I like watching a winemaker evolve and mature. There has been a movement in recent years wherein a number of young winemakers have started to push the boundaries of wine in California. I suppose it is a natural shift – a swinging back of the pendulum – because whereas 15 years ago people where pushing the boundaries of ripeness towards more is better – this new wave is pushing the other direction. They are wondering just how much ripeness is necessary to make great wine – indeed, just how much is ideal.
I have always found it interesting just how few California winemakers I know who actually drink California wine. Their cellars are full of Cornas, Burgundy or Vouvray. There are empty bottles of Dagueneau, Comtes-Lafon, Huet, Roumier and Allemand sitting on some ledge in the winery or tasting room. I think it is important for all winemakers to understand wine from many different terroirs – especially the accepted great terroirs of the world. But this phenomenon seems like something more than just education. It seems like taste preference. I wondered why, if they preferred the style of Ogier or Allemand, they continued to make wine in a much bigger, riper, more dense style.
I think there are probably a number of answers to this question. The first might be simple economics. Big, rich wines are favored by some important critics and they get bigger scores which equals better sales. (While people love to vilify Parker and blame his personal preferences for the trend towards over blown wines, I think the root has more to do with the idea of tasting and scoring a wine in general. When you sit and taste a number of wines – giving each one just a 30 second tryout – the extroverted, high impact wines will stand out. A shy, introverted wine will rarely excel in this situation. Yet this does not mean that all wines that don’t scream at you are of a lesser quality. Indeed, I find the ones that reveal themselves slowly and quietly are often the most interesting. ) Another explanation that I have heard many times is that one does not get to choose what style of wine to make – rather you make whatever style the site gives you. And I agree that this must to true to some degree, but I also think that it is untrue to a large degree. Winemakers like Chris Brockway and Steve Matthiason have forced me reconsider this notion. They are making wines in regions famous for power, extraction and alcohol and their renditions are lean, pretty, balanced and very low alcohol. And they do not taste under-ripe.
My own conclusion is a mix of these two explanations. I think the market has asked for a certain style and winemakers have given it to them. I also think that many winemakers are still figuring out how to make other styles. The focus has been on how to get fruit incredibly ripe and make good wine out of it. But now the focus is changing and many people are working on figuring out how to get the flavors ripe and keep the sugars low. I think that many of them are finding out that the definition of ripe that they have been taught may be too narrow – or just incorrect. One of my favorite stories along these lines is from Kevin Kelly of Salinia and NPA. He told me how the first time he made Syrah from Heintz Vineyard he waited until all of the leaves fell off of the vines and then picked the fruit because what else are you going to do at that point. It was ‘under-ripe’ by all given standards. He decided to throw it in a fermenter anyway because he was making it for Charlie Heintz and Charlie wanted it regardless of how ripe the fruit was at harvest. Charlie had told Kevin that he could have half of the wine as payment for making it. Directly after harvest he called Charlie and told him not to worry about payment – he could keep all of the wine. Kevin figured it was going to be green, vegetal and worthless anyway. A few days later he went to check on the wine and when he opened the lid to the fermenter he was blasted by beautiful floral, peppery, fruity aromas. He immediately called Charlie back and said he had reconsidered – he wanted half of the wine. I have tasted that wine – I still have a couple bottles of it. It is brilliant Syrah. One of the best I have ever tasted from California. And it was technically completely under-ripe. So maybe we all still have a lot to learn about ripeness and what it actually means. Maybe grapes don’t have to be super market, table-grape-sweet to make great wine. Maybe by the time you can eat them like candy they are over-ripe.
Aha! moments such as these are giving farmers and winemakers the confidence to push against the accepted ideas of wine here in California. They are searching out ever-cooler sites and farming with the intention of maximizing flavor ripeness and minimizing sugar ripeness. They are then picking the fruit at super low brix levels and making wine with crazy low alcohol levels. Sometimes these wines are hard to understand. When I tasted the first bottling of Clary Ranch Syrah from Arnot-Roberts, I found the flavors and aromas to be outstanding, but I thought the wine seemed thin. It was around 11.5% ABV and I thought what it needed was another percentage point of alcohol. I didn’t buy the wine that year because I felt it was incomplete. It sold out quickly and disappeared from the market. A year after release I got to taste the wine again. It was amazing how much it had changed. It had gained weight in bottle and now the texture was pitch perfect and the aromas and flavors were deeper and more complex. I learned something that day. I did not understand the wine when I first tasted it. And I doubt that Nathan or Duncan really knew what kind of change it would undergo either, although maybe they had a hunch. This idea of needing time in bottle to really show brings about yet another hurdle for winemakers. The market wants wines that are ready to drink now. But that is why I call these winemakers courageous – because they are taking a risk and doing what is best for the wine and not simply making something that they can sell quickly. This is not an easy decision.
So now there are a group of winemakers who are seeing new possibilities in California wine. They are starting to believe that they can actually make the kind of wine they love to drink. This is very exciting to me. One of the more important figures in this transition is Wells Guthrie at Copain. He has already had a storied career as a winemaker. He has made wine from dozens of sites throughout California. And while I think his wines have always leaned more towards elegance and balance than sheer power, he was definitely making wines in the accepted ‘California’ style of the day – lots of fruit, heavy extraction, new oak, etc. Many of his wines garnered high praise and big scores and his label, Copain, gained a bit of a cult following. But he has recently been moving farther away from this style of wine. He learned to make wine working with Chapoutier in the Northern Rhone and the wines he is currently making lean more in that direction. He has been experimenting with cooler sites, earlier picking, no new wood and more whole cluster fermentation. All of the sites for Copain are farmed organically and all of the wines ferment with indigenous yeast.
We are currently featuring four wines from Copain at Nopa. We have the 2009 and 2010 Baker Ranch Syrah and the 2009 and 2010 Halcon Vineyard Syrah. All of them are available by the glass or half glass as well as by the bottle.
The Baker Ranch Vineyard is in the Anderson Valley. This vineyard is at 1300 feet in elevation on the Eastern slope of the Coast Range. It falls within both the Mendocino Ridges and Anderson Valley AVAs. The vineyard is planted to Pinot Noir and Syrah. (Many of our favorite Syrah vineyards happen to be Pinot vineyards as well.) The soil is a series called Casabonne, which is a sedimentary soil composed of gravelly-loam. Sort of sandy with a diverse pebble size, some as large as gravel, others more like silt. It drains well but does hold some moisture and has a moderate degree of nutrients. Wells has been making wine from this site for a number of vintages. I have recently tasted the 2007 version of this wine and the shift in style that I wrote about earlier is very evident in the 2009 and 2010. The Baker Ranch vineyard produces a slightly more plush wine than the Halcon Vineyad. There is more fruit and more density and they tend to be a little more open. 2009 was a warmer year and the wine has more body than the 2010, which is a lighter, prettier wine. Both are very aromatic and elegant with a medium bodied frame. The 2009 has more tannin while the 2010 is more acid driven.
The Halcon Vineyard sits at 2400 feet in the Yorkville Highlands AVA. This is a very cool, rocky and windy site. The soils are Yorkville Series consisting primarily of broken schist. (Schist is metamorphic in origin, as compared to the sedimentary soils of Baker Ranch.) They are well-drained and nutrient poor. The vines up here have a harder life than the ones down in the valley. The Halcon Vineyard produces a more mineral driven wine. The fruit is in the background and it is laced with black pepper and blue flowers. The wines from this site are more angular, less plush and more tightly wound. Again the 2009 version has a riper fruit profile with a little more fat to it but also more tannin. The 2010 is more austere and has high acid and medium tannin. It is a lighter wine, but it is taut and still quite powerful.
Both of these wines are undeniably Syrah, but they lack the jammy, rich berry fruit and heavy extraction, color and glycerol that comes from very ripe fruit and a certain style of winemaking. They are built almost more like a Pinot Noir with Syrah flavors and a Syrah spine. But this is, in my mind, what great Syrah tastes like. It does not need to be rich, dense and fruit driven. In fact, I think sometimes fruit masks the other elements of the wine. Fruit is crucial to great wine, no doubt, but it is only one component of great wine. There is also acid, tannin, minerality, spice and floral notes that can get drowned out when the fruit dial is cranked up. But tone down the fruit just a little and suddenly you have a wine with multiple dimensions. Every wine has a chorus of voices. When you can hear them all you get complexity and harmony. I personally find this murmuring of many voices so much more interesting than the amplified bellowing of just the one voice of fruit.
Click here for a superb view of the vineyards.
The link above takes you to a really cool website that allows you to check out the different vineyards around the Anderson Valley. It should be showing the Hawkes Butte Vineyard and also the Halcon Vineyard when it pops open. You can move your cursor over the highlighted area and it will give you details about the vineyards. If you click on them you can get even more details. Follow Highway 128 up into the Anderson Valley until you see the Philo-Greenwood Road. It is just past Savoy Vineyard, which is marked on the map and just before Navarro Vineyards. Follow this road west and it will lead you to the Baker Ranch Vineyard. Or just go to the vineyards tab at the to of the site and access the drop down menu of all of the vineyards on the map. Baker Ranch is listed alphabetically under ‘S’ for the Samuel and Margaret Baker Ranch.