last week, and it felt a little beaten up by the process, with the aromatic and flavor elements appearing one by one rather than integrated and layered. The nose shows notes of sugarplum and vanilla, menthol and sweet tobacco. The palate was plush, with black fruit and spice, and a little sweet oak coming out on the finish, along with substantial chalky tannins. This will be fun to watch come together in coming months; our plan is tentatively to give it five months in bottle and to release it in November.
- 2021 Syrah: Although we've made the blending decisions and know which lots will be going into our 2021 Syrah, it hasn't been blended yet. That's a project we'll tackle after next week's bottling. So Chelsea pulled a composite sample of this wine. It's worth noting that we always like the actual blend more than the composite. But that said, it was impressive: meaty, with blueberry and chocolate on the nose, and a little briary wildness. The mouth is structured, quite tannic at this stage, but also plush with flavors of black fig, black olive, crushed rock, and a little meatiness like Spanish chorizo. All the pieces of a blockbuster. It will be a pleasure to watch where this goes.
A few concluding thoughts:
- Syrah's aging curve is perhaps the longest of any of the wines we make. I am proud of how most of our wines age. That includes our Mourvedre-based reds, our Roussanne-based whites, and varietals like Tannat. But these Syrahs were still eye-opening. There were wines more than fifteen years out (I'm looking at you, 2006) that felt like they could still use another few years. And wines nearly a decade old already (hey there, 2014) that still felt like they could have been new releases. That's not to say you should never open a young Syrah. I don't think anyone opening a 2014, or 2017, or 2019 is going to be disappointed with what they find, between the ample black fruit, the rich texture, and the minerality and spice. Just pair it with something substantial enough to play off, like the rosemary-crusted leg of lamb we were all dreaming about during the tasting. But if you want a wine you can reliably age a couple of decades, I don't know that there's a wine we make I'd recommend more.
- The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got votes were 2002 (1), 2004 (4), 2005 (4), 2007 (3), 2013 (1), 2014 (3), 2017 (4), and 2019 (4). That's eight of the fourteen vintages that got a "favorite" vote, across a range of different sorts of growing seasons, different vine ages, and different cellar treatments. It's just a tremendous grape.
- We need to plant more Syrah. See the previous point. But it was also a bummer not having Syrah from vintages like 2016 and 2018 to taste. If you go back and look at the blogs I posted sharing our experience around the blending table those years (2016 here, and 2018 here) both times I remarked on just how impressive the Syrah lots were. I have vivid memories from 2016 about looking around the table and commenting that we were going to make the best varietal Syrah we'd ever made. It didn't turn out that way; the Syrah lots were so impressive that blends like Esprit and Panoplie snapped up most of the quantity in our blind tasting trials, and we weren't left with enough to bottle varietally. We have an acre or so that we planted last year, and we'll get additional tonnage off some of our oldest blocks thanks to the success we've had with layering canes to fill in holes from missing vines, but I'm now thinking that's not enough and we should plan for a few more acres on Jewel Ridge.
- Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.
- Sound fun? Join us on August 14th! We will be hosting a version of this event that is open to the public, and Neil and I will be leading the discussion and sharing insights into how the wines came to be the way they are. The vintages we chose to share are 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2014, 2017, 2019, and 2020. You can read more about the event, and get your tickets, here.