Syrah In My Pinot

The recent brouhaha over at Palate Press starting with an offhand Twitter comment by wine blogger Remy Charest and ending (maybe) with an article by winemaker Adam Lee of Siduri called up the frequent under-the-breath reference insinuating many California Pinot Noirs are so big due a dollop of syrah. It’s rather a silly idea if you think about it. Why? It’s already there, no not the syrah, but the syrah character. No additions are necessary.

All of this just shows the misconceptions of both writers and winemakers. Writers think California Pinot is so big because they put syrah in it while winemakers think they need to put syrah in their pinot to make it big enough to make the writers happy. The wonders the 100 point scale has brought us.

Just because you are the first does not mean that you’re the one and only. Burgundy is not the only correct example of pinot noir in the world. It is only one expression of that variety. It’s always interesting to me that the most ardent defenders of terroir are the ones most loudly damning the robust character of California Pinot Noir. Perhaps they should consider that powerful character is the terroir of pinot noir in California. There is a difference in claiming that a wine does not have terroir and not liking the style of a terroir. Successful California Pinot does not and should not taste exactly like Burgundy. That is only one standard and only one of the many expressions of pinot. California Pinot Noir is supposed to taste like California Pinot Noir.

In his excellent article, Syrah in My Pinot? A Winemaker Responds, Adam Siduri makes many good points, but one stands out. It all his years of winemaking he has never known any serious pinot noir producer to add syrah to their wine unless they openly admit it on their label or sales materials. I’ll add my own thirty years of experience to that and I too have never known any winemaker aspiring to make great pinot noir that added syrah to their blend without being upfront about it. The example of Castle Rock adding syrah to their pinot is simply a producer making a better wine. At that price point you can’t make a decent pinot noir without some help. If you insist on buying pinot noir under $15 your palate should be grateful they blended a bit of syrah in. The strange thing about consumers is that if they just bought a $15 syrah they’d get a great wine at a bargain price instead of insisting on pinot noir that needs to be “corrected” to make it pleasurable to drink. Excellent pinot noir is not for bargain hunters.

This does not mean that pinot noir cannot be manipulated out of showing its terroir as it so often is in California and, for that matter, throughout the world. Just because the natural character of California Pinot Noir is substantial does not mean that all extremes are acceptable. The essential character of pinot noir is its transparency, that unique ability to show the personality of the vineyard where it was grown. This transparency can show itself in wines of many different weights and concentrations. This is clearly seen within Burgundy itself.  Vineyard and winery manipulations that obliterate that transparency eliminate the reason to grow and make pinot noir in the first place. If you want to make massive, powerful wines there are a lot better varieties to work with.

The only reason to blend syrah with pinot noir is that you actually wanted to make a syrah to begin with. If you’re a winemaker and want to blend syrah with your pinot you’ve chosen to make the wrong variety. If you’re a wine writer and you want your pinot noir to taste like syrah you’re drinking the wrong variety.

Square pegs in round holes don’t work any better than they used to.