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Syrah

Serious Sonoma Syrah

morgan peterson Often when you think of Napa and Sonoma, the big corporate winery showcases come to mind. Palatial wineries costing tens of millions of dollars surrounded by gardens that compete with Versailles and gourmet kitchens better equipped than three star Michelin restaurants. Yet some of California’s most exciting wines are not being made in such wine palaces.

Working in leased space, crammed in with other small producers sharing space and equipment, some young winemakers are making a dramatic new generation of California wines. Some of the most compelling wines I tasted during a visit to Sonoma last weekend were some bottlings of syrah produced by some low tech, but high passion winemakers. I say this is a new generation because these are not the huge raspberry fruit bomb syrahs with little varietal character you enkidu have come to expect from California. These are big wines, just as they should be, but layered in with all that fruit was real complexity as they exhibited that earthy, butcher shop character that defines the finest wines from this variety.

Morgon Peterson at Bedrock Wine Company is crafting some of the most fascinating American wines I’ve tasted in some time. He’s making a tremendous range of single vineyard syrahs and a dramatic sauvignon blanc/semillon blend. Neighbor Phillip Staehle is making some compelling wines under the Enkidu label. His Odyssey Russian River Syrah is proof positive that the best syrah is made in cooler climates than conventional wisdom has called for in the past.

In the picture above, Peterson presses wines using a muscle powered basket press. Yes, he really makes wine that way. There’s a growing group of young winemakers in California who are well educated not only on winemaking science, but on the traditions that made European wines the standard for greatness in the past. They are on the cutting edge of California winemaking not because of their use of the latest technologies, but by their return to the methods of the past. They are making textured, complex wines that don’t bury the characteristics of the variety under excess and manipulations, but that proudly and clearly show their California personality. For me, these wines were nothing short of exciting. As you might expect, very little wine is produced at wineries such as these. I’d suggest you get on the mailing list now.

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Bargains

muzak Sometimes it’s embarrassing as an American to taste the incredible range of bargains available for under $15 from Europe and compare them to American wines at the same prices. The boring standardization of the American wine industry in this range is numbing. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different labels, but in the bottle you find only dozens of styles. As you stare at shelf-after-shelf of American cabernet, merlot or chardonnay in your local grocery store you can reliably just pick the one that’s on sale as they are all more-or-less the same wine. However, with just a little more work you can find an entire world of wine bargains that offer far more character than these homogenized industrial wines. It’s important to remember that these bargain reds should be served cool, 65°F or so, to bring out their freshness.

The red wines listed below are all under $15 and many of them are under $10. All of them were purchased in grocery stores, not fine wine shops, so it is possible to find them. Each has character, if not complexity, and best of all, they are great with food. Inexpensive American wines have become the elevator music of the wine world, wines like these are the original tunes.

  • Château Bouissel, Fronton, Classic, 2003 - Southern French estates offer some of best bargains out of France. This wine is substantial without being heavy and with the structure coming from the negrette will improve for a year or two. Rich and warm with a dark color from the malbec the tannins in the finish make this perfect for rich stews. Cassoulet anyone? 50% negrette, 20% syrah, 20% cabernet franc, 10% cot (malbec) Imported by Normandie Imports
  • Covey Run, Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2004 - What we have here is an American Côtes du Rhône and that’s a great idea. Ripe and juicy with a soft fruitiness that should please any merlot drinker. Don’t think, just drink and you’ll love it. At $6.99 a great bargain. Drink up fast and cool. (Buy online)
  • Fattoria Laila, Rosso Piceno, 2005 - Marche wines continue to be ignored Italian treasures in America, but that keeps prices down. This blend of montepulciano and sangiovese is a classic Italian red with a firm acid backbone and warm earthy flavors over the bright black cherry fruit. This matched with my penne with lamb sausage ragù perfectly.  Imported by North Berkeley Imports and Zancanella Importing. (Buy online)
  • La Ferme de Gicon, Côtes du Rhône, Vignerons de Chusclan, 2006 - This is just an amazingly easy wine to gulp. Rich, zesty, fruity and alive this is a wine all about honest simple pleasure that is happy to leave complexity to the big boys. This is a buy by the case wine at under $10 that will match with any summer meal. A half-hour in the refrigerator is mandatory and during the dog days of summer I’d serve it out-and-out chilled. Imported by Cellar Door Selections  (Buy online)
  • Villa Pigna Briccaio, Marche IGT, 2003 - Briccaio - Here is a step up on the complexity meter as it not only offers easy drink-ability, but some real character. Showing the breed of montepulciano, from which it is entirely made, this wine combines classic Italian backbone with a generous personality. A great match for your best grilled steaks. Imported by Zancanella Imports (Buy online)
  • Quinta da Espiga, Casa Santos Lima, Estremadura, 2006 - Portugal continues to pump out great wine bargains. This is a big, robust, deeply fruity wine and is a real mouthful. Those that like bigger wines will love this $8 steal. These dry Portuguese reds almost remind me a bit of what Port would taste like without the sugar.
  • Bodegas Luzon, Jumilla, 2006 - 65% monastrell (mourvèdre) 35% syrah - A big lush, ripe modern-style Spanish wine that will seduce many a merlot lover with its soft richness. Another wine for steaks or chops at your next cookout. A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group
  • Regaleali, Tasca d”Almerita, IGT Sicilia, Nero d’Avola, 2006 - I have always found the big players in the Sicilian wine scene, Regaleali and Corvo great values. They offered personality and typicity at a fair price. While these wines have modernized a bit over the years they have not gone down the road of becoming more like Australian wines than Italian wines taken by so many Sicilian producers. This wine has great backbone, good varietal character and, most wonderful of all, tastes like it comes from Sicily. Imported by Winebow   (Buy online)
  • Clos Roche Blanche, Cuvée Pif, Touraine, 2004 -  I first tasted the 2004 back in September of 2006 and it keeps getting better and better. It’s hard to imagine a wine more lifting and filled with personality at this price. This wine is for those looking for grace and elegance in a wine. Originally I recommended drinking this cot (malbec) cabernet franc blend early, but obviously there was no hurry. Imported by Louis/Dressner  (Buy Online)
  • Protocolo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, 2005 - Usually Ordoñez selections tend towards the modern school of Spanish winemaking, but here is one with a more traditional style. Very fragrant and flashing a touch of spicy/sweet American oak its ripe red fruit flavors are held taught with just a touch of tannin. With a more classic European style and balance this is a great match for gilled lamb chops or sausages.  A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group  (Buy online)
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