Bacon fat. Smoked meat. Green olive.” Getting hungry? Be thirsty, instead. That’s winemaker David Ramey describing the classic aromas of wine made from Syrah, a classic grape of the Rhône.
This harvest time of year, the story seems to always be about the same grapes: First, it’s about Pinot Noir that’s been picked for sparkling wine—in July! Last, it’s about Cabernet Sauvignon still hanging on the vines—and rain is on the way! Rarely do we hear about the dozens of other grapes being picked. Recently, sommelier Chris Sawyer hosted an opportunity to get to know some of these varieties a little better at a cozy tasting and seminar at Sebastopol’s Gravenstein Grill.
Winemaker Mick Unti, of Unti Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, says he discovered the wines of France’s Rhône Valley when he was a student. “And it was cheap!” Similarly, as a student on a tight budget in Paris back in 1979, Ramey kept an eye open for the good stuff, for cheap. “Cheap Bordeaux didn’t taste good. But the wines of the southern Rhône were great—and I could afford it!”
The varietal wines at the tasting included Syrah, some fermented along with a splash of the white grape Viognier in the style of the northern Rhône; Grenache, often blended with Syrah and Mourvedre in the southern Rhône style; and a host of other varieties blended in crisp rosés, whites and reds.
The panel echoed familiar laments about Syrah—rumored to have been tainted by the fast rise and faster fall of cheap Australian Shiraz (the same variety by a different name)—while affirming that producers still in the game are really on their game. Some 2,639 tons of Syrah were crushed in Sonoma County in 2018. Compare that to 34,841 tons of Pinot Noir.
Ramey 2015 Rodger’s Creek Petaluma Gap Syrah ($65) A sweet, spicy note, like hickory smoke, or a hint of nag champa, wafts above savory aromas of black and green olive. No marsupial fruit bomb, like some Shiraz; this is a silky, subtle, grown-up wine with grilled red fruit flavors accented with spice and leather, yet it’s not too rustic—like some Rhône—and is well suited to pairing with autumnal flavors.
Look for more Rhône-style wines at these wineries: ACORN Winery, Amapola Creek Winery, Benovia Winery, CRUX Winery, Dane Cellars, Davis Family Vineyards, Donelan Family Wines, Enkidu Winery, GlenLyon Winery, Jeff Cohn Cellars, Keller Estate, The Larsen Projekt, Lasseter Family Winery, Mengler Family Wines, Miner Family Winery, Muscardini Cellars, Odisea Wine Company, Raft Wines, Scherrer Winery, Winery Sixteen 600, Trentadue Winery and Two Shepherds.