California’s wine industry during my career in the trade has been one of a constant seek and ye shall find. One thinks of the almost comic invasion of Napa in the 1970s with red Bordeaux and white Burgundy projects, resulting in the planting of lots of Cabernet and Chardonnay in the most random of places, financed by those who had made their money in other spheres.
But, just as those years garnered plenty of dross outcomes, so seeds remained, and the development of winemaking in the USA since then has been largely conducted on a much more closely targeted approach.
Red Willow vineyards in the form of Mike Sauer and his winemaker David Lake, one of the earliest MWs from the States, introduced themselves to me in the 1980s and I was able to show them examples of mature northern Rhône Syrah when dining together at home in London.
Their work with Syrah in the Yakima Valley in Washington State was ground breaking in the 1980s, and had much to do with forming the perception in the USA that Syrah could be successfully grown in a cool climate – just as it is, essentially at Côte-Rôtie. A little south of Red Willow, lies Portland, Oregon, for example, which is just about on the same latitude (45th) as Hermitage.
The search for cool, more temperate wines has continued – not right across the board, but always driven by high conviction Questors, those who hold a concerted view of what style of wine they wish to make, often derived from the inspiration of a wine drunk earlier and elsewhere, almost in another life.
Thus it was with Josh Jensen getting the Viognier bug when harvesting at Château-Grillet in the early 1970s. I had the good fortune to take out an old Condrieu to San Francisico to drink with Josh several years ago – it was about 20 years old, and in great shape, which confirmed my absolutist view that Viognier does age well, only in a different manner to the early opulence. Indeed it changes profile quite early, after around five years, then flatlines, not budging up or downhill, for many years after that.
The bottles of 1976, 1979, 1982 and 1983 Condrieu that I take out to the Domaine Georges Vernay for them to try for the first time – and leave a good slug for Georges himself the next day – go to prove that point. Although I cover the Rhône in detail for Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Book annual, to this day, Hugh still insists on putting the moniker DYA – Drink Youngest Available – next to the Condrieu entry.
In 2014 I was contacted by Paul Gordon of Halcón Vineyards, who with his fellow British friend Jackie Bracey, had established a vineyard in Mendocino, high up at close to 2,500 feet (800-odd metres) – one of the highest vineyards in California. Their inspiration is what Paul terms “a love of the ethereal wines of the Northern Rhône.” Way to go, son.
So, locating schist soils at altitude in the Anderson Valley formed a profile that took them to the next step of actually planting the vineyard, which took place in 2005. The climate at height was the highly suitable one of what makes all the greatest Rhône vintages – take 2010, for instance: the cool nights of summer, which allow the vines to switch off, and to make gradual, unhurried progress towards completing their ripening cycle.
Great wine will never be made from an extremist year – 2003 or 2009 being some of the last high heat, arid years in the Rhône, for instance. Their wines are generally very good, but are fundamentally less well balanced than the vintage I regard as majestic – 2010, the copain or chum of 1978. A fruit parallel I would draw is that of English garden strawberries versus French strawberries – the cooler climate here delivers more flair in the flavour, a more bespoke acidity.
At Halcón, the vines are above the fog line, and the night-time and morning temperatures are warmer than the valley below, but peak temperatures are always held in check by afternoon breezes and the altitude. So Paul has found his spot, the soil being a mix of fractured shale, mica-schist and quartz. I could be writing about Côte Rozier at Côte-Rôtie.
Planting has been dense, running at 2200 vines per acre, or 5,430 vines per hectare – obviously less than the 8,000 or so of terraced slopes in the northern Rhône. The Syrah is a mix of selected cuttings from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie and clones, while a small amount of Grenache and Mourvèdre have been planted on a protected south facing slope.
The Grenache is a mix of Alban and Tablas Creek selections, while the Mourvèdre is straight down the line from Tablas Creek, owned by the Perrins of Château de Beuacastel, and we all know their penchant for Mourvèdre, as in the 60% Mourvèdre from the 1940s and 1950s that makes up the major part of their Hommage à Jacques Perrin.
Satisfied with his 2013 vintage, Paul kindly sent me a bottle of his Syrah wine, named Alturas or Heights, and a bottle of his Grenache-Mourvèdre, named Esquisto, or Schist. “With the vines just getting to the established phase, it seemed a good time. I wanted to wait until we felt we had dialed in the wines, understood our vineyard better and got a little maturity in the vines. I think we got that with the 2013 vintage (which we just bottled).”
It appears that not much new oak is used in the raising of the wines – perhaps 20%, a reduced proportion, on the Alturas, and none on the Grenache-Mourvèdre, for which we can be thankful. Grenache and new oak = NO NO. The wines are neither fined nor filtered.
With a spring in my step, after allowing a few weeks for the wines to settle, I tried the two wines. Perhaps the result is a little surprising.
The Alturas Syrah 2013 tasting note ran as follows, tasted as it was over a few days. All the best wines of my youth – I include some 1929s, 1945s and the odd 1961 in this, were all better with air, or on the morrow. I still have Barolos from the 1940s and 1950s that conform to that way of being.
***(*) full dark red robe; This has a lucid, aromatic nose – it gives airs of crushed/soaked cherries with a suggestion of licorice and violets that comes in a delicate funnel. There is a hint of extreme ripeness in a light note of lushness, and some lurking reduction. After one hour, the nose becomes more weighty. On Day 2, there is a more heightened aroma of black cherries. The palate is immediately more robust and urgent than the nose – it bears fleshy, wholesome and broadly layered black berry fruit, while the tannin grips tightly and coolly as it takes over towards the finish. It gives a good, dentelle or toothsome close, bright as a button. The flavours present blueberry, blackberry and licorice infused together. It is more Côte-Rôtie on the nose, and Hermitage from Le Méal (the south facing slope that provided the heart of the 1961 La Chapelle) on the palate. I find the Alturas more fleshy and evident than the Esquisto. It is well juiced, but a slight fade towards the finish suggests young vines, after the wine has done plenty early on. On Day 2, the oak is on the outside, notably on the finish, with a pronounced vanilla influence. So another year in bottle will be good for the wine to fuse further. On Day 3, soaked fruit leads the way, with a fine grain tannin perhaps from the stems, a floral interlude on the finish. It flirts with New World, obvious features, and teases with Northern Rhône florality. There is also some rocky fissure in its flavour. 2021-22
Meanwhile, down from the “south” came the
****(*) has a plum red robe, plentiful legs visible down the glass. The nose is rather neutral, ungiving, which suggests Mourvèdre domination; there is a couch of simmered black fruits, fruit lozenges, a note of mulberry red berry. The palate delivers a tasty roll of spiced blueberry fruit, the spice getting into overdrive after half way. This holds fine grain, dark tannins, a real Mourvèdre imprint, on the finish, which lingers attractively. Exemplary length here. It is a wine finding its way – not surprising given the 60% Mourvèdre. The fruit comes in good, fine droplets, and this is stimulating for the mind, aided by restraint and a little mystery (more so than the Syrah Alturas). The delicacy of the second half of the palate works well. Decant this. From spring 2016. Day 2, the nose is firm, broad. The palate gives a soaked red cherries (griottes) flavour, the length good. There is a hint of glow on the finish. This is very good, nice and complete wine. Day 3 – it is beau, aromatic wine. 2022-23
So the pre-race favourite, which I imagine to have been the Alturas, has been slightly toppled by the outsider. Certainly the Syrah comes in the vein of Syrahs from the north-west of the USA, where cooler zones at places such as the Eola Hills of Oregon and the Santa Maria Valley have become more likely to house Syrah with cut and definition. But, as I found when visiting McLaren Vale a few years ago, the Grenache really surprised and excited me, with its buddy the Mourvèdre.
In my cellar I have several bottles of late 1980s/early 1990s Mataro from Monsieur le Professeur Paul Draper of Ridge, while I am aware that winemakers in the USA have been seeking to freshen up the Grenache with the inclusion of stems, as has been done at Jaffurs or Gramercy Cellars. These are all good moves.
The Parkerisation Years plunged Châteauneuf-du-Pape into a headlong rush to produced high octane, high degree wines with a noun new to me when I first heard it, “sucrosity”, in the mix. Not only were these unbalanced wines, but they also deviated from what Châteauneuf has historically been – a wine of elegance, made largely from Grenache, with the stems on, cultivated at around 14°. Sledgehammer wines at 16° were not on the agenda.
Those wines that I bought for peanuts, while earning peanuts, dating from 1964, 1966 and 1969, for instance, were all beauties – marvellously aromatic, and smooth as silk along the palate. I think of Domaine de la Solitude, Les Cailloux and Clos du Mont Olivet, for instance. They were raised in concrete vats or large old barrels – a neutral environment, as long as the grower was competent with his sulphur stick in the barrels.
Here I am tasting a Californian beauty from high up the hill, with the co-fermentation deliberate “to balance things out between the higher degree Grenache and the lower degree Mourvèdre,” as Paul told me - a perfect sudiste, Mediterranean approach performed in sight of the Pacific.
“In 2013 the Mourvedre was a little riper than usual (due to low crop),” Paul also explained. “It got to 24brix compared to the more typical 22.5-23.5b. In 2013 the Grenache got to 25.5brix (which is typical). The vineyards were hit by frost, so we got just 1/3 ton per acre. That gave us just 700 bottles of the Esquisto and 1400 bottles of the Alturas.”
Paul’s route to his vineyard was from another world – that of the high tech business, in which he had been an Engineer and CEO in California. “While in California, I got the food and wine bug. My palate has led me to the Rhône (mainly North), though it has created a love of a good Burgundy as well.” He should be pleased with the state of play after nearly one decade.
I was impressed by wines coming out of Mendocino (Copain, Littorai being two examples). I looked for a site to plant, and found Halcón Vineyards - an extreme site (windy, cold, very poor soils) that had a lot of risk but promise of something interesting and differentiated.”
I heartily, thoroughly, unreservedly recommend that readers try the Halcón wines; there is a Marsanne-Roussanne white, called Prado, as well. But if you like a slice of mystery allied with a droplet of poetry, I would point you to the 2013 Esquisto.