February 20, 2013

Appel on Wine: Don't be a prude – hail Syrah and its concupiscent body

By Joe Appel

The Cochon Petite Cochon Rouge 2010 ($18, Crush) is a red wine made from a blend of clones of an "international" grape from three different counties in California, a sprawling category that often yields oversized, imprecise results.

It's worth writing about (and worth drinking) because it is exceptional – because it's interesting, inimitable and very good despite the less than thrilling class it hails from.

And I think it's worth writing about somewhat technically, because many careful decisions have been made to bring this wine into being – decisions that happen to have made a delicious wine, but whose underlying rationales will in addition benefit anyone who remembers them as he or she makes future wine-buying decisions.

This "international" grape – so categorized because, like a sizable collection of French-bred varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.), it has been exported to many different regions throughout the world, is Syrah.

I love Syrah. Like most people who love Syrah, I love Syrah from Cornas, Cote Rotie and Hermitage the best. I'm sure most vintners in California and elsewhere who determine that their land is suitable for Syrah share the preference for those northern Rhone appellations. (Even some Australians who make Shiraz probably feel this way, though to judge from most Shiraz, those old souls are in their country's minority.)

But just because Bach, Coltrane and Dylan made music doesn't mean you shouldn't, and the same goes for making wines with Syrah far from France's Hermitage Hill.

The Petite Cochon's fruit is grown in organically farmed vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. As in Cote Rotie, 5 percent of Viognier is usually added.

All the sites are dry with well-draining soils touched by the cooling effects of morning fog, with low-yielding old vines. Cooler sites allow for leaving the grapes on the vines longer before harvest, which leads to true physiological ripeness (not just sugar production). A dark-skinned, heat-loving grape like Syrah requires such treatment if it is to become wine that remains lively and spirited, retaining the complex, unique flavors native to the varietal.

The grapes are harvested in early morning before they've reheated for the day and then destemmed at the winery, except for 10 percent of the grape clusters, which are left whole and crushed with their stems. This helps produce the peppery notes and structural integrity for which Syrah is known, although you've got to do whole-cluster right in order to avoid a "stemmy," overly green taste in the wine.

Hugely important: In the cellar, only native yeasts are used. Whether a wine is made with only the yeasts that naturally live on the grape skins or with industrial yeasts bought and added to produce particular flavors is a primary determining factor in whether I'm going to like it. Native-yeast wines usually taste like wine. Added-yeast wines usually taste like cocktails.

The fermented juice goes into 300-liter hogsheads (small barrels with "hog" in the name, hence the moniker for the wine; get it?). These barrels, made of both new and used French oak, are where the wine undergoes malolactic fermentation (the transformation of apple-y, acerbic malic acid into the creamier, more agreeable lactic acid) and ages for a year and a half.

The small size of the barrels, which brings more wood into contact with the wine, has a softening effect. I usually don't appreciate this so much, especially because I like my Syrah rather raw and rugged, but in this case, it's a terrific match of process and grape. All of these production details are important, because they are proof of hard, diligent work. Only 550 cases are made.

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