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Lake County Syrah
By Gerald D. Boyd
Dec 2, 2008
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It's hard to imagine why Lake County is not better known for its wines.  Kendall-Jackson recognized the potential of Lake County grapes as far back as 1982, and when noted winemaker Jed Steele decided on a spot to grow grapes and make his signature wines, he chose Lake County.  Still, recognition for Lake County wines has lagged behind those of its neighbors in Napa, Sonoma and even Mendocino counties.

But that's changing.  Today, Lake County has a deserved reputation for Sauvignon Blanc but it may be that flavorful reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah will ultimately earn the most raves.  Here's Napa-based wine consultant Bob Pepi: "Emerging Rhône and Northern Italian clones, such as Syrah…are making outstanding wines from Lake County, with fruit demonstrating extreme concentration of flavors and aromas as well as full balanced mouth feel and finish."  Pepi and a growing number of North Coast winemakers are expressing admiration for the high quality of Lake County grapes, something Lake County winemakers have known all along.  I've long enjoyed Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon and wanted to see how Syrah was stacking up.

Although wine grapes have been growing in Lake County since the mid 19th century, interest in Syrah didn't take hold until the early 1990s when Jed Steele persuaded three county growers to plant five acres each of Syrah.  Today, the 435 acres of Syrah plantings represent only a small part of the total 8,800 acres of wine grapes in the Lake County AVA (American Viticultural Area).  For years, Steele and his Lake County colleagues have maintained that conditions in the county's four sub-AVAs (Red Hills, High Valley/Round Mountain, Big Valley, and Clear Lake) are ideal for growing Syrah.  

Peter Molnar of Obsidian Ridge credits altitude, soils and ultra-violet light as the main factors that make Lake County ideal for growing Syrah. "The ultra-violet light at higher elevations, ranging from 1,300 feet at Clear Lake to 4,700 feet on Cobb Mountain has a very positive effect on grape maturity," he maintains.  Other factors noted by Molnar include a wide range of young soils, from deep sandy loam to volcanic, as well as the region's geo-thermal activity.  Sam Spencer of Spencer-Roloson Vineyard adds that, in the volcanic soils found near the lake, root stock is as critical when planting red varieties like Syrah as is scion selection.  Clay Shannon of Shannon Ridge farms grapes on Round Mountain/High Valley with elevations up to 3,000 feet.  "The difference on this hill is young soils composed mainly of volcanic pumice which, we have found are very good for any grape with large seeds like Syrah and Petite Sirah."

At the center of the county's growing vineyard expanse is Clear Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in California--and perhaps the oldest lake in North America.  The influence of the lake is vital, as is the Clear Lake Volcanics, the youngest, northernmost volcanic region in California's north coast.  Both Red Hills and High Valley are located on Clear Lake shallow and gravelly volcanic soils.  In Big Valley and other Lake County valleys, the soils are alluvial, ranging from sandy and gravelly to loam and clay. Many of these slopes and terraces, leached of nutrients, are ideal for growing wine grapes like Syrah.

Lake County's warm climate also plays a major role in growing deeply flavored Syrah.  Jed Steele, who was the first to plant Syrah in Lake County, maintains that cool climate Syrah is tannic and more ponderous, while the medium-warm climate of Lake County produces ripe grapes with plenty of fruit and moderate tannins.   Mark Burch, winemaker for Wildhurst, agrees, adding "Syrah likes heat, like we have here.'  Kevin Robinson, winemaker for Brassfield Winery says 'Syrah is one of the easiest varieties to grow successfully and perhaps that success is driven equally by climate and soils."

Still, Syrah amounts for only about 20% of the total Lake County production, and though its popularity is on the rise among Lake County wineries, some county winemakers claim that Syrah is not an easy sell.  Brassfield's Robinson admits that "Syrah is one of our toughest sales."  Sam Spencer says that Syrah in general is not a defined style as a leader.  "People seem to love Syrah but they don't buy it."   However, Jed Steele envisions a good future for Lake County Syrah.  'The market is difficult right now for Syrah, with people willing to pay $40 for a Merlot rather than a Syrah.  But I think there is a good future for Lake County Syrah."  

So, what attracted me to Lake County Syrah?  The stand-out qualities are big fruit, moderate tannins and alcohol and brisk balancing acidity, without the wines being jammy or plummy.  While I'm not a fan of alcoholic red wines (or whites for that matter), I found that most of the Lake County Syrahs I tasted during a whirlwind one-day tour of the region were in the 14% range and few of them showed any heat.  Best of all, Lake County Syrahs display clearly defined fruit that stays with the wine through the finish.

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Questions?  Comments?  E-mail me at gboyd@winereviewonline.com