The Art of Making Syrah

It is difficult to write about winemaking without writing about growing grapes. For us, winemaking is winegrowing, we approach it as one integral process rather than simply two separate, sequential processes. As Nick will cover the particulars about growing Syrah at our coastal vineyard in his winegrower’s notes, I will carry the thread and elucidate how our Syrah grapes take the journey from grapes to glass.

Syrah is a wine that has a rather vast range of styles depending on where it is grown and vinted. On one end there is the monstrous Syrah: exuberant with extracted blueberry fruit character and tarry, coconutty oak notes that some associate with robust Australian wine from the Barossa. On the other, there is the more medium bodied Syrah, nervy with zingy cassis, pomegranate and white pepper more reminiscent of a wine originating from a Rhône appellation like St. Joseph. A portion of what results in a certain style of wine can be attributed to winemaking practices but much has to do with the climate and the soil of where the grapes are grown, or the terroir. In taking an integrated approach to making wines from plant to bottle we make it our work’s purpose to bring out the expression of our cool climate coastal vineyard: a wine that is focused and concentrated with its perfume and fruit character but also a wine that possesses subtlety with that strength, and elegance with that density. In short, a wine that is extraordinarily flexible with food and not encumbered by gobs of new oak and mammoth tannins.

To experience complexity in wine, you first need the complex flavors to develop in the grape as the vine bears the grape clusters. In general this requires a long growing season as the range and concentration of these flavor and phenolic compounds are a product of longer hang time, not heat and sugar ripeness. At our vineyard site we experience a distinct development of these flavors and as a result can achieve a wine whose flavor profile is concentrated in fruit character but not extracted and syrupy like wines from grapes grown in warmer areas that have not had the chance to physiologically ripen to develop more complex flavors. As I taste the flavors developing in the ripening Syrah grapes in anticipation of deciding when to harvest, I look for the evolution of flavors from a sort of fresh berry coulis to something that has more of a creamy berry taste, a flavor that is almost tactile.

Syrah is a fairly large bodied wine that usually has beautifully massive color and can also have massive tannins. As a result, a winemaker must attune the winemaking to strike that balance in tannin structure. In some ways we treat our Syrah winemaking similar to the ways we handle our Pinot noir, but then again, some aspects of making Syrah have more in common with making a Bordeaux variety like Merlot. Like Pinot noir, I vinify our hand harvested, hand-sorted grapes in small, open-top, temperature controlled fermentors. Also like Pinot noir, I like to cold-soak the destemmed Syrah grapes for a number of days before fermentation starts and to perform thrice daily punch-downs during fermentation. I do this to bring out the essences of fruit and spice. But Syrah is less delicate than Pinot noir and also benefits from occasional pump-overs – as do Bordeaux varieties – to achieve a wine with saturated, lasting color and rounder tannins.

Our Syrah experiences about 3 weeks of cuvaison and is drained and pressed when the fermentation is complete. The wine is then put into 60 gallon oak barriques where it undergoes malolactic fermentation and ages in barrel for approximately 18 months. I aim to use approximately 25 to 35% new French oak, enough new oak to bring out the depth in the palate and highlight the spicy fruit components on the nose, but not so much that the focus and the beauty of the terroir gets muddled in the strong statement that new oak lends and sometimes dominates by simplifying more subtle aromas. With this I bring a balance between power and elegance in both the nose and the palate. Our Syrah takes some time to integrate and the tannins to fold into the wine as a whole, which is why I like to age our Syrah in barrel through the following vintage before bottling the subsequent Spring.

In the end, Syrah has its own unique process; one that strikes a balance between handling the wine gently to preserve the complexity of flavors, yet seeks to extract certain characteristics that make the variety unique. Thus, our Syrah makes its journey from our vines to your glass with many careful steps along the way, becoming a nuanced and pleasurable wine for your palate to enjoy.

Recent articles by Vanessa Wong