One of the most welcome wine trends to emerge in recent years is the growing number of California syrahs that are elegant, racy and light on their feet–in other words, wines that turn the stereotype of Californian monster-car syrah on its head. There are still plenty of large-scale, high-octane syrahs being made in the Golden State, no question, but judging by the increasing number of producers who are sourcing their syrah grapes from cool sites, often a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean or at high altitude, their days may be numbered.
These new old-wave syrahs are mostly being made by a younger group of winemakers who look to France’s northern Rhône Valley for inspiration. That region’s spicy, intensely perfumed wines have earned a worldwide following over generations, but until recently it was hard to find examples of similarly elegant syrah from anywhere else. No more. In our recent coverage of California’s North Coast Steve Tanzer and I ran across dozens of syrahs that can give plenty of their French siblings a run for their money, and often at far gentler prices. I won’t claim that Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie need to be getting scared just yet, but a number of our favorite North Coast examples compare quite favorably with top wines from Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage.
Anthills Farms is one of the bright new stars of California’s wine scene, producing detailed, graceful wines that are strong on flavor and short on fat. Their 2010 Syrah Sonoma Coast ($18) is an outrageous value in highly perfumed, smoky, dark fruit-dominated syrah. For ten bucks more the 2010 Syrah Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($28) shows a bit more complexity, weight and power, as well as very good cellaring potential.
Another relatively new producer that specializes in suave, balanced wines, Arnot-Roberts made a fantastic 2010 Syrah North Coast ($35) that offers heady black and blue fruit aromas and flavors, with excellent vivacity and finishing spiciness. It weighs in at a very low 11.9% alcohol but packs a serious punch, with the tannins to suggest it will age slowly.
The Carlisle Winery 2010 Syrah Bennett Valley ($33) is an explosively perfumed, complex wine offering an array of dark fruits and spices, with a lush, open-knit quality that makes it highly appealing right now. This winery has developed something of a cult following, but although most of their wines are tough to find, there’s a good amount of this one to go around.
Neyers Vineyards produces a range of sexy red wines that are usually approachable soon after release. Their 2010 Syrah Old Lakeville Road Sonoma Coast ($35) is a sweet, creamy wine with potent red fruit and floral aromas and flavors–and with no rough edges to get in the way of immediate gratification.
Also look for the Lynmar Estate 2010 Syrah Quail Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley ($35), which is a dead ringer for a serious northern Rhône wine, delivering powerful spicy and floral aromas and vibrant cherry and dark berry flavors. It’s drinkable now but should be even better in a couple years.
Ramey Wine Cellars is one of California’s top wineries, and owner/winemaker David Ramey is far from a newcomer. In fact, he has been responsible for some of the state’s best red and wine wines for decades. He has a notably light touch with syrah and his 2009 Syrah Sonoma Coast ($38) release is a knockout. It shows a pungent, intense spiciness and impressively concentrated dark fruit flavors, with the depth and energy to age slowly. Considering the prices commanded by Ramey’s high-end releases, this wine is a steal.