Place. Climate. Soil. Clones. Native fermentation. Whole clusters versus more traditional de-stemming of the grapes. Co-fermentation. New French oak versus neutral. All of these were factors voiced by the seven winemakers who were panelists in the Santa Barbara County Syrah Symposium Sunday morning during the final day of the annual Central Coast Wine Classic in Avila Beach.
The seven opened the session by describing the eight syrahs included in the event lineup, and, led by Margerum, then answered specific questions from the audience about what makes Santa Barbara County's syrahs some of the most well-respected outside of the Rhône Valley of France.
Mattias Pippig, owner/winemaker of Sanguis Wines, had recently been injured in a fall and was unable to attend; moderator/participant Doug Margerum of Margerum Wine Company described the Sanguis syrah for the crowd.
In general terms, most of the winemakers involved utilize native fermentation (no commercial yeast) and forego de-stemming in favor of using whole clusters. Some use new French oak and others prefer neutral oak; several utilize extended maceration (extra time, often more than one month) on the skins to boost color and soften tannins.
Participating were David Yates, assistant winemaker at Jaffurs Winery; winemakers Steven Gerbac, Rusack Vineyards; Michael Roth, Martian Ranch and Vineyard; and winemaker and panel moderator Margerum, Margerum Wine Company; Lee Tomkow of No Limit Wines; and winemakers Mark Cargasacchi, Jalama Wines; and Joey Tensley, Tensley Wines.
Place (vineyard locale) has "such an impact" on syrah, noted Yates about the 2011 Jaffurs Syrah from Thompson Vineyard (Los Alamos Valley).
Tomkow, who partners with New York City resident Cliff Korn and Ethan Lindquist in the No Limits label, agreed. "Everyone here today is showing just what one can do with syrah."
No Limits' syrah is sourced from Edna Valley's Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, which is farmed biodynamically. "With biodynamics, everything speaks for itself," Tomkow said. "We let the juice and fruit show itself." The wine utilizes native fermentation, he added.
Cargassachi also utilizes native and whole cluster fermentation, and leaves the juice on the skins for a 45-day extended maceration, he said. His syrah spent three years in barrel.
Also a fan of native fermentation is Roth; the 2011 "Dark Matter" estate syrah he offered was produced native and via whole cluster fermentation, and the wine was aged in neutral oak, he noted.
Margerum called his selection, the 2011 Uber, a small production vintage that utilizes several syrahs from selected Santa Barbara County vineyards.
The 2011 Rusack Estate Syrah (Ballard Canyon) is a blend of the Estrella and 877 clones, Gerbac told the crowd. Grapes for this wine were de-stemmed and aged in 50-percent new oak for 14 to 15 months, he said.
Grapes for the Sanguis syrah came from Bien Nacido Vineyards and were co-fermented with 3 percent roussanne and 5 percent viognier, Margerum noted.
Tensley opened by noting he produces 2,000 cases of the 2011 Colson Canyon Vineyard syrah he featured, calling it "more than half of his total production."
The wine is a blend of the 777 and 877 clones. Colson Canyon is a rugged vineyard in the Tepesquet Canyon area northeast of Santa Maria.