Progress & Promise

California Rhônes hit quality highs as styles coalesce around regions and grapes

Excerpted from the April 30, 2017, issue

What a frustrating identity crisis it has been for the pioneers of California’s Rhône-style red wines. Syrah, Grenache and the category’s various blends have been a hard sell, with consumers complaining they don’t know what to expect from bottle to bottle: Will it be a fruit bomb, a tightly wound red for the cellar, or offer the game and glorious funk of France’s Rhône Valley?

But though this uncertainty persists, regional identities for these wines are coming into better focus. And while there are no exact parallels between California appellations and specific regions within the Rhône, it’s becoming easier for shoppers to choose a style they prefer based on where the wine was made.

That’s my takeaway after reviewing more than 500 Rhône-style reds in blind tastings at our Napa Valley office over the past year. Since my previous report (“Mix and Match,” March 31, 2016), I have tasted wines from all over California. At this early stage, I give the 2014 vintage a preliminary rating of 91-94 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, which puts it in the same range as the outstanding 2013. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

Among current releases, if you prefer structured wines that need aging, a cooler region such as Santa Barbara, with subregions such as Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon and Santa Ynez Valley, is a good bet. If you like full-bodied fruit, Paso Robles is a stronghold, although many winemakers there are starting to build wines for the long haul, too. Sonoma County and Sierra Foothills are places offering a mixed bag of styles and where knowing a given producer’s approach is key. However, if you need a refined Rhône red built like a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley is the go-to.

There will always be winemakers who follow their own muse and defy a specific region’s terroir-defined style, but in general, top producers have been fine-tuning their wines to best show where they’re grown. I expect that evolution to accelerate as new vineyards and winemakers come into play.

Value seekers can look to all corners of California, thanks to the versatility of Syrah. Best buys include the lively Morgan Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands G17 2014 (90, $22); Hahn GSM Central Coast 2014 (90, $15), with its perky personality; the zesty and generous Tenshen Santa Barbara County 2015 (89, $25); the easygoing Kendall-Jackson Syrah Santa Barbara County Vintner’s Reserve 2014 (88, $17); and the snappy, fresh Andrew Murray Syrah Santa Ynez Valley Tous Les Jours 2014 (88, $18.)

The two top reds in this report hail from one of Paso Robles’ best growers and winemakers, Justin Smith. His Saxum Booker Vineyard Paso Robles Willow Creek District 2013 (97, $98), a blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, is a powerful red that reveals a distinctive sense of place, with dark blackberry and loamy earth aromas matched to a core of rich, structured fruit. Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles Willow Creek District 2014 (97, $98) is a Grenache-based blend that dramatically weds power and opulence, maintaining impeccable balance along the way. (For more on the Willow Creek appellation, see “A Look at Willow Creek,” below.)

“I think both wines show their vintages well,” says Smith, who has several reds from both vintages under review in this report. “The 2013s really have a nice brightness, more freshness and acidity. The 2014s are marked more by the drought. The grapes were tiny and there was hardly any juice in them. They’re definitely more concentrated, and the tannins are pretty big.”

Just to the north, in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, the Franscioni family with winemaker Scott Shapley produced their finest Syrah yet: the Roar Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2014 (95, $42). Striking for its depth and polish, it layers floral blackberry, smoky pepper and tapenade notes. Grower Gary Franscioni says that “trying to balance the vine is the big challenge with Syrah [in the Highlands]. Syrah is just a vigorous vine.”

In Northern California, Sonoma County is well-represented by two key players. Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson produced an exceptional wine with the Bedrock Syrah Sonoma Valley Weill a Way Vineyard Exposition Two 2013 (96, $75), deeply structured, yet rich and polished, with blackberry and smoky beef notes. Mike Officer made one of his best wines ever in the Carlisle Syrah Russian River Valley Papa’s Block 2014 (96, $44), a plush and luxurious red that builds momentum and complexity.

Leading the pack from Napa Valley are two vineyards with impressive track records. Colgin Syrah Napa Valley IX Estate 2013 (95, $315) is supple but powerful, with notes of blueberry, chunky chocolate and smoky herb. And though Araujo may no longer be part of its name (Château Latour’s Pinault family bought the estate three years ago), the Eisele Vineyard Syrah Napa Valley 2013 (95, $150) delivers the goods, showing elegance and complexity, plus accents of smoky meat, tapenade and dark raspberry.

The Sierra Foothills region has been producing Syrah and blends for decades, and there are some truly exciting Rhône reds coming out of the mountains. Case in point is the Pruett Syrah Sierra Foothills Taylor’s Reserve 2014 (95, $46), an expressive, well-structured red, with blackberry, smoky beef and river stone notes. Scott Pruett made his name racing cars, and he added grapegrowing to his list of passions a few years ago. “My winemaking education is not very deep,” he says. “I really let the fruit tell me what it wants to be.”

For the most part, the 2014 and 2013 vintages gave vintners and winemakers full cooperation. Both growing seasons started early and had uneventful spring weather and mild, sunny summers. The two years wrapped early, generally before the onset of rain.

“We didn’t experience many heat spikes in 2013 and ’14,” Pruett says. Ripening is more consistent when temperatures remain even and moderate. “Everybody got to pick when they wanted to.”

But though recent growing seasons have been largely accommodating, the long-term question is California’s ongoing drought. Northern regions such as Napa and Sonoma have been more fortunate with winter rains than Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Santa Lucia Highlands, which remain in dire straights.

Producers are still sorting out the long- and short-term effects. “Some varieties are definitely more affected by the drought than others,” Smith says. “Grenache seems to do the best, and Syrah just doesn’t want to produce much.” Smith didn’t bottle a Saxum Bone Rock in 2014 because the crop of Syrah was so small.

For Central Coast growers and vintners like Franscioni, there are more lasting concerns. “The drought is affecting well water, without a doubt,” he says. “We might have two more years of well water.”

This looming shortage presents yet another twist in the ongoing story of California Rhône-style reds.

Senior editor Tim Fish is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on California Rhône-style reds.

A Look at Willow Creek

When Justin Smith’s parents planted vineyards in an obscure corner of Paso Robles 30 years ago, it was serendipity that it turned out to be in one of California’s sweet spots for growing Syrah, Grenache and other Rhône varieties.

That sweet spot, Willow Creek, has since been favored by Paso vintners for its cool temperatures and limestone-rich soils, but it wasn’t until 2014, when the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau divided the Paso Robles AVA into 11 new subregions, that consumers got a more precise taste of what makes the area’s wines unique.

Fans of California Rhône-style wines should start paying attention to Willow Creek. In this year’s report, 27 of the 34 wines labeled as Willow Creek rated 90 or more points, with five classic ratings (95 to 100) among those. An additional 14 wines from vineyards within Willow Creek received 90-plus ratings as well, including two more classic, giving Willow Creek seven of the report’s 19 classic-scoring wines.

Located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Paso Robles AVA was created in 1983 and until 2014 was the largest undivided AVA in California, at approximately 614,000 acres. Eleven subregions might seem like overkill, but Napa Valley, by contrast, has 16 subappellations across just 225,000 acres.

For growers and vintners, the goal was to better delineate Paso with these additional AVAs, distinguished with respect to various soil types, rainfall, elevations and temperatures. Carving the area into subappellations was not intended to create limitations, but rather provide guidelines for consumers.

Paso’s regional division used to be thought of simply in terms of east and west, split, more or less, by U.S. Route 101. Generally, the east side is warmer, relatively flat and easier to farm. The west side is cooler, with a landscape shaped by rolling hills and sharp peaks ranging from 700 to 2,200 feet. Early on, many farmers avoided the west side because of its steep sites and the cost of developing vineyards in the rugged, rocky terrain.

Beyond these generalities, however, the largest wine region within the Central Coast is extremely diverse, with 30 distinct soil series and a variety of microclimates and topographies, and these differences came increasingly into relief as the area’s wine industry developed. Producers hope the subregions will bring some clarity, although they acknowledge that it will take time for several of the new AVAs within Paso to express their different styles and show what they do best. In fact, many of the recently created appellations are still relatively undeveloped.

The Willow Creek and Adelaida districts, meanwhile, home to long-established wineries such as Justin, Tablas Creek and Justin Smith’s Saxum, have already forged their identities and are beginning to maximize their potential.

Willow Creek, in the coolest corner of Paso’s west side, is known for its chalky, calcareous soil. Smith’s James Berry Vineyard, the source of Wine Spectator‘s 2010 Wine of the Year, epitomizes Willow Creek: Its hilltop terraces are chock-full of fractured shale, rocks and even fossils (the west side of Paso was once an ocean floor). There’s a reason why Willow Creek has the densest concentration of vineyards and wineries in Paso Robles, and it begins with the soil.

The terroir of Willow Creek shows in its wines. The best expressions are richly textured and precisely structured, with mineral or loamy accents and ripe tannins.

“Willow Creek is not the only good spot [in Paso Robles], but it’s clear that Rhônes do best here,” explains Smith. “There aren’t many warm, dry areas that retain natural acidity, and lots of people believe that’s because of the calcareous soils.”

As grapes ripen, malic acid is metabolized through the process of respiration. Acid levels begin to drop during the ripening stage as sugar levels rise. The biggest secret to Willow Creek’s success may be the high pH level of the soils, which helps the grapes retain natural acidity even as they reach ripeness.

Torrin’s Scott Hawley, who sources vineyards mostly in Willow Creek, agrees: “Main thing first, you’ve got to start with the dirt.” According to Hawley, the limestone-rich soils in Willow Creek often exceed a pH of 8.0, which is highly unusual. The pH in nearby Adelaida, by comparison, typically ranges from 5.5 to 6.5.

Much of Willow Creek sits at what Epoch winemaker Jordan Fiorentini calls the midslope: neither too high nor too low in elevation. “Willow Creek is in the perfect location to get the full effect of the Pacific Ocean’s breezes funneling through the opening in the Santa Lucia Mountain Range,” she says.

Epoch’s two Willow Creek vineyards are only about a mile apart as the crow flies. Catapult is cooler, sits at lower elevation and has lower pH levels. The wines are typically bright, with racy acidity and tannins. Paderewski is slightly warmer, at higher elevation and has high pH levels. Its wines are often ripe and savory.

“A lot of times, low pH is driven by temperature swings, which also help retain acidity,” explains Fiorentini. The grapes’ acids form during low nighttime temperatures and metabolize at high temperatures. Often, the loss of malic acid is more pronounced in warmer climates, which makes the generally cooler temperatures and diurnal temperature swings in Willow Creek another boon for growers.

With many viticultural advantages, Willow Creek is ripe for continued exploration. And Smith believes the subappellation’s best is yet to come. “What you’re going to see, as we continue to learn, is that our full potential has not been realized. We’re just now getting dialed in.”

As Paso Robles continues to grow, its winemakers are maturing along with it. “It still feels young and exciting,” says Hawley. “The potential is unbelievable, and it’s cool that it’s happening on our watch, with winemakers that have aspirations to do things that reflect who they are and contribute to the evolution of the area.”