Syrah: The Steroids of the Pinot Noir World

Monday, June 1, 2009


This piece is an entry for a contest Capozzi Winery is running. You can read more about the contest here.

As I've said before, I write this blog to help people enjoy wine more while spending less money. I'm passionate about wine because I find it to be an incredibly enjoyable means of [virtually] exploring the world through a fascinating and delicious beverage. At this stage in my life, with two little guys filling our home with energy, I find that wine provides me with intellectual stimulation and is a hobby that I can pursue without disrupting our daily routine.

I was at a wine dinner a while back, seated next to some hard core wine people. You think I've got wine on my mind a lot? The folks I was seated with took it to another level. I really enjoyed the conversation, and as we were discussing the importance of wines having a sense of place and being varietally correct, a side issue came up that I thought was quite fascinating.

Someone at the table relayed a story about a California Pinot Noir the winemaker was having a tough time with. The wine was thin and lacked the structure the winemakers sought to achieve, so they decided to blend in some Syrah. According to US law, this is perfectly acceptable: A wine can be labeled as Pinot Noir so long as it contains 75% Pinot Noir (and similarly for other varietal wines). The wine was submitted for rating and received the highest score Wine Spectator has ever bestowed upon a California Pinot Noir: 98 points. A classic.

Some might say this is a travesty. Some might say this encourages winemakers to pursue a style that isn't true to the Pinot Noir grape. I say so what. Why? Because my primary concern when it comes to wine is simple:
  • My guests and I should enjoy it.
  • It should be delicious.
  • It should be a good value.
All of this stuff about being true to the grape is a little bit far reaching, and I thought Steve Heimoff summed it up well (with his typical straightforward writing style) in this piece:

'So let’s stop this talk of “what Pinot used to be” and “trusting it will come back” because it used to suck and there was really nothing for it to come back to!'

It occurs to me that there exists a parallel here between Syrah in Pinot Noir and steroids in major league baseball. America loves the long ball, and a lot of us love big juicy wines, at least some of the time. Add on top of that the competitive nature of being at the top of the game, the adulation, the awards, the jealousy, the competitive nature of it all. And the money.

Some would argue that, similar to jacked up shortstops, full bodied Pinot Noir is unnatural. It's not the way it should be. I can appreciate that point of view, but so long as the consumer knows what they're getting into, no laws of the appellation are being violated, and (most importantly) we enjoy the wines, I see nothing wrong with adding a little Syrah to Pinot Noir. Unlike with steroids, nobody is being physically hurt.

There seems to be a fundamental question here regarding whether wine critics should prescribe the way wines are made -or- whether they should simply review what's in the bottle? Taken literally, this question would seem to apply to things like oak levels, filtering techniques, and how invasive the winemaker should be with the somewhat natural process of wine making. However, taking a more simplistic take on the situation: Should wine critics take issue with a wine that isn't right down the middle in terms of varietal correctness? I would say no.

Similarly, when I'm looking for a wine, I want wine critics to primarily tell me how much pleasure the wine brought them- how much excitement the wine offered. Don't get me wrong- I do trust that experienced/professional wine critics will tell me how well a wine stacks up against the characteristics they're looking for in that variety, but if a wine does well against those characteristics *and* it brings a little extra "umph" what's wrong with that? I say nothing.

So what was the wine being discussed at dinner? I have to think, based on the fact that Wine Spectator has only rated one California Pinot Noir 98 points (ever) that it was the 2004 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Kanzler Vineyard Pinot Noir. I couldn't get my hands on that particular wine, so I sought out the only bottles of Kosta Browne that I could find. I was able to obtain a 2006 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir for around $60 from a retailer in Napa ($48 was the release price). I cracked it open with friends and family last night.

I have to say- I wasn't disappointed. It was a gem. If this wine had been given a poor rating by Wine Spectator because it was good but too full bodied for Pinot Noir, it probably would have been a review that I disagreed with. I think it would be a case of the critic getting too much into the winemaker's domain. That's why I like critics to review primarily what's in the bottle.

Here's hoping that Congress *doesn't* get involved in an investigation into which Pinot producers are "using" Syrah. And here are my notes:

2006 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast - USA, California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast (5/29/2009)
This is the first Kosta Browne I've had and I approached the bottle with a little bit of trepidation based on the reputation the wine carries for being heavy handed. I've gotta say- I loved the style and didn't think it was overdone at all. Big red strawberry fruit on the nose and a nice amount of spice. Smooth on the palate while still being hearty and a finish that went on for miles. YUM. Would recommend, but don't think I can justify the price and the difficulty in finding. Enjoyed very much though. (93 pts.)


Posted from CellarTracker



Further Reading:
Question of the Day: What do you think of Syrah in Pinot Noir?

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