Try this Wine: Melville Estate Syrah

syrah

Credit: winery-sage.com

Syrah may be one of the most misunderstood – or perhaps confusing – red wines out there. Unlike cabernet or merlot, there is very little syrah produced domestically outside two buckets: mass-produced, sub $15 wines, and small production, high end bottles starting around $40 and going into the hundreds. The quality and style of these two buckets differ dramatically, and so it can be challenging to feel like you “get” the grape.

This is somewhat less true in France, where the Rhone Valley is syrah’s global epicenter and quality is not hard to come by at any price, but French wine labels are challenging for Americans because they usually do not list the grape(s) included in the wine and so they contribute to America’s misunderstanding of syrah. It is also less true in Australia, where syrah is called “shiraz” and is the most widely produced wine. However, because it’s labeled shiraz even when sold in the United State, it’s easily confused as something different, either varietally or stylistically, from syrah produced elsewhere. And thus the misunderstanding continues.

Syrah is not the most popular grape in this country, but its popularity is growing. On the production side, there are 106,00 acres of chardonnay grown in the United States, making it the most widely-grown wine-making grape in the country. Cabernet sauvignon isn’t far behind at 101,300 acres. Syrah sits at just over 22,000, which makes it the sixth most grown wine-making grape in America.

Syrah can be grown in different climates, and wears its terroir on its sleeve. In warmer climates, it is often big, round and fruit-forward. Most of the lower-end syrah tends to fall into this style because it’s relatively easy to make on a large scale with a good price margin. In cooler climates, it is gamey and savory and often smells and tastes of smoked or cured meat, iron and olives. This style is found most commonly in the more expensive category as it is more sought-after and costlier to produce than the other style. These dynamics mean that, depending on what one is spending, they are getting dramatically different experiences in terms of flavor profile, not just quality.

Within the premium wine world, syrah has been a stalwart regarded as a macro-level under-performer in that it hasn’t sold well despite its appeal. Syrah is also a very difficult sell because either the less expensive forward-style often smacks of generic red wine and makes no unique appeal, or a person is unaccustomed to, and perhaps initially turned off by, the savory taste and higher price point of the better quality stuff.

The niche appeal of high end syrah tends to emanate from that uniquely savory profile I described as well as its ability to change dramatically with extended aging. This has motivated articles along the lines of “American Syrah: Can It Ever Rival Pinot Noir?” that discuss and attempt to prognosticate syrah’s future.

Part of the tailwind pushing syrah lovers’ desire to see the variety perform better may be that we believe syrah offers bang for the buck, even at the high end, and that while it’s easy to find an underwhelming expensive cabernet or pinot noir, it’s much harder to be disappointed by an expensive syrah. This is at least something I’ve discovered as I’ve talked with other syrah lovers.

To test this out, I went to Wine Enthusiast and pulled review data for syrah, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and merlot. I took this data and put together pie charts for each variety that show the breakdown of scores. Looking at the charts, for example, 2.83% of merlots reviewed by Wine Enthusiast received scores between 94 and 97 points (the orange slice on the graph).

To interpret these charts, it’s critical to know the sample size, so here they are:

Syrah: 11,991

Merlot: 15,992

Pinot noir: 24,332

Cabernet sauvignon: 27,682

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These graphs tell me two things, effectively. First, with the caveat that this is the perspective of just one journal, there isn’t a lot of great merlot on the market as measured by review scores. That’s a discussion for another time. Second, with the same caveat as the first, people have roughly the same chance of getting an enjoyable/satisfying bottle of syrah as they would cabernet or pinot if they were at a quality wine store that stocked roughly equal amounts of all three. This is to say, my friends and I may be wrong about there being a glut of high quality syrah relative to more popular reds.

All that said, it remains difficult to find a good syrah without dropping a good chunk of change, not unlike pinot noir, because wine stores stock much less of it than the more popular wines. Further, it remains difficult to find a savory syrah priced similar to the fruit-forward syrahs.

Melville

This edition of Try this Wine aims to shoot that gap as reasonably as possible with the 2014 Melville Estate Syrah from the Santa Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara, California. After trying a bottle ourselves for the first time, we were motivated to write this piece because we believe everyone should experience the uniquely savory profile of quality syrah at least once, and now have a reasonably priced example to recommend.

Melville is legendary Santa Barbara, a wine region that deserves more attention and respect than it gets. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is eventually considered part of California’s top echelon of wine regions. Located a short drive north of the Los Angeles area, it sits just off the Pacific Ocean on plateaus and hill sides that jut up from the coast line. Direct access to ocean breezes keep the area cool, and much of the wine produced there skews more reserved and nuanced than the standard California reputation. Think producers like Au Bon Climat, Ojai, Donkey and Goat, Qupe and Jaffurs, none of whom are going to make inroads with the jammy wine crowd.

Try this Wine because: The Estate syrah from Melville clocks in around $30-35, which is a fair price for the quality. At this price you get great accessibility to the savory profile as well as good approachability – it won’t require aging to show itself off. While not as layered and complex as many more expensive syrahs, it represents one of the more modest price points for a wine of its profile and quality. We recommend that you try this wine if you want to access the savory syrah profile without spending a ton of money or waiting years for a bottle to develop into an enjoyable stage.

Tasting note for the 2014 Melville Estate syrah: Bright, shiny nose of Acai, raspberry, strawberry, wet soil, tanned tobacco leaf, bacon and cinnamon. It’s full bodied with pleasant, mellowed acidity and very plush tannin, striking a pleasing feel and structure. The flavors are predominantly savory and salty; the fruit is secondary. It offers doses of iron, saline, smoked beef jerky, black olive, pomegranate, raspberry and licorice. This is a nice, straight-forward New World syrah with some Old World stylings. There is a small amount of dusty tannin towards the finish suggesting good mid-term drinking. 90 points. Value: B+.

Where to buy:

The current release of the Estate syrah at the winery is 2016, which is available directly through the winery. Most of the vintages available in stores include the 2014 and 2015, which is nice because of the additional and complimentary age on them. Here are a few shops around the country that showed up on the wine-searcher.com search.

St. Louis, MO: Wine & Cheese Place, 7435 Forsyth Blvd, Clayton, MO 63105. Phone: 314-727-8788.

Los Angeles, CA: Woodland Hills Wine Company, 22622 Ventura Blvd, Woodland Hills, CA 91364. Phone: 800-678-9463.

Tampa, FL: Craft & Curd, 2908 W Gandy Blvd. Suite B, Tampa, FL 33611. Email: Tom@craftcurd.com.

St. Paul, MN: Sunfish Cellars, 981 Sibley Memorial Hwy, 55118 St Paul, MN. Phone: 651-600-5164.

San Francisco, CA: The Wine Club, 953 Harrison St, San Francisco, CA 94107. Phone: 800-966-7835.

A Quick Trip to Santa Barbara

grapes

Good Santa Barbara vitis. Picture: http://www.santabarbaracountywines.com

Taking advantage of a work trip to California, I made a quick jaunt from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to squeeze in two tasting room visits. I had had one bottle from Jaffurs Winery eight or nine years ago and was interested in revisiting, and had never tried but was eager to explore the strongly reputed Au Bon Climat. Neither disappointed, and I didn’t even tell them I was coming. I strongly recommend trying wines from both wineries who also represent off-the-charts value. My tasting notes are at the end of the post.

Jaffurs is a warehouse winery that hosts its tasting room in the middle of the crush pad. I love these set ups for a host of reasons, the main one being that it smells, well, like a crush pad, and I love that smell because it reminds of the joys and challenges of making wine. It also removes any of the ultimately damaging air of aristocratic pomposity many tasting rooms, unfortunately, achieve.

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Jaffurs Winery

I was the first customer of the day, and a man named David saddled me up to the tasting bar and poured five wines for me while discussing the winery’s approach and impressive array of vineyard relationships. Jaffurs has been around for over 20 years and seem to be a local legend. They focus on Rhone varietals, and offer multi-vineyard blends plus a lineup of single vineyard syrahs, and the wines are evidence enough of why Jaffurs has such a good reputation among the industry.

Au Bon Climat’s tasting room is in downtown Santa Barbara, an almost idyllic setting that no doubt influences customers’ experience. I was also their first visitor of their day and Emily, the assistant tasting room manager, poured me a very good flight of six wines that mostly exceed my expectations. Emily’s personable nature and obvious zeal for the winery and industry was a great compliment to the wine. The tasting room, as Emily explained, was really a showroom for Jim Clendenen, the man behind Au Bon Climat and a number of other efforts. Clendenen focus is on taking what is clearly fantastic fruit and making the more refined, Burgundian and Italian styles of wine.

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Clendenen Family Estate Vineyard

It isn’t fair to offer scores of wines tasted in a tasting room – the pours are too small to fully analyze the wine, and often times the wines haven’t received sufficient aeration. Therefore, I’m going to relay the notes on the wines that I scribbled down while tasting, but leave out scores are values. That said, I imagine all the wines I tasted would likely score at or above 90 points and receive values of at least a “B” based on my process.

Jaffurs Winery (click for wine-searcher.com listings)

2015 Roussane: really classic representation of roussane’s tropical characteristics, and a really cool juxtaposition of above-average acidity and a slightly oily mouthfeel. I took a bottle with me.

2013 Enticer Pinot Noir: separate label made by Craig Jaffurs. Really pretty nose, very floral and bright. Leaner palate for a California pinot, Burgundian. Great acidity with tar, cranberries and huckleberries. Touch of sweetness balances the tart fruit.

2013 Grenache: muted nose but a really cool, dirty palate. 30% whole cluster press and a very herbal profile with gorgeous fruit. Bought one of these, too.

2014 Syrah: blend from several vineyards, meant to be a consistent profile from vintage to vintage. A bit chewy, full bodied but with good acidity. Dark fruits with some fungal funk and a nice black pepper kick.

2012 Verna’s syrah: vineyard designate. 50% whole cluster. Very meaty, funky nose and palate. Very nice harmony between bloody, smoky and salty elements. My kind of syrah.

Au Bon Climat (click for wine-searcher.com listings)

2013 Nuit Blances chardonnay: some new oak. Cote de Beaune-esque nose, palate lighter than expected but still full bodied. Nice acid and tension on the finish. Green fruits.

2011 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Vineyard chardonnay: nice juxtaposition of butter and lemon, with white pepper and banana leaf. Strong oak vanillin is a bit distracting, but might integrate with more aeration.

2013 Aubaine pinot noir: funky pinot nose with baking spices, cherries, lavender and rose. Palate is restrained, dark and herbal. Dark cherries and raspberries. Smoke, thyme and tar. Round and full bodied with a robust grainy tannin structure.

2012 Talley Vineyard pinot noir: big, bold and fruit nose with some florals. Body is framed with significant oak, smoke and salty red fruits. Big mushroom on the finish. This could be great in 5-10 years.

2008 Nielson pinot noir: meaty, savory nose with cherries. Complex, deep palate. Beautiful smoked meats, cherries, strawberries and blood orange. The fruit is really deep and bright. Nice salinity with a touch of smoke. Will continue to develop. World class wine. I bought several.

2010 Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale: very perfumed and tropical nose with a dose of kerosene. Palate is really nice and soft, but the body is substantial. Spiced red berries and beautiful candied plums with black pepper. Gorgeous, also world class. I’ll be enjoying the several bottles I purchased.