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Paul Hobbs Kick Ranch Syrah, Sonoma County 2005 and the Worldly Syrah Grape

Kick Ranch Syrah is Paul Hobb’s first attempt at Syrah from his Sebastopol winery located in Sonoma County. The color of this Syrah is black in the center with dark red framing the edges. The bouquet reveals scents of blueberries and graphite, with subtle notes of meat and as always with good Syrah some pepper. Black fruits and white pepper, in the background are notes of pencil shavings and meaty (think roast) flavors all framed by judicious levels of oak. The tannins are ripe and the finish is something between a Cote Rotie and a well made Shiraz. Not as heavy as a Shiraz, not as lean and powerful as a Cote-Rotie. Delicious! Decant if you can or use a Vinturi as this shut down shortly after opening and needed air to coax it back open. Wait 6 months+ to enjoy. Cheers to Paul (right)!

Now I know why many who like Syrah from Australia and the traditional northern Rhone in France do not find California Syrah as attractive as Shiraz or Hermitage (Syrah from the Northern Rhone). The best examples of Syrah in California are nothing like the ripe, almost burnt fruit of Australia. Nor is California Syrah like the leaner, more aromatic, more velvet glove with the iron fist of the Northern Rhone. California Syrah can tend to share characteristics of both Shiraz and the Rhone by varying degrees.

California Syrah flavors and aromas are more French, but the body and color is more Oz. However that may be, I like this wine style. It seems almost like a hybrid of the Rhone and Shiraz. But to understand what I mean, first you have to understand what Shiraz is and what the Northern Rhone is (Hermitage, Cote Rotie, and Cornas).

Syrah from California is typically different than Shiraz in flavor profile except for the ripe fruits, yet just as concentrated with comparable alcohol levels and lower acidity levels. In France the flavor profile is similar sans the high fruit levels. In most cases Rhone Syrah fruit shares the stage equally with mineral flavors like hot rocks, graphite and pencil shavings, as well as bacon fat, game and meat flavors with some herbs like sage, herbs de Provence and in rare cases mint sprinkled in. Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Cornas show bacon fat, roasted or stewed meats, white and black pepper, coffee, espresso, minerality, liquorice, blueberry and blackberry fruits. Shiraz gets you those fruits and some mild pepper notes, but lacks in many cases the bacon, meaty, minerality the terroir of the steep slopes of the Northern Rhone exude. Rhone wines tend to age longer and in an average year are less concentrated in body and alcohol. In fact last month Lisa and I had 3 Cote Rotie from the 1996 vintage from the great negociant Guigal: La Mouline (see left and my favorite), La Londonne and La Turque. All were incredible, showing their maturity except the La Turque which seemed more youthful and more new world in style. Each were on sale for $250 that night at the wine shop that was generous enough to be pouring samples of all 3 (We passed on purchasing). Rhone Syrah also tends to not wear out the palate as they retain their acidity better than new world Syrah. To fans of Northern Rhone wines, California Syrah can be too low in acidity and too high in alcohol, glycerin and concentration. Shiraz lovers like the alcohol, concentration and massive fruit flavors in California Syrah but likely dislike those extra mineral, gamey and herbal notes from the Rhone that they probably think is a funk of some sort. I think it just makes the wine more interesting.

It seems like Syrah, tagged by many in the past few years to be the next Merlot, is not catching on like many would have liked in California. The reason Syrah probably never caught on as the next Merlot is that it is not like Merlot at all. In most cases Merlot is like a lighter, less complex version of the oh-so-popular and expensive Cabernet Sauvignon that established itself as the dominant red grape of the world a very long time ago and still to this day dominates red wines sales. There are great versions of Merlot, believe you me some of the best wines in the world contain or are made solely out of Merlot. Syrah is NOTHING like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Apples and oranges here folks.

In California (and Washington State) there are the die hard Syrah enthusiasts and traditionalists that create excellent examples. A few of my favorites include Cayuse (WA), Alban, Pax, Shafer, and Clos Mimi. They are well established small production wineries but consistently make excellent Syrah.

Syrah is a different beast and in many cases the best bottles are rare or hard to find. Most of my friends I have recommended these wines to have not loved them. I have yet to meet a friend of mine that is a Syrah Freak. There are plenty of Shiraz nuts, just no Syrah nuts. They mostly say the wines were nice or ok, but rarely do I get an emphatic response like, “Thanks, I bought a case”. Most people love Shiraz (very frequent) or love Northern Rhone (few but more than California) – rarely do the same people like Shiraz and Rhone Syrah, let alone California Syrah.

To me, Shiraz is its own wine: super ripe, super dark, low in acidity, full of ripe fruit. Northern Rhone, like Hermitage, is leaner and lighter in color and alcohol, contains good levels of acidity, yet is concentrated and balanced in terroir, flavors and super aromatic. Almost like chewing a mouthful of blackberries, super ripe Shiraz is popular the world over. As it should be – it is simply delicious. Not overly complex but more fun. From the time we knew how to eat fruit the rule of thumb has been the riper the better. I think that’s great when I want that Oz style. Some finer Shiraz examples show some refinement and great balance. Penfolds Grange is one such example of Shiraz that is one of the great wines of the world up there with Latour, Guigal, Domaine Romanee Conti, and Harlan.

Syrah is an incredible grape and has many identities; all regions have their fine examples of this ancient varietal and are justly different because of the unique terroir. There is no other grape in the wine world with so many identities and variations. For the Rhone fan, next time reach for a California Syrah from Pax or Clos Mimi or a Shiraz from Two Hands (right), Torbeck or Mollydooker. For the Shiraz fan, maybe try a Cote Rotie or a Washington State Syrah from Cayuse.

Cheers!

Please enjoy these photos of the Northern Rhone to help you understand why the terroir is so unique in Hermitage and Cote Rotie. Syrah is not grown in these conditions anywhere else in the world!

The Hermitage hillside from the Rhone River

Hermitage in all its glorybelted by the Rhone River

The steep hillsides of Cote Rotie (notice the label for la Mouline above is these man made terraced hillsides)

The famous Cote Rotie brick terraces created ages ago

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