The most-planted Rhone varietal in the state, syrah offers gamey, leathery, black fruit and peppery spicy notes and is a fine companion for meaty autumnal fare.
Made on its own, the grape is also often blended with other red Rhone varieties - most commonly grenache and mourvedre. The grenache is known to add additional red fruit components and acidity; the mourvedre provides rich, earthier overtones.
Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards (longboardvineyards.com) in Healdsburg has been making single-vineyard designated syrahs since the 1990s, sourcing grapes mostly from the Russian River Valley.
“Syrah is a wine that fits my eclectic personality; the grape adapts well to the cooler growing region of the Northern Russian River Valley appellation and produces wines of layered complexity with just enough acidity to let them age well,” Shakked said. “Syrah is the wine for those who are passionate enough to be wine geeks but can’t stand ‘outstretched pinkies,’ a noble wine dressed in faded jeans and steel-toed boots. Syrah is what made me fall in love with Sonoma to begin with!”
Shakked thinks the Upper Middle Reach, the northeastern section of the Russian River Valley appellation where it meets Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley, is in fact the perfect spot for syrah, warm enough to bring out its meatier characteristics yet tempered by enough coolness to draw out intriguing streaks of wild fennel and spice.
The vineyards there also provide structure, an essential ingredient for aging. And Shakked’s syrahs do age. A recent tasting of the 1999 and 2000 vintages in particular displayed exceptional structure and a freshness of fennel, abetted by black licorice, leather and herb.
Meanwhile, the current release 2012 vintage syrah offers plum, meat and subtle spice around a core of buoyant acidity.
Other recommended Rhone reds:
Campesino Cellars (campesinocellars.com) sources syrah from the Sangiacomo Old Lakeville Road Vineyard, a cool site within the Petaluma Gap portion of the larger Sonoma Coast. The vineyard is entirely inspired by the Northern Rhone. The 100 percent syrah that comes off it is a study in how the grape responds when given a chillier climate, providing smoky flavors of dark fruit, bacon and dried herbs around lilting aromas of violet. Campesino is owned by Griselda Montoya, who grew up in Carneros; her brothers are the founders of Ceja Vineyards.
A pinot noir and chardonnay producer based in the West Sonoma Coast, Chasseur (chasseurwines.com) also makes a quintessentially restrained syrah. The 2012 from Russian River Valley is elegant in cherry, leather and white pepper.
Cornerstone Cellars (cornerstonecellars.com) taps the REI Soda Canyon Vineyard in the eastern mountains of the Napa Valley for its 100 percent syrah, aging it in French Burgundy oak to produce a wine with plenty of vibrant red and blue fruit that shines aromatically in violet and lavender. Accenting the fruit are the variety’s classic characteristics of licorice, dried herbs and wild game.
Crux Winery (cruxwinery.com) is a tiny operation in the Russian River Valley focused on Rhone wines as well as sauvignon blanc and zinfandel. The Crux 2012 grenache is sourced from several Russian River Valley vineyards, including Greywacke, Force 5, Atoosa’s and Windsor Oaks, with small amounts of syrah and mourvedre blended in. The acidity is alive and bright, providing a freshness to the wine. The 2012 GSM combines 52 percent grenache with 30 percent syrah, 16 percent mourvedre and 2 percent petite sirah for a heartier expression of dark fruit and spice.
From a warehouse winery in the heart of Santa Rosa, Donelan Family Wines (donelanwines.com) produces six different syrahs as well as Cuvée Mariah, a grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend. The Cuvée Christine and Cuvée Keltie syrahs pull from multiple vineyard sites, many of them fairly high-elevation, to highlight the grape’s complexity and ability to expertly balance savory tones with sweet, defined as much by blueberry and cherry fruit as smoked pancetta. Four vineyard-designated syrahs (Walker Vine Hill Vineyard, Kobler Family Vineyard, Obsidian Vineyard and Richards Family Vineyard) round out the exceptional offerings.
Another west Sonoma Coast source of great grapes is Heintz Vineyards and Winery (heintzvineyards.com), known for its pinot noir and chardonnay and continuing to fight the good fight for classic syrah. Its 2012 is the first made by winemaker Hugh Chappelle, who fully capitalizes on the stellar raw materials, producing a wine that’s intense without going overboard, more crisp cranberry and strawberry than meat, with leveled acidity and firm tannins.
With a centrally located tasting room off the main square in Sonoma, Mac- Laren Wine (maclarenwine.com) has several outstanding syrahs, from the Judge Family Vineyard in Bennett Valley to the mighty Stagecoach Vineyard atop Atlas Peak. The winery’s Drouthy Neebors syrah (Scottish for “thirsty friends”), combines several vineyard sources, including Samantha’s in the Russian River Valley, also its own single-vineyard designate, as well as Atoosa’s and Stagecoach.
St. Helena-based Mira Winery (miranapa.com) makes a wide range of wines, but it’s the 2010 Hyde Vineyard Syrah that’s worth seeking. It has a dense and hearty taste of coffee, black licorice and pepper surrounded by a core of black fruit and meat. Aged in mostly neutral oak, this is a 100 percent syrah given the chance to express itself fully.
Petrichor (petrichorvineyards.com) is a new collaboration among vineyard owners Margaret and Jim Foley, winemaker Duncan Arnot Meyers and consulting viticulturalist Steve Matthiasson. Only two and a half acres exist, planted to grenache and two types of syrah clones, farmed organically atop the Mayacmas in volcanic soils above the Russian River Valley AVA. Les Trois is the estate blend they produce; the 2012 vintage was just recently released. It combines 54 percent syrah with 46 percent grenache to earthy, inviting effect.
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @vboone.