Growing Cool Climate Syrah

On the face of it, growing Syrah is a farmer’s dream. Relative to other varieties we grow, Syrah reaches for the sky, sets well and is resistant to most adverse weather. Despite this, there are many factors that dictate the quality of the resulting fruit and wine, and this is where we focus our energies as winegrowers and winemakers.

One of the most often discussed subjects among wine drinkers and growers is clonal selection. In the final weeks of ripening, we repeatedly taste the fruit hanging on the vine. This is one of the times when the different clones clearly express themselves. I was asked recently what my favorite clone was and I truly couldn’t say, but the differences do express themselves, both in the flavor of the ripening berry, and the flavor of the aging wine. So far we have been making Syrah from the three clones planted in 1998 and will vinify our first lots from two of the three additional clones in the 2003 vintage. While I can taste the difference in the Syrah grapes and in the wine, I am not at all certain that clonal distinctions are as dramatic in Syrah as they are in Pinot noir (which we also grow). That said, we are avidly in pursuit of complexity, of subtlety and nuance, and the variety of shadings of Syrah flavor that we obtain from the different clones is important.

Though Syrah can be grown in a wide range of climates, we contend that Syrah best expresses itself in relatively cooler temperatures. Vanessa discusses how the wine ranges in taste based on where it is grown in her column so I will focus on one important aspect that contributes to this difference: physiological changes in the berry in the final stages of ripening. This is a hotly debated topic among Syrah growers both in Australia and here in the U.S. because it has implications for both the quality and the style of the wine. Sometime at or near veraison (coloring), the grapes reach their maximum weight, having swollen up from pin heads to small ni├žoise olives in size. Crop estimates based on cluster weights measured at this time (mid-August) err on the high side, as the grapes will actually lose weight before they are harvested in October. Assuming the lost weight is water, how does it leave and how much is lost?

Viticultural researchers have attempted to investigate this phenomenon, and one published report monitored Syrah grown in the hot interior of Australia. They concluded that the grape is actually not ripening over the last few degrees of sugar accumulation; that instead the sugar is concentrating through dehydration only, which is visible in the form of berry shriveling and that the rachis (the stem that connects the cluster to the shoot) is no longer transporting nutrients to or from the cluster. At that point, the rachis is not ‘viable’ other than to keep the cluster from falling to the ground.

The rachis of the Syrah cluster is quite long, compared to those of other varieties, and relatively fragile so their hypothesis bears consideration. But we do not experience berry shrivel with our Syrah. The implications of a ‘nonviable’ rachis are that normal (and desirable) flavor component accumulations are not occurring, and that reactions that create raisiny, syrupy flavors are probably taking place (less desirable). I believe that our grapes surely lose proportionally less weight than those in warmer climates as our rachi are still viable and transmit nutrients up to the picking date.

Though cool climate leads to more complex Syrah it also comes with a few challenges. We manipulate the canopy to improve air circulation in the fruit zone to reduce mold and mildew pressure, and to expose the berries to dappled sunlight and sweet morning rays. Our regime includes training the vines to grow upright through sets of wires as well as shoot and leaf thinning throughout the Summer. Since Syrah can bear quite heavily if left to its own devices, we decrease the fruit load, as well, to a level that should allow us to harvest before November 1st. We also get rid of cluster ‘wings’ which ripen a little behind the rest of the cluster, leaving behind the best, most evenly ripe fruit.

There’s no “trick” to ripening Syrah out here in such a cool climate, just a bit of effort to train the vigorous vine-monster that emerges in Spring and early Summer into a more airy structure, with more elegance and poise, to accommodate a cool touch of sun. And these coastal hills don’t feel the autumn nip as early as inland valleys, where late in the growing season nights begin to feel more wintry. This way, we continue to ripen into late Fall, even to November 1st, if we have to. Cool sun = Syrah non pareil!

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