I’m still getting used to the idea that we’re living in a new millennium and we are already at the dawn of its second decade (and we still don’t have 3-D TV). For whatever reason, it seems right and fitting when we come upon these natural seams in time that we sit back and reflect on where we are and where we are going. What do I see in the way of wine trends as we try to remember to write “10” instead of “09” on the date lines of our checks?
Here are a few of my bona-fide predictions for the decade to come:
• Despite intense marketing efforts, wine in a pill will not catch on (you think I’m kidding here, but I’m not).
• Toward the end of the decade, West Coast winemakers will finally figure out how to make table wines in excess of 25 percent alcohol. The breakthrough is declared a failure when a 99-cent, pint-sized wine made to fit in your back pocket wins the prestigious Judgment of Napa Wine Tasting. Alcohol levels in all wines recede back to a reasonable range by 2020.
• In 2016, a $400 boxed wine from Bordeaux is released and is showered with praise by wine critics, who swear they always supported three-liter boxed wines even when it wasn’t cool.
• In the 2018 sequel to Sideways, Jack, Miles and Maya travel to the chilly, windy coast of Sonoma, Calif., where they discover the true meaning of wine does not lie in a bottle of pinot noir, but in the strength, sincerity and purity of cool-climate syrahs. And even though an unknown wine writer from Atlanta back in 2010 explained why everyone should embrace cool-climate syrahs/shirazes, the Wikipedia entry for Sideways II is given credit for the immense popularity of this subcategory of wine.
And even though I’m on a Nostradamus-like roll, I’d like to pause to address the latter peek into my crystal ball as many of you may be a little confused as to what exactly a cool climate syrah is all about. No doubt, you are familiar with the ubiquitous shiraz wines from Australia. For a lot of wine-loving folks, this may have been the first type of red wine you could really get your mouth around. For clarity’s sake, you should know that the syrah grape is one and the same as the shiraz grape and from here on, we’ll just say “syrah” to refer to all shiraz/syrah wines. OK?
The roots of syrah grow deeply in France’s Rhône Valley. It found its way to Australia in the 19th century and has always played a part in Australia’s wine history. For the past 20 or so years, however, Australian syrahs have exploded on the scenes of the U.S. and many other countries.
Now, I’m painting with a broad brush when I say that Australian syrahs have a reputation for being blackberry jam-like, uncomplicated, somewhat high in alcohol and lot of fun. Are there exceptions to this gross generalization? Of course.
Cool climate syrahs (and let me say there are plenty of these from cooler areas of Australia) bear only a faint resemblance to their jammier cousins. C.C. syrahs have a fair amount of acidity, which is the antidote to jam-like wines. They also have more in common with raspberries, ripe blueberries, violets, cola nut and those indefinable earthy, mineral characteristics that are hard understand until they’re pointed out for you. In a word, these wines are “complex”. In another word, these wines have “soul.” (Again, we’re talking generalities here. There are exceptions.)
What’s the diff? Jammier, Australian-style syrahs tend to grow in warmer vineyards that get plenty of light and not too much wind. Warm conditions accelerate the syrah grape’s journey to ripeness, when they are full of sugary goodness that fermenting yeasts just love. Hotter weather also puts a hurt on a grape’s ability to produce acidity. The result is fruity wines that have slightly higher alcohol levels than grapes grown in cooler areas.
C.C. syrahs are often found in vineyards that don’t see the sun as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as other grapes. You might find them in cooler sites that are close to ocean breezes, at higher elevations or underneath early morning banks of fog. This prolongs the grape’s growing season and gives you a slightly longer list of taste descriptors (we’ll call this complexity), but it also allows for acidy and sugar levels to rise harmoniously at harvest time.
If cool climates are so great, where are all the cool climate cabernet sauvignons? Not all grapes are crazy about the lack of warmth during the growing season. Without going too far into confusing descriptors like “stemmy” and “green bell pepper,” let’s just say some wines made in cool climate tend to be Yuck-O.
Grapes like pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling and syrah are not only quite different when grown in cooler climates, they take on whole new dimensions, mostly for the better when they are in the right hands. As any farmer will tell you, growing stuff in colder regions has its risks. More killing frosts in the spring, years when it’s too cold to completely ripen the fruit and longer growing seasons that are fraught with numerous risks and increased expenses. Growing stuff in cooler areas not only takes more money, expertise and commitment, you need the intestinal fortitude to occasionally throw your hands up and say, “We’re not producing a crop this year.”
I’m not an agricultural economist, but in farming if you’ve got no crop, you ain’t making money.
With great risks come great rewards. And I’m seeing more C.C. syrah producers who are getting into the game with some success. This is important. As the wine drinking market takes notice, there is more incentive to start a cool climate syrah program. If you recall way back in 2004, pinot noir production skyrocketed after it was so poetically described in the movie Sideways. This popularity allowed many wineries—some for good, some for evil—to try and make wine with the finicky pinot noir grape.
C.C. syrahs have not quite attained meteoric Sideways status yet. That’s where Sideways II—Rise of Syrah comes in. Until this unlikely movie is made, you should look for syrahs from places like the Sonoma Coast, Russian River, certain corners of Monterey, the far western side of the Paso Robles region and the Australian regions of Margaret River, Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills. I tried nearly two dozen cool climate syrahs in a blind tasting from California, Washington and Australia. With only a couple exceptions, I could easily recommend any of them.
If you’re intrigued by the notion of being ahead of the curve for a change, but are understandably confused, your local wine retailer should be able to point you toward some excellent examples of these amazingly food friendly wines.
• My final prediction for the decade to come is the New York Football Giants will win an unprecedented three Super Bowls in a row. Under the guidance of quarterback Peyton Manning (who comes out retirement to defend the fallen honor of brother Eli) and newcomer coach Jim Burt (who molds the toughest defensive team in NFL history) the Giants are declared the team of the teens.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators and teaches in-home wine classes. You can reach him at Gil.Kulers@WineKulers.com.
2006 Milbrandt Vineyards, Traditions, Syrah, Columbia Valley, Wash.
Two Thumbs Up
Lots of red and dark berry aromas, quite fragrent with lots of perfumey violets. It has flavors of coffee, dark chocolate, blueberry, tart black berry and an exotic toasted coconut spice quality. It finishes with a black pepperiness.
2007 Saintsbury, Sawi Vineyard, Syrah, Sonoma Valley, Calif.
Two Thumbs Way Up
Whoa! Wonderfully fragrent with aromas of cola, dark and rich black cherry. Very pinot noir like, it has a touch of violets and a punch list of so many red fruit that change with each sip. Lots of cola, coffee ice cream and black cherry. Very juicy fruit with pinpoint acidity. Finishes with a touch of white pepper that seems to go on forever.
2006 Brokenwood Shiraz, South Eastern, Australia
Two Thumbs Up
Pleasant aromas of blueberry, raspberry, light smoke and violets. Pinot noir-like, very delicate. It has flaovrs of raspberry, root beer and nutmeg. Wonderfully complex.
2004 Laetitia Syrah, Arroyo Grande Valley, Calif.
Two Thumbs Up
Aromas of smoky, coloa, chocolate and blueberry aromas. Flavors of tart black cherry, a light touch of spices, cranberry, raspberries and a nice white pepper finish. Seems to also need time to open up.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.