Wine of the Week: Qupé 2017 Bien Nacido Syrah

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This week’s blind tasting

Rhone wines

TOP PICK

Qupé

2017 Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, Santa Maria Valley Syrah, 14% alcohol, $45. ★★★★½

A smoky syrah with generous fruit coupled with an undercurrent of spice. Weighted to black fruit, with a streak of high-toned red fruit running through it. Notes of blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and cracked black pepper. Impressive.

Tasty ALTERNATIVES

Roessler Wine Cellars, 2016 Camp 4 Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley Carignane, 14.5%, $34. ★★★★: A bold carignane with briary red fruit. Aromas and flavors of raspberry, leather and a hint of toasty oak. Lingering finish. Lovely.

The Larsen Projekt, 2017 Petaluma Gap Sonoma County, 14%, $35. ★★★★: This is a striking syrah with a big personality. It has tangy black raspberry and wild strawberry fruit, and it manages to be meaty. Buoyed by bright acid, mineral. Extremely well crafted.

Longboard Vineyards, 2017 Vincenzo Vineyard, Mendocino Carignan, 14.2%, $46. ★★★★: A lovely carignan weighted to red fruit, although there’s black in the mix. Aromas and flavors of blueberry, blackberry, raspberry and cracked black pepper. Striking.

J. Lohr, 2017 South Ridge Paso Robles Syrah, 14%, $15. ★★★½: A smart syrah for the budget-minded. Floral, with bold flavors on the palate. Notes of blueberry, black cherry and white pepper. Nice length. Supple texture. Solid.

Winemakers send their bottles out into the great unknown, and they’re content because they know they’re en route to some kind of magic. It could be a wedding, a graduation, a first date, an anniversary, a great meal, a deep conversation, a family get together or even a Netflix binge.

Well-crafted bottles are confetti, set to signal revelry.

This is how Blake Kuhn sees it.

The winemaker is behind our wine of the week winner –– the Qupé 2017 Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Santa Maria Valley Syrah at $45.

This is a smoky syrah with generous fruit coupled with an undercurrent of spice. Weighted to black fruit, it has a streak of high-toned red fruit running through it. The syrah has notes of blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and cracked black pepper. It’s impressive.

It turns out this syrah was the lucky outcome of a challenging vintage. Difficult vintages, Kuhn said, is when winemakers earn their keep because they are when the real decisions are made.

“Around Labor Day weekend, there was a severe heat wave followed by a monsoon-type event off the Santa Barbara Coast,” he said. “We gambled and stayed the course. Luckily it paid off … The vines recovered and received some much needed slow ripening hang time. The results were high phenolics and color, balanced harmonious tannins, good fruit flavors and those smoky savory notes that scream SYRAH!”

As fate would have it, food-friendly syrahs are Qupé’s specialty, Kuhn said. The Santa Barbara-based winery was purchased by Vintage Wine Estates last year and CEO Pat Roney said he would honor Qupé legacy for producing top-rate Rhone varietals.

“We focus on cool-climate syrah, creating wines that are lower in alcohol compared to most California wines,” he explained. “We want to create wines of complexity that have a balance of acidity and tannins. We shoot for these qualities because our wines are designed to complement food and to be enjoyed harmoniously with a meal.”

The most challenging aspect of producing syrah, Kuhn said, is that it’s a grape you have to babysit.

“Syrah,” he explained, “has a tendency to become reductive during fermentation so oxygen management needs to be carefully monitored throughout its time at the winery.”

Syrah tends to be winemakers’ favorite varietal to drink, Kuhn said,

“Syrah is a very expressive variety that manifests itself very differently based on how and where it’s grown as well as how it’s fermented,” he said. “It’s a true chameleon that shines under many different circumstances. Many varieties do not behave like this.”

Kuhn said he likes producing syrah because it reflects “a winemaker’s philosophy and personality, as well as terroir. It’s great to work with a variety that is such a willing partner.”

Was Kuhn destined to be a winemaker? As a kid, he always loved food as well as using his nose to explore the world. Later, when he was in college studying biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he had an epiphany. While working at a restaurant, he tasted a vertical of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape “La Crau” and realized how unique each vintage was.

“I had no idea the exact same wine could taste so different from year to year,” Kuhn said. “They were all beautiful and different in their own way, like people. I thought ‘wow,’ this would probably be a really interesting job, and I think my background would be perfect!”

Kuhn, 47, earned two degrees at UC Santa Barbara — biology and environmental science. Today, as winemaking director for Qupé on the Central Coast, he endeavors to produce some of the finest syrah grapes in the state.

“Starting with an exceptional raw material is one of the most important parts of winemaking,” Kuhn said. “From there you add diligence and attention to detail, and everything just gets better.”

This week’s blind tasting

Rhone wines

TOP PICK

Qupé

2017 Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, Santa Maria Valley Syrah, 14% alcohol, $45. ★★★★½

A smoky syrah with generous fruit coupled with an undercurrent of spice. Weighted to black fruit, with a streak of high-toned red fruit running through it. Notes of blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and cracked black pepper. Impressive.

Tasty ALTERNATIVES

Roessler Wine Cellars, 2016 Camp 4 Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley Carignane, 14.5%, $34. ★★★★: A bold carignane with briary red fruit. Aromas and flavors of raspberry, leather and a hint of toasty oak. Lingering finish. Lovely.

The Larsen Projekt, 2017 Petaluma Gap Sonoma County, 14%, $35. ★★★★: This is a striking syrah with a big personality. It has tangy black raspberry and wild strawberry fruit, and it manages to be meaty. Buoyed by bright acid, mineral. Extremely well crafted.

Longboard Vineyards, 2017 Vincenzo Vineyard, Mendocino Carignan, 14.2%, $46. ★★★★: A lovely carignan weighted to red fruit, although there’s black in the mix. Aromas and flavors of blueberry, blackberry, raspberry and cracked black pepper. Striking.

J. Lohr, 2017 South Ridge Paso Robles Syrah, 14%, $15. ★★★½: A smart syrah for the budget-minded. Floral, with bold flavors on the palate. Notes of blueberry, black cherry and white pepper. Nice length. Supple texture. Solid.

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