Try this Wine: Melville Estate Syrah

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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.

Try this Wine: Palacios Corullón Bierzo mencía

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Alavaro Palacios in one of his vineyards. Picture credit: Rare Wine Company.

A number of years ago, I read an article about a “new old” wine region in Spain called Bierzo, located north of Portugal along the route of El Camino de Santiago, Christianity’s most famous pilgrimage. I wish I could remember which article it was, though the general essence has remained deeply ingrained in my mind. First, the signature red grape there is called mencía. Second, the vines, most of which grow on very steep hillsides, can be a century old. Third, Bierzo as a region and mencía as a grape had both been forgotten by the wine world for decades until the 1990s. And forth, this was a shame because both had a lot to offer wine lovers.

That was enough to motivate me to seek out Bierzo mencía. I found my way to a bottle by a producer named Descendientes de José Palacios called Pétalos, which is a field blend from the western part of the region that costs around $25. I recognized the name Palacios as one widely credited for helping Priorat rise to its current status as a unique wine region of high quality. Further, its winemaker, Alvaro Palacios, comes from Rioja’s esteemed Bodegas Palacios Remondo family. The Pétalos seemed like a good entry to Bierzo.

Man, was it good. While not particularly heavy, it had daunting depth at its pricepoint and a combination of flavors and aromas I had not experienced: spicy red fruit, loads of purply florals, wet underbrush, licorice and a mild pepper finish. Further, the structure was mesmerizing. It had significant tannin, but that tannin was so finely grained and consistent that it didn’t obstruct any other element of the wine, including the precise acid. Most Spanish wine is known, among other things, for its boldness. With perhaps the exception of Rioja, Bierzo offers an elegant, feminine alternative to the country’s more famous regions.

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The winery. Picture credit: Rubén Bescos.

If the Pétalos was Palacios’s entry point, I figured their more pricy bottles could be downright magical, and decided to purchase two bottles of the 2012 Descendientes de José Palacios Bierzo Villa de Corullón, the next step up in the Palacios line that costs around $45. Corullón is the village that Palacios chose as the epicenter of their effort in Bierzo. The most desirable vineyards and parcels go into more expensive single vineyard bottles, whereas the Villa de Corullón is a blend of three vineyards (with vines ranging from 60 to 100 years old). From what I had read, the Villa de Corullón was built for short to mid-term aging, and so I decided to open my first bottle five years after its vintage.

One of the reasons I like to purchase multiples of a wine I intend to age is to see how it develops over time. I consumed the first bottle in July of 2017, and had the second just last week (August 29, 2018). If I had any doubt of my approach, the difference that just a year made with this wine affirmed the rationale. While there were consistencies, there were also dramatic differences.

From July 2017: Holy florals, Batman! The nose is a flower store, a bit of everything, with crushed strawberries, cranberries, Sweet Tarts and tar. The body is medium in weight with juicy acidity. The fruit is a bit darker here, with overripe strawberries, cherries and boysenberries. There’s lovely violets and rose, along with creamsicle, although over time the flowers fade as cola and chocolate emerge. I really like this, and will be very interested to follow it over the next five-ish years.

And from August 2018: Such a gorgeous, elegant wine at a great stage on its life. The balance is impeccable. It’s identity just screams “pastel.” The nose and palate supremely balance florals and dark earthy notes: pink, purple and yellow flowers; wet top soil; graphite; and darkly tanned tobacco leaf. It also features mountain strawberry, blood orange, dark cherry and pomegranate seed. The fine grained tannins add pleasure to the mouthfeel, and the acid is in perfect balance. A truly impressive wine. Decent for an hour now, and consume over the next three years.

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The Villa de Corullón label. Picture credit: Wine.com.

Both were beautiful wines, though my preference went to the longer-aged bottle (I gave the younger bottle 93 points, and the older 95). I’ve spent considerable time thinking about what a comparable wine from elsewhere might be, and continue to come up empty. I’ve rarely found a wine like the Corullón that excels on all fronts: aroma, structure, balance, mouthfeel and flavor. It achieves the rare quality that is the benchmark I have for my favorite wines: the sum of the parts surpasses the quality their individual qualities.

Try this wine because: (1) it’s profile is highly unusual, if not definitionally unique (one of a kind), (2) it’s very reasonably priced for its quality, and (3) there is good availability of past vintages, which makes drinking it in its prime now a real possibility.

Where to buy:

Thankfully, this is not the hardest wine to find. The current release is 2015, but wine-searcher.com has store listings for eleven vintages. Two stores – Pluckemin Inn Wines in Bedminster, New Jersey and Wine & Liquor Warehouse in Canton, Connecticut – still have the 2012, which I profiled in this piece, available at great prices. The stores below, which represent a greater geographic dispersion, have the 2015 vintage. And, as always, you go to wine-searcher.com and enter your zip code and a radius to find the closest store. Click on this link to do that.

Central/Upstate New York: Saratoga Wine Exchange, 43 Round Lake Road Ste. 3, Ballston Lake NY 12019. 1 (518)-899-9463.

Mountain View, California: Artisan Wine Depot, 2482 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View California 94040. 1 (650) 917-8080.

Arlington, Virginia: Total Wine, 800 N. Glebe Rd, Arlington VA  22203. 1 (703) 516-2810

San Francisco, California: Flatiron Wine & Spirits, 2 New Montgomery St, San Francisco. California 94105. 415-780-1405.

Orlando, Florida: Total Wine, 4625 Millenia Plaza Way, Orlando Florida, 32839. (407) 352-6330.

Chicago area, Illinois: Vin Chicago, three locations (Highland Park, Chicago and Barrington)

Try this Wine: 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

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The 2015 Hess Select North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon is riding a strong commercial tailwind. It’s cabernet sauvignon, which is second in popularity only to chardonnay in America, and it’s from California, which dominates America’s wine production, store shelves (commercial demand) and exports. If one’s focus was on making wine that would sell easily and in large numbers, they’d make cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay in California.

If there’s a headwind against this wine, it’s that at a suggested retail of $19 it is too expensive for the mainstream (though I wouldn’t be surprised to find it for $12-15 in many grocery stores nation-wide). Even at $12, it’s outside the 78% of total domestic wine sales that come in under $10 per bottle. However, the tide is turning. In 2017, purchases of bottles priced $15-19.99 saw double-digit growth. Things were never down for the Hess Select cabernet sauvignon, but they are nonetheless looking up.

With so many Americans buying California cabernet sauvignon, this instance of Try this Wine aims to be a twofer. First, for those who regularly buy grocery store cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a particular wine that over delivers. And second, for those who normally eschew under $20 cabernet sauvignon, I’m hopefully drawing attention to a wine that demonstrates real quality can be had for a lower-than-expected price that is also available in serious wine stores.

I visited Hess last December during an epic five days in Napa, not knowing much about the producer and walking in with a critically wrong assumption about them. Here’s a line from the post that I wrote about Hess:

“I had sort of assumed that because of its size, its quality and personality were going to be, um, uninspiring. After trying the samples, I knew the only ass in that assumption was me.”

Hess was awesome. A medium-sized producer, which by California standards is pretty large, they poured me nearly their entire range, beginning with several Select wines. The Select series is the winery’s entry point, and accounts for 65% of total Hess production, making it the company’s financial backbone. The series begins with the $12.99 Select chardonnay, and tops out around the $20 mark. We slowly climbed the ladder until reaching the top: the $185 Lion cabernet sauvignon. There wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch, and I found several to be inspiring. More than anything, though, I was impressed with the Select chardonnay because I was shocked that anyone could make a chardonnay of that quality that could retail for $12.99 – I’ve had many $25-30 chardonnays that are on all accounts no better than the Select.

I vividly remember asking Hess’ winemaker how they made such a good thirteen dollar wine and learning that they have vineyards dedicated to the Select line that get the same attention as their more prestigious vineyards, and an assistant winemaker who focuses on the Select line, giving it as much attention as the head winemaker does for the more expensive wines. Since then, I’ve included the chardonnay in several tastings I’ve led and talked it up on many occasions.

This is why it was fun to revisit the Select line with this cabernet sauvignon, which I received as a sample. They produce 175,000 cases of the Select cabernet, which represents 35% of the total Select series production. That’s serious quantity, so achieving equally serious quality is no small order, and rare at this scale. This alone is reason enough to try this wine.

Tasting note: This fresh, ripe nose gives off aromas of cherry and blackberry compote, toasted oak, potting soil, graphite minerality and blood orange zest. The body is very polished and lush, balanced nicely by good acidity that keeps it from becoming cloying or heavy. Flavors are focused the dark and juicy cherry and boysenberry, though tobacco, wet dirt and lavender peak through. 88 points. Value: A.

Where to buy:

This is a widely distributed wine – available in all fifty states and twenty-three countries outside America – and is available at serious wine stores, grocery stores and online retailers, including wine.com. Below are a few places where it is available. As always, you can head over to wine-searcher.com and input your zip code and a radius to find nearby stores.

Chicago area: Sal’s Beverage World with locations in Addison, Elmhurst and Villa Park.

Denver: Argonaut Wine & Liquor, 760 E. Colfax Ave, Denver CO 80203. 303-831-7788.

Florida: Crown Wine & Spirits, nine locations on the Pacific Coast.

Los Angeles: Wally’s Wine & Spirits, three locations.

Memphis: Buster’s Liquors, 191 South Highland, Memphis TN 38111. 901-458-0929.

New York: Garnet Wines & Liquors, 929 Lexington Ave, New York NY 10065. 212-772-3211.

Try this Wine: Hacienda Lopez de Haro Reserva 2013

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Bodega Classico Hacienda Lopez de Haro. Credit: Tadeja Kuzma via winedering.com.

Rioja is always three things in my book: remarkable value, better with age, and not for everyone. To be clear: it’s a lot more than that, or at least it can be. Rioja can be super complex. A traditional Rioja is generally leathery, savory, red fruited and retrained, while a new-style Rioja is generally sweetly dark fruited, baking spiced, plush and bold. Regardless of its style, though, it is remarkably priced for its quality, better with at least some age, and divisive among its audience.

As the world’s general palate has shifted towards preferring bigger wine, traditional Rioja is being produced less and less. Therefore, by default more people are experiencing it less and less. This is especially true for those Americans who haven’t had the chance to explore the region’s styles – most Rioja available on US store shelves is of the new world variety because it has wider appeal to the general American palate. Unless one seeks out the traditional style they are increasingly unlikely to stumble upon it accidentally. I would imagine that most people would like at least one or two Riojas; it just depends on the style and producer. (If you want to read more on the subject of Rioja styles, check out the Good Vitis post on The Wines of CVNE).

2013 Hecienda Lopez de Haro Reserva

We suggest trying a traditional Rioja if you haven’t (or think you haven’t) had one. One of the better values is Bodega Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro. For a suggested retail price of $15.99, you can now get their 2013 Reserva. It’s a lot of wine for the price. It gets macerated for two weeks, spends twenty months in French and American oak barrels, and gets racked every few months while in oak. The vineyards that provide the tempranillo and graciano that go into the wine are in the heart of Rioja, enjoying expansive views of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains and Ebro river from a terraced spot.

The 2013 vintage, of which this bottle is a member, wasn’t stellar in Rioja, unfortunately. An unusually wet Spring delayed budding and led to unequal maturation of the grapes. A mild summer followed by good weather in September and October helped wineries salvage the harvest, though the spring damage couldn’t be entirely undone in the winery.

The difficult vintage is evident, though the Lopez de Haro crew have done well to produce an enjoyable wine worth trying. I suggest giving it at least an hour decant, if not two or three.

Tasting note: Dark, hedonistic nose of cherry, sweet tobacco, graphite and blackberry. Medium-bodied with saturating polished tannin and bright acidity that leans the wine out in the finish, it has a slight alcoholic kick that extended air resolves. The fruit is a bit tart initially, coming in the form of red cherry, cranberry and plum. Cigarette tobacco and tar lead into pepper on the back end. This will improve with a few years in the cellar. 88 points, value A.

Where to Buy

For those in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, like Good Vitis, you can find the 2013 vintage at Calvert Woodley, 4339 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008. Phone: 202-966-4400.

If you’re in or visiting Central New York, you can find it at the Saratoga Wine Exchange, 43 Round Lake Road Ste. 3, Ballston Lake, NY 12019. Phone: 518-899-9463.

It’s also available at Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, which has five locations in New Jersey (Wayne, Madison, Bernardsville, Hillsborough and Closter).

For more locations and vintages, visit this wine-searcher.com link.

Try this Wine: 2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling

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Note: This is the inaugural edition of Try this Wine, a series we hope to make regular on the website. You can’t know more than you taste, and knowledge is what builds a palate, so exploration is key to developing an appreciation for wine. Each edition will spotlight a wine that we believe has, whether we happen to like it or not, a compelling reason or two for people to try. Some of the wines will be harder to find and/or more expensive than others, but the one theme that will be constant is our belief that the wines we feature will improve your appreciation for wine. At the bottom of each Try this Wine post, you’ll find a list of places to purchase the wine.

Most wine drinkers aren’t going to like the Smith-Madrone riesling because they don’t like riesling, or so they think. “It’s too sweet” is the variety’s reputation, and the industry hasn’t done much to help itself in this regard. People see the grape and think ‘sweet’ and there’s nothing, except the occasional demi-sec or sec label (which doesn’t mean anything to most people anyways) to clue them in to the reality. Smith-Madrone’s 2015 riesling carries 0.68% residual sugar, which is for all intents and purposes a dry wine. But you wouldn’t know it from the label.

The other thing you wouldn’t know from the label, unless you knew the winery’s reputation already, is how good it is. The rieslings with the most widespread and greatest reputations aren’t grown in the United States, but I’d put money on a few domestics to place well in a Judgment of Paris styled event in Alsace or Wachau. Good Vitis hosted a blind tasting of thirty-two American rieslings with a couple of esteemed wine professionals about a year ago. All of us were more impressed than we expected with the overall quality, and super impressed with a handful of them, including Smith-Madrone. Stu Smith, a General Partner and winemaker at Smith-Madrone, dropped in and tasted with us, nervously hoping his wine would show well. It did.

There are a couple of things that combine to make riesling a special grape like no other. The versatility of the grape is, I would argue, without peers. It can be grown in so many different soils and climates, it’s remarkable. It also picks up terrior as well as any grape, and better than most. Multiply its ability to grow in so many different places by its ability to represent each unique location and you end up with a massive range of differences. With its racy acid, focus and complexity, riesling is also an incredibly versatile and nimble partner of food. On top of that, it ages gracefully and for decades (when grown and made to do so). In the collateral sent with the Smith-Madrone sample, Stu writes that “we think this will have a lifespan of 20-30 years” and there’s no doubt that he is right. The best-made riesling in Germany and Austria is known to gain complexity over decades and decades. Stu’s been making riesling long enough to know, when he says his will go twenty to thirty years, that it will do so while improving.

When you have a really good riesling, it’s impossible to objectively say there is better wine in the world. The kicker is, the best riesling is outrageously cheap by the standard of any other variety that can come close to riesling’s quality. You have to search far and wide to find a riesling that will cost you, off the shelf, over $100, or even $50. For a third of that ($32), you can get the 2015 Smith-Madrone, and it just might be the best $32 white wine you’ll find, and a wine that’s far better than many other varieties costing significantly more.

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Some of Smith-Madrone’s vineyards. Picture credit: Pull That Cork.

They ferment it in stainless, and keep it there through clarification, aging and filtration. It’s 100% riesling that is kept from going through malolactic fermentation and gets no lees stirring. This is all to say, it’s really well-grown estate riesling from a really great mountain site that showcases terrior and talent. Stu boasts of “a proud history with this varietal, from our very first vintage. That 1977 vintage won the Riesling Competition of the 1979 Wine Olympics, a tasting organized in Paris by the food and wine guide Gault & Millau.” Bring on The Germans and Austrians.

Tasting note: What a wonderful nose with elevated florals, dried apricot, tangerine, wet stones, chalk, margarita salt and white peach. Medium in weight, the acid is racy with a lush texture. The ripe flavors hit on tangerine, yellow peach, lime, rhubarb and tobiko. The finish goes for ages. Another brilliant vintage of this stuff, the 2015 should have an excellent fifteen to twenty year lifespan, at least. 92 points, value A.

Where to Buy

The 2015 is still finding its way to shelves around the country. Smith-Madrone sells a lot of direct-to-consumer, and you can purchase this wine from them now. As this vintage gets distributed (there is often a lag time between winery release and completion of the distribution process), it should be available around the country in discerning wine stores. Right now, wine-searcher.com is listing only one store:

Truly Fine Wine, 4060 Morena Blvd., Ste K, San Diego, CA 92117. Phone: (858) 270-9463.

Direct from the producer: Smith-Madrone, 4022 Spring Mountain Road, St. Helena, CA 94574. Phone: 707.963.2283. (You can also call them to inquire about where you might find it locally).

You can find other locations for other vintages here.