We've been having so many of our wine dinners the past two years that the group has had to return to its favorite haunts. Such was the case one Friday evening as we set about to taste Syrahs from the US and Europe. I have generally preferred my Syrahs blended, which is to say accompanied by other grape varieties such as one finds in the Rhone wines from the south of France. But tonight it was to be a tasting of just Syrah.
Getting a head start before any appetizers arrived, we passed around the first bottle of the evening, a 2005 Avavi Cellars ($29) offering from Walla Walla Valley in Washington State. My initial impressions were of a thick, chewy, gummy wine. Tasting notes from around the room characterized the wine as "smooth," "chewy," "nice finish," "chocolate," "rich," "plumy," "buttery" and "aromatic." I think you get the picture. I would add that I didn't find it to be complex whatsoever and I believe I'd pass on the opportunity to buy more of it.
In comparison, I preferred the second bottle, a 2005 "Le Rouvre" Vann Chave Crozes Hermitage ($26) from the Rhone region of France. A rather closed nose with just a hint of earthiness, the wine was not particularly complicated but had a bit more acidity than the first wine, and overall had good balance; it was a gentle wine, nice and smooth. Others described the tasting experience as: "pleasant, good fruit, some tannins"; and the opposite, "no fruit, restrained, pleasant but dry"; as well as, "no aroma, slight tang, benign taste." All in all though, this wine ranked among the top three wines of the evening on 5 of the 9 scorecards, including my own.
At last, food arrives. The goat cheese and caramelized onion tart on a bed of arugula dressed with an aged balsamic vinaigrette was what I needed to accompany the next syrah, a 2003 Duxoup Vineyards ($18) from Dry Creek, CA. I also had to have the crab and baby artichokes wrapped in a ribbon of cucumber with a splash of celery vinaigrette. Others around the table were digging into lobster claws tossed with basil pesto and grilled zucchini, or a simple mix of hummus, grilled eggplant, marinated peppers, olives and feta toast. Oh yes, the wine. It was peppery and acidic, but not overly so, such that the bottom line was a pleasant quaffing wine. Others found it to be "fruity," "musky," "aromatic," "peppery," "nice aroma," "great finish," and "nice bouquet." It scored as the # 2 wine of the night for two participants, but not an overall great ranking.
The next wine, which I must say I chose to bring for no particular reason I can remember, was the standout wine of the evening. It scored 8 of 9 first place votes (all except mine, I had it in 3rd place) for one of the few landslide victories Jim's Disciples have bestowed upon a wine at one of our dinners. The 2004 Natalie Estates ($28) from their Pines Vineyard in Washington State, had a floral, fruity, perfume nose. It was dry and thick on the tongue with good balance (acidity and tannins). The commentary of others included : "perfume," "dried fruit in wine," "sophisticated," "just great," "lovely aroma," "very, very nice," "fantastic finish," "peaches in wine," and "excellent." I think the group really liked this one.
The syrah from Stage Coach Vineyard in Napa Valley, a 2004 "La Diligence" ($35), had no nose yet was a very smooth and luscious wine, but which I found to be unidimensional. Others characterized it as "young," "complex," "peppery," "raspberry," "good aroma," "plumy," and "smooth." Ho-hum.
Our sixth selection was a 2004 Rosenblum Cellars syrah ($27) from Solano County, CA. I found it to have a very perfumey nose and an overly clinging taste. This quality was described by others as "wow nose," "a bit sweet and thick," "fruity with lots of chocolate," "thick," and "heavy." Most at the table disposed of their glassful after a second taste.
Number seven wasn't much better. The 2004 "Earthquake" syrah from Michael & David Phillips ($28) of Lodi, CA, was described by me as having a nice nose but nauseating taste. I disposed of this wine too after an initial tasting. From the tasting notes of others I extracted "a bit smoky," "a bit strong," "fruity," "thick," "better with spinach." Perhaps we had entered an eclipse phase of our tasting night, but these last two wines would have made me turn to beer or ice tea as an accompaniment.
The next two wines represented an improvement. A 2004 "L'ecole 41" syrah ($26) from the Columbia Valley in Washington State had a closed nose but decent flavor. I thought it was drinkable. Similarly, the commentary around the table described this offering as "pleasant," "don't care for this," "light," and "unremarkable." Basically another ho-hum wine.
Faring better still was the 2005 Wetzel Family Vineyards "Estate Syrah" ($20) from the Alexander Valley, CA. Nice nose, touch of cherries, good acidity and flavor. Also, a touch of habanero pepper. And others commented that it was "peppery with cherries," "tangy," "peppery" (again), "balanced, good finish," "fruity (plum?)," "plums and cherries," and "nice nose - good taste." Although this wine didn't appear on anyone's top three favorites list, the tasting notes would suggest it was well received.
And the last wine, which along with the past few had been making the rounds alongside the entrees, was a 2000 Persephone Vineyard "Peju" Province syrah ($35) from Napa, CA. Of the three last wines, this one was the best accompaniment to grilled medallions of filet mignon and carmelized onions, the nearby rack of lamb marinated with a basil pesto crust, and even Sweetpea's tuna. It was my favorite wine of the evening, and appeared as a top three favorite on all but one other participant's list. The wine had a complex nose of dark berry fruit and a hint of barnyard. I thought it was distinct from the other syrahs tasted, more cabernet sauvignon-like. It had a peppery edge to it, maybe some anise, and was simply a delicious wine. Others wrote that it was a "very serious wine," "barnyard," "smooth," "peppery," "dark and heavy," "complex," "could age for years," "jammy," "lots of fruit and vanilla," "too heavy for the end of the meal." This was a big wine. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it listed for retail sale anywhere, so if someone knows where to locate this one, let us know.
Two standout wines and a few "also ran" wines were discovered that evening. Anyone having a favorite pure (non-"down under") syrah, let's hear from you.
It's not quite pure syrah (3-4% cab sauvignon) and there is a significant "down under" connection (the winemaker was in charge of Penfold's Grange for many years), but I've had several truly outstanding bottles of Long Shadows Sequel, a wine from the Columbia Valley in Washington.