Wine Blogging Wednesday has often been very good at getting participants to think outside the wine box. This 71st edition, presided over by Tim Elliott of Winecast, calls upon us to go inside and out: outside the Rhône – geographically – but with Rhône grapes.
That, needless to say, leaves many possibilities.
Syrah, grenache, viognier, mourvèdre, carignan, roussanne and marsanne have made a place for themselves in many places – heck, even counoise has found a few spots for itself around the world. And it’s not all Australian Shiraz or Central Coast syrah, either.
Rhône varieties provide some of the best wines in Washington State, judging from everything I tasted while in Walla Walla for the Wine Bloggers Conference, last summer. Wines by Christophe Baron at Cayuse, Maison Bleue, Rôtie Cellars and especially, an unforgettable syrah from Goedhart Family, did more for me than any of the Bordeaux varieties (although a blend from Obelisco Estate in Red Mountain AVA came pretty close). The Okanagan, with somewhat similar, semi-arid conditions, produces some very nice Rhône wines as well, as syrahs from Le Vieux Pin and Road 13, among others, demonstrated well.
I’ve also been tasting more syrah in Niagara, with some great examples from Creekside, Hidden Bench and especially Lailey Vineyards, where winemaker Derek Barnett managed to make a beautiful syrah from the cool and wet 2008 vintage, with lovely red fruit and white pepper, a little garrigue and smokiness. And the fact that he pulled this off in such a cool year points out that syrah may have an advantage over, say cabernet sauvignon, in cooler years, because it doesn’t throw a wall of green pyrazines at you when the ripeness is a little short on perfect.
The destination of this WBW 71 post is California, where Rhône varieties can become rich and heavy affairs, yes, but also subtle and balanced ones, be it the mourvèdre from A Donkey and Goat, carignan from Coturri or grenache from Randall Grahm, or syrahs from the likes of Peay Vineyards (my favorites), La Clarine, A Donkey and Goat (again), and now, Edmunds St. John.
In the latter case, I first heard about it from Randall Grahm himself, who warmly recommended Steve Edmunds’ syrahs as being “off the charts”, if I remember correctly – he may have said “out of this world”, but it was superlative, in any case. I never managed to get any from Edmunds St. John’s Québec importer, Rézin, but when I visited Wine Bottega, in Boston, last week, I came upon a bottle of 2009 Wylie Syrah from El Dorado County and, with a little encouragement from Matt, one of the aficionados who holds the fort there, I picked up a bottle to bring home. (They’re pouring some Friday evening at a syrah tasting, by the way, if you’re in Boston and interested in checking it out.)
I should probably have given it a year or two – or at least a couple of weeks to settle down from the trip. But when I saw it, as I was trying to figure out what to have for WBW, I couldn’t wait. It was kind of an “Open that Bottle Night” moment.
I’m happy I did. Interestingly enough, A Donkey and Goat also get syrah grapes from the Wylie Vineyard and other El Dorado sources that Steve Edmunds has been using and praising for years. The results, in both cases, are rather different, with the D&G showing a deeper color and richer, riper aromas than what I got from the Edmunds – at least this particular bottling. Uniformity in California syrah? Not in this case. Harvesting and winemaking choices are clearly distinct, here, and so are the results.
The 2009 Wylie was by no means fruit forward, though there was a juicy, mouth-watering character to it, and a pleasantly fresh finish. Bright and clear, with a ruby/garnet color, it was much closer to Northern Rhône, in that respect, than to most California syrah I’ve tasted. And as for the aromas and flavors, the wine was pretty exciting, moving from spicy notes (caraway, garrigue, white pepper), to something like a sugar glaze on a cherry danish, something else that reminded me of root beer, as well as a little meatiness, like dry-cured meat or aged beef.
Superlative? I don’t know. That’s probably the difference that a little more patience would have made. But it was really good, I kept feeling like pouring another glass, and it had distinctiveness and personality. Which are always things I look for in wine – and specifically, what keeps me coming back.