Sun 14 Sep 2008
The point about these eight New World examples of the syrah grape — three from Washington and five from California — is that despite alcohol levels that go up to 15.5 percent they retain allegiance to the timeless model of France’s Northern Rhone Valley. Yes, they feature luscious fruit flavors — these are downright delicious wines — yet their principle raison d’etre lies in the essential shaping elements of structure, acid and tannin, on earthy mineral elements. There’s little here that is flamboyant, over-ripe and hot; much that is elegant, balanced and cool.
Most of these are limited edition wines. A bit of Googling with reveal where they’re available, whether at retail stores around the country or at the wineries.
Ron Bunnell retired from Chateau Ste. Michelle, where he had been winemaker for red wines, in Spring 2005 so he could concentrate on his own projects. Bunnell Family Cellar produces Rhone-style wines from classic grape varieties; River Aerie Winery makes a range of inexpensive to moderately expensive (and more widely available) wines, including excellent riesling and gerwurztraminer and, oddly enough for Washington, a terrific Barbara 2006 that sells for about $18 to $20.
The syrah and syrah-based wines that emerge from Bunnell Family Cellars should not be missed. They convey to a remarkable degree both authenticity and individuality. Bunnell uses no French oak with the two syrahs I mention today, preferring a combination of American and Hungarian barrels. The wines contain smidgeons of the aromatic white viognier grape.
The Bunnell Family Cellar Clifton Hill Syrah 2005, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, is permeated by scents of mint and minerals, black currants and plums, smoke and lavender and violets. The style is Old World: muscular, sinewy, robust, brooding, dense with lip-smacking tannins, yet juicy with spiced and macerated black fruit flavors. Not surprisingly, the finish is austere, a bit untouchable. Drink now with hearty fare through 2012 or ’13. Production was 162 cases. Excellent. About $46.
The Bunnell Family Cellar Boushey-McPherson Syrah 2004, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, is wonderfully rich and pure, intense and vibrant. Under ravishing flavors of ripe and smoky black and blue fruit, the wine is deeply grounded in the earth with layers of bark, moss and mushrooms over strata of minerals. It’s too easy for wine-writers to say, so glibly, “Oh, yes, this wine makes you feel as if you’re drinking the vineyard;” what does that even mean (though I think I have been guilty of such a pronouncement)? Yet I have to say that, if ever that statement were true, it could be made about this wine, which feels like a dark celebration of everything that goes into producing a wine of such profundity. This sees only Hungarian oak. Drink now — venison comes to mind — through 2014 or ’15. Production was 274 cases. Exceptional. About $44.
The 2005 version of this wine has been released, but a Google search turns up plenty, well, not plenty but some of the Matthews Syrah 2004, Red Mountain, available in stores around the country. If you’re a fan of big, smoky, inky syrahs, this is for you. The wine is packed with spice and minerals, and it emphasizes the walk-on-the-wild-side meaty/ashy aspect of roasted and indelibly flavorful black and blue fruit. A few minutes in the glass bring up touches of fruit cake and potpourri. The wine is a powerful statement of the paradox between the warmth of spice and fruit and the coolness of minerals. Drink now through 2014 or ’16. Excellent. About $52.
Here’s a syrah that’s considerably less expensive than the others on this brief roster. The Shannon Ridge Syrah 2006, Lake County, is a blend of 80 percent syrah grapes and 10 percent each cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. The wine bursts with scents of black currant, plum and blueberry woven with lavender, violets and exotic spice; the flavors stay true to the initial bouquet, adding smoke and minerals and hints of walnut shell. This syrah fills the mouth with the density and chewiness of dusty velvet; slightly gritty tannins provide some austerity to a package that without it would trade in shameless deliciousness. 1,494 cases. Finished with a screw-cap for easy opening. Drink now through 2010 or ’11. Excellent. About $19, and Good Value.
The program at Nickel & Nickel is 100 percent varietal wines from designated vineyards. The Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2005, Russian River Valley, is, in a word, astonishing. Everything about this wine is deep: Deep, fleshy, meaty, ripe black fruit scents and flavors; deeply and darkly and wildly spicy; tremendously deep in its earthy and mineral-laden nature; deep in its polished oak and grainy tannins, though far from being rough or gritty, the wine is lushly supple and lithe; finally this syrah is deep in its dryness, its austerity, its, well, call it nobility. Best from 2009 or 2010 through 2015 or ’17. Exceptional. About $48.
The Bourassa Vineyard Rhapsody3 Syrah 2004, Napa Valley, marries power to elegance with seemingly effortless flair. It’s undeniably a huge wine, massive in structure and stalwart with oak from 19 months in new French and American barrels, yet its balance and integration, its clarity, purity and intensity are what impress the most. Succulent black and blue fruit flavors are charged with vibrant acid and dredged with polished, dusty tannins that feel exceptionally well-milled. The wine seems to expand in the glass, gaining dimension and detail as the minutes pass, mounting in density and minerality, yet remaining smooth and mellow. Great winemaking here. 375 cases. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $50.
The S and T of the S and T Cellars Brookside Vineyard Syrah 2005, Napa Valley, are Susan and Tom Ridley. If you ever have contact with Hendry Cellars in the Napa Valley, you probably know Susan Ridley, because she handles the winery’s public relations and marketing. S and T Cellars is a side-project, a labor of love for the couple. Maybe the love shows: this is an exquisitely fashioned, absolutely classic syrah that juxtaposes bright, vivid, spicy and juicy black and red fruit flavors with redoubtable structure, indubitable acid and unassailable elements of earth and minerals. The color is deeply saturated purple; the bouquet grows more seductively redolent and exotic as the moments accrue, and yet the wine is cool in nature, well-schooled in reticence, properly austere. Production is 220 to 250 cases. Drink now through 2013 or ’15. Excellent. About $28.
Earthquake is a product line from Michael-David Winery, which also produces the popular 7 Deadly Zins, 7 Heavenly Chards and other labels. Earthquake zinfandels, syrahs, petite sirahs and cabernets are meant to “rock your world” with their size, structure, depth and stupendous levels of alcohol. Certainly the Earthquake Syrah 2005, Lodi, fits that description; it’s huge, powerful, deep and, at 15.5 percent alcohol, pretty damn high on the Richter scale. What’s remarkable about the wine, however, is its quality of perfect balance, of poise; it feels like a runner — lithe with pent energy — the moment before the starting shot is fired; at the same time, it basks in its sense of completeness and accomplishment. The wine is, it almost goes without saying, ripe, spicy and luscious, floral, earthy and minerally. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $28.