My turn to host another Wine Blogging Wednesday has come around a little sooner than I expected due to a late cancellation, but I had Syrah in mind from recent tastings and it seemed to be the perfect wine to enjoy this time of year. When Lenn asked me to step in last week, I was bound for San Francisco to attend the ZAP tasting (yes, my notes will be posted soon), so I took the opportunity to do some barrel tasting at my favorite producer of New World Syrah: Pax Wine Cellars.
I think of winemakers sort of like musicians with most working in somewhat obscurity but many build an audience of devoted fans. The ones you hear about, such as Pax Mahle, tend to be more like singer-songwriters who turn out exceptional, individualistic expressions year after year.
I arrived at the winery a couple minutes late due to it’s location in an unassuming industrial complex in Santa Rosa. The lack of a sign also didn’t help. Once there, I met Pax and his three assistant winemakers tasting barrels of 2006 Syrah now in the midst of malolactic fermentation. We moved into the other barrel room where the 2005 vintage and a few barrels from 2004 are being aged to begin our tasting.
For readers not familiar with Pax Wine Cellars, it is a small winery that produces about 9,000 cases each vintage but only releases a little over 5,000 cases. It has developed a cult following with wine lovers due to the consistent excellence of their Syrah produced from specific vineyards and blocks. The attention to detail and natural winemaking is also unique with some of the most aggressive vineyard management practices I’ve ever encountered (2 clusters per cane or less is common). Pax believes in not using technology to crush and de-stem grapes so very little de-steming is done by hand and the grapes are tread by foot in the stainless steel fermenters. From there, natural yeast transforms the juice into wine and after light pressing the wine is put in oak barrels for aging. Then the wine is just topped up and it is racked into a tank for bottling with no fining or filtering. Pax doesn’t seem to do the usual trial blends preferring to taste each barrel and only approving those that deliver the components he’s looking for; the remainder are sold on the bulk market. These practices are some of the most simple I’ve heard of but also points to a philosophy of letting the vineyard speak for itself. We didn’t talk about terroir at all during my visit but it was vividly on display throughout our tasting.
The first Syrah tasted was the 2005 from Walker Vine Hill in the Russian River Valley. This is the same vineyard I tasted with Alan Baker for our Pax Simulcast podcast in January 2006 and I have some 2004 in my cellar. Like all the Syrah’s tasted, this one is a dense purple-black in color with aromas of brambles, blueberry, smoke and spices. Nicely concentrated blueberry and currant flavors with some chocolate and fine tannins. The purity of the fruit makes this Syrah stand out from all the others tasted. I rated this wine between 92-94 points.
We then moved onto the 2005 Syrah from the Obsidian Vineyard in Knights Valley. With this wine we tasted from three barrels each with a different percentage of whole clusters (30%, 80% and 100%). It was interesting to note how this changed the wine with the tannins ratcheting up with each wine. All of them were very dark black-purple with aromas of blackberry, blueberries and tobacco. Rich and bold in the mouth, the blackberry and blueberries accented with a bit of tar finishing long with fine grained to uber firm tannins depending upon the whole cluster content. I scored the three barrels between 90 and 95 points so it will be most interesting to see what makes it into the final blend.
The next wines were from the Alder Springs Vineyard which produce my favorite Pax Syrah (in fact, I think it’s the best Syrah made in California). The 2005 Alder Springs “The Terraces” Syrah, made with 3% co-fermented Viognier, is very dark purple and quite aromatic with black raspberry and floral aromas. Rich and thick in the mouth with blackberry and blueberry fruit finishing with some black cherry and very fine tannins. An outstanding wine I scored 94-96 points. We then tasted the 2005 Alder Springs “The Emerald Pool” Syrah which is meaty on the nose with blackberry, black cherry and earth aromas. Bold and focused boysenberry fruit flavors with tar and fine tannins. A wine that needs some more time before it will show it’s best but still delicious. I rated this one 95-97 points and pronounced it my first “favorite wine” of the tasting (later to be overtaken by the 2005 Alder Springs “The Knob” and 2004 Alder Springs “The Terraces”). Completing our 2005 Alder Springs review, we tasted “The Knob”. This wine was the most savory of the bunch with aromas of grilled steak, black raspberry, earth and tar. In the mouth there is black raspberry and currant fruit with licorice, chocolate and spice finishing very long with a silky mouthfeel. I rated this one 96-98 points.
We then tasted the 2005 Mountain Terraces Vineyard Syrah from Sonoma. The vineyard is near the famous Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Mayacamas Mountain range. I think this must be the first vintage for Pax as I haven’t noticed a previous release from this vineyard. The wine is the same purple-black color with aromas of blackberry, sandalwood and spice. In the mouth, there is boysenberry and blueberry fruit with black pepper and a sweet finish that had me thinking Barossa Valley Shiraz. Still a delicious wine that I rated between 91-93 points.
The 2005 Syrah from Griffins Lair was the next wine tasted. This vineyard is in the Sonoma Coast AVA and produces perhaps the most intense Pax Syrah. Black-purple in color, the aromas are of dark fruit, eucalyptus and flowers. Really big black-currant fruit with black pepper and very firm tannins make for a dramatic statement now and some need for cellaring once released. I scored this wine between 93-95 points.
The next Syrah was from the 2005 Castelli-Knight Ranch from the Russian River Valley. This wine has the same black-purple color with aromas of blackberry, pepper and minerals. The flavors here are of blackberry, black pepper and spices with very firm tannins. Another excellent Syrah I rated between 93-95 points.
We concluded our tasting with a return to the Alder Springs Vineyard, “The Terraces”, this time from 2004. No, not from bottled stock, but from a few barrels held back, “…to see what happens…”, with some additional time in the barrel. I’ve not had the pleasure to taste this vintage in glass so I can’t tell if this improved the wine but what I tasted from barrel was the best wine of the day. It is garnet-purple in color with aromas of blueberry, black cherry and pepper. In the mouth there are very complex flavors of black cherry, raspberry and blueberry with coffee, spice and fine-grained tannins. An outstanding expression of Syrah that was perfect to finish the tasting. I rated this wine between 96-98 points.
I was very impressed with the depth, individuality and excellence of all the Pax Syrah we tasted. Although many of the wines were between 14-16% alcohol, there was never any indication in the aromas or in the flavor, with the alcohol balanced by fruit. It’s very difficult to choose a favorite here among such excellent wines but, if pressed, I’d have to say the Alder Springs “The Terraces” Syrah were the standouts among standouts (both 2004 and 2005). I also appreciated the gracious and generous hospitality Pax and his winemaking team extended during my visit. I will be purchasing more Pax Syrah and blogging my tasting notes for the finished wines when I enjoy them.
If you want to buy Pax wines, sign up for their mailing list. Not only are the wines stunning, but they treat their customers better than any other winery I’ve purchased from. Expensive, yes, but worth it.