After a day judging 80 syrahs from the 2004 vintage at the California State Fair commercial wine competition a couple of weeks ago, I said here I could see why the varietal isn't generating much enthusiasm among consumers. With too few exceptions, they were one dimensional, shallow and short, with little varietal character.
Bill Easton of Fiddletown, president and winemaker of his family winery Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, makes a wide range of wines inspired by France's Rhone Valley, including syrah. One of his syrah vineyards, planted in 1982, may be the oldest stand of the varietal in the foothills. At any rate, he's sent an email in response to the posting. Here are his comments, plus my response:
Bill: The best syrahs made in California are not in the (State Fair) tasting.
Me: That may or may not be, but 80 syrahs from a single vintage and from several growing regions provide a broad scan of just how the varietal is doing here, and the conclusion isn't encouraging.
Bill: Most of the syrah in California was planted less than 10 years ago. The vines need at least 10 years to develop personality and character.
Me: He would know. A disproportionate number of the 2004 syrahs could have been from young vineyards that have yet to hit their stride. The next day, our panel judged nearly as many syrahs from the 2005 vintage. As a group, they were much brighter and more layered, and said "syrah" with more clarity than the 2004. Was the difference one more year of growth?
Bill: Many of the vines were planted in the wrong place for the wrong reason, i.e., to make money and to ride the next wine fad (remember chardonnay in the 1970s and 1980s).
Me: Indeed. But why stop with the 1980s? Chardonnay still is so popular that a lot of it tastes like it comes from ground that might better be suited for apples or pears.
Bill: Many winemakers don't know how to make syrah. There are no international reference points.
Me: Granted, syrah is a relatively new variety to California, which has different growing conditions than France's Rhone Valley, where it flourishes. Though the wines of the Rhone will be different than what California likely ultimately will produce, they nonetheless show that syrah can yield wines of complexity and depth, but I'm not sure that refresher courses at UC Davis will be necessary to get there.
Bill: With a few exceptions, most California wine sucks these days - just fruit and oak, high alcohol, oversaturated. They're chasing (wine critic Robert) Parker's scores. There's no sense of place to the wine.
Me: California vintners need to be concerned that this complaint is on the rise, and that the state's heavy-handed wines could be playing a role in the increasing sale of imported wines in the United States, many of which are lighter and more graceful than what is being made here.
Bill: Much of the public thinks syrah tastes like under $10 Australian wine. Much of the public thinks all wine should taste like under $10 wine and that $50 wine should taste like under $10 wine with more wood.
Me: Very good, though I think the range of syrah from Australia, both by style and by price, is too diverse for such generalization, though a couple of less costly brands have been responsible for inspiring consumer interest in the varietal.