A Rhône Away from Home

Syrah and Spicy Southern Blends from Pax, Radio-Coteau and Birichino
A Rhône Away from Home
It’s Bordeaux that chimes loudest when talk turns to California, such has been the impact of Napa Cabernet. In cooler climes such as Russian River, the echoes are of Burgundy. But if the Rhône registers as barely a murmur, it’s not for lack of class or character. Syrah shines on the Sonoma Coast, and the southern Rhône’s palette of spicy black grapes thrives on ancient bush vines beyond. Here are some cracking examples.

“Pax Mahle is one of the most thoughtful, articulate winemakers in Sonoma,” wrote Antonio Galloni of our first feature producer. “I always find myself especially drawn to the Syrahs here, as the wines are incredibly site-specific and distinctive.” Mahle makes no secret of his love of layered, supple Syrah marrying vibrant aromas with savoury and mineral tones. “It needs to have that kind of, like, driving dark middle of meat and smoke and olive and rock and granite.,” he says. Spot-on.

Eric Sussman of Radio-Coteau is perhaps best known for his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but the same stamp of quality and composure is everywhere you look. “Radio Coteau stands out in the Sonoma landscape for wines of exceptional purity, transparency and pedigree,” says Galloni. “Very few wineries excel at seemingly everything. Radio-Coteau is among them.” Eric himself sees Syrah as an unsung hero of the Sonoma Coast. “The wines are just very dynamic and layered, and there and there's so much depth. They're going to be around for the long haul.” His 2016 Dusty Lane wine is a prime example.

The third feature producer is Birichino. Alex Krause and John Locke are alumni of quixotic Rhône-loving visionary Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. Since 2008, they have been crafting delicious, expressive wines in their own right from California’s phenomenal, often overlooked, resource of historic vineyards. The effortless old-vine intensity shines in two blends offering refreshing brightness, piquant, dusty depths and beautifully handled tannins.

The Wines

Birichino Scylla 2022
Birichino Scylla 2022
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Birichino Scylla 2022

A change in make-up for Scylla this year, with Carignan leading proceedings and Mourvèdre in support. The Carignan (78%) is sourced from two century-old vineyards―Montague and Mule Plane―located within 500 metres of each other in the Mokelumne River area of Lodi. The Montague site―with its big plump berries and bunches―lends a juicy, crunchy and outgoing character to the more dense, dark, savoury and mineral profile of Mule Plane. Both sites give low yields―averaging two tonnes per acre in Mule Plain and four in Montague―and lie on the region's fine, sandy loam soils, though Mule Plain is closer to the river and has a higher rock content. The Mourvèdre (22%) is from the Besson Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley in Santa Cruz, from very low-yielding vines grafted over from 1920s Marsanne using cuttings from Beaucastel. It ‘fills in’ the texture and body of the Carignan, according to winemaker Alex Krause.

The varieties spontaneously ferment separately. The Montague fruit (accounting for about half the blend) was destemmed, while the Mule Plain fruit had whole bunches and stalks layered throughout the ferment. The Mourvèdre component fermented in a small bin. After 10 days with once-a-day punch-downs, the wines were pressed off and blended before maturation in neutral wood until the following summer (about eight months).

Comparing Birichino’s two Rhône-inspired blends―Rokurokubi & Inugami being the other―winemaker Alex Krause describes Scylla as the brighter, juicier, more immediately approachable wine.

Birichino Scylla 2022
Birichino Scylla 2022
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Birichino Rokurokubi & Inugami 2022
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Birichino Rokurokubi & Inugami 2022

In 2021, Mourvèdre led the charge in Birichino’s Rhône-inspired blend, Rokurokubi & Inugami. This year, Birichino’s source vineyard for Mourvèdre―Little Big Block vineyard in Contra Costa―delivered some of the most expressive fruit of the season. As such, the Birichino boys adjusted the components of the blend to ensure a complete and seamless wine without any one variety hogging the limelight. So, Cinsault from one of Lodi’s centenarian vineyards takes centre stage at 48% in 2022, followed by Mourvèdre at 29% and Grenache at 23%. The Cinsault component is sourced from head-pruned, non-irrigated and organically farmed vines in Lodi, planted in 1886. The Grenache is drawn from vines planted in 1910 in the Besson Vineyard in Santa Clara Valley, while the Mourvèdre (29%) is sourced from Little Big Block, a sandy site planted to old bush vines at the edge of the San Joaquin River in Contra Costa.

The name and label design are a nod to a Bakemono Zukushi handscroll, painted in the Edo period of 18th and 19th century Japan. “It was either this or Run GMC!” hoots John Locke. The Cinsault is personified by the floating head on the label, with the Mourvèdre and Grenache represented by the anchoring wolf. Each batch was vinified separately. The Cinsault and Mourvèdre fermented wild in stainless steel with 10-15% stems, while the Grenache component saw a touch more whole-bunch inclusion at 20%. The wines matured in old wood for eight months before blending and bottling unfined and unfiltered.

Comparing Birichino’s two Rhône-inspired blends―Scylla being the other― winemaker Alex Krause describes Rokurokubi & Inugami as the darker, deeper, more structured wine. 

Birichino Rokurokubi & Inugami 2022
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Pax Wines North Coast Syrah 2022
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Pax Wines North Coast Syrah 2022

The composition of this blend changes each year depending on the conditions, yet several key vineyards (that form the base of Pax’s top-tier Hillside Syrah) always appear. This year’s blend includes fruit from, among others, Castelli-Knight Ranch, Griffins Lair, Walker Vine Hill, Nellessen, Morris Ranch and Russell Ranch. The Castelli fruit brings high-tone spice and power; Nellessen provides nerve and acidity; the coastal Griffin’s Lair lends complexity and saline tang; Walker Vine Hill adds cool, slow-ripened detail; and the Morris Ranch and Russell Ranch sites round things out with deep fruit and vibrant acidity.

The key difference between this bottling and the Sonoma Coast wines is that the vineyard components may be sourced from anywhere within Sonoma up to the rolling hills of northern Mendocino County. So, it’s a true north-coast Californian expression of Syrah that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Fermented with 100% whole bunches, the wine ages for 10 months in neutral French oak puncheons and is bottled unfiltered. According to its maker, the 2022 is “just gorgeous, and probably the best North Coast we’ve made”. Like all of this producer’s Syrah, it is a compelling argument for how singular and delicious northern Californian Syrah can be.

“Damp earth, crushed cherries, white pepper, spice-laden black fruits with a taunt finish of black liquorice, tar and pomegranate liqueur. Medium-bodied and juicy, this one punches well above its weight class. Nothing less than a classic Syrah, this shows a lovely balance of fruit, spice and earth. Drink now and stash a couple away to be rewarded with more weight and texture.”
Pax Mahle, Winemaker
Pax Wines North Coast Syrah 2022
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Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2021
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Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2021

This is the second release of the Sonoma Coast Syrah. Pax Mahle first made this wine in 2020, when he decided not to bottle his top wine, Hillsides, after a challenging growing season. Instead, he bottled all his Sonoma Coast fruit as one new wine: a baby Hillsides. Now almost a permanent fixture in the range, the 2021 blend sees contributions from several coastal vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.

The organically farmed, sandy Nellessen Vineyard, planted in 2000 and located west of Sebastopol (where the Pax Wines Cellar Door is located) in the Russian River Valley, gives fruit with profound aromatic intensity. The coastal Armagh Vineyard in the cool centre of the Petaluma Gap, planted in 1997, is farmed organically and gives fruit with a distinct savoury character. The Majik Vineyard, adjacent to Nellessen but with a northerly aspect, lends pepper spice and umami tones. And the Griffins Lair Vineyard, also located in the cool Petaluma Gap, planted in 1990 and farmed organically, rounds things out with a marine, salty tang.

The winemaking is similar to the North Coast Syrah. Clocking in at a cool 12.5%, Pax describes this as a true “coastal Syrah” with nervy freshness and slightly lighter body. As for Mahle’s note below, many in the Rhône would love to claim this wine’s spicy vibrancy for themselves.

“Powerful aromas of pepper, tobacco and brawny Syrah fruit, this savoury Syrah is for the true fanatics. Textured and wild, this Syrah is loaded with tobacco, deep blue fruit, spicy mint and exotic flowers. We believe this wine is ready for immediate consumption upon release. Unmistakably Syrah, but hard to pin down as being from California because of its smoky, earthy soil aromas and flavours.”
Pax Mahle, Winemaker
Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2021
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Pax Wines Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2022
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Pax Wines Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2022

Inspired by his visits to the cellars of Jean Gonon and Raymond Trollat, 2016 was the first release of Pax Mahle’s Hillsides Syrah. The wine received a rare 100-point score from Vinous, and Antonio Galloni also recently wrote that Hillsides represents “one of the very finest wines in Northern California”.

Hillsides is a culmination of the most compelling Syrah Pax can find in a given year. The wines are identified post-fermentation, taken from wood and blended into a single concrete tank. Pax explains: “Concrete gives a very dense core of fruit. Concrete breathes but not as much as wood; it brings the wine to a really nice reductive state, which allows us to minimise our use of sulphur.”

The sites used in the Sonoma Hillsides Syrah vary each year. However, each is chosen to showcase the freshness and vibrancy that Syrah can only achieve in these cool-climate hillside slopes. The common thread across the sites is high elevation, steep rocky slopes and old vines embedded in sandy soils. In particular, the Walker Vine Hill Vineyard in the Russian River Valley invariably forms the base of this prestigious wine. Situated in a unique mesoclimate that traps cool coastal influences to allow the fruit to ripen slowly, the vines are rooted in iconic Goldridge soil (a touchstone for cool-climate Syrah in California). The remaining sites include: Castelli-Knight Ranch, bringing high-tone spice and power; the Nellessen vineyard, which provides nerve and acidity; and the Morris Ranch and Russell Ranch sites, lending depth and vibrancy to the final blend.

The product of a great season, the calibre of the fruit in ’22 was such that Pax didn’t make a Sonoma Coast Syrah despite having purchased labels. All the fruit made the cut for inclusion in Hillsides, so thankfully, there’s more to go around this year. Compared to the 2021, Pax notes this release is “pure-fruited, higher-toned and brighter”. He continues: “It’s still a dense and weighty wine but with a more European feel than the California classic 2021. All told, the 2022 Sonoma Hillsides is as umami-packed as 2016 with the plushness of 2021 and the aromas of 2018.” Like the rest of the Pax Syrah range, the Sonoma Hillsides is fermented with 100% whole clusters and foot crushed. It matures in old wood, then concrete, for 10 months.

“The 2022 Syrah Sonoma Hillsides is a blend of several sites. Aging in cement helps retain a good bit of freshness, and that gives this wine quite a different feel from the other Syrahs, all of which are aged in neutral oak. The 2022 doesn’t have the immediacy or flashiness of the very best years, or of the other Syrahs in the range, but readers who can wait will and a wine of magnificent pedigree.”
94+ points, Antonio Galloni, Vinous
“Sweet purple flowers, pink peppercorns, blueberry liqueur, white pepper, and exotic high-toned fruit pastilles. Plush blue fruits on the palate, spicy with high-toned red fruits and swirling aromas of earth, umami and fresh summer fruits. Intense and vibrant, this will stay fresh and lively for many years into the future and improve with time in your cellar.”
Pax Mahle, Winemaker
“Smoked meat and black olive tapenade, bitter herbs, thyme, sage, ripe red fruit. Highly raised smooth acidity, velvety tannins, dried blood type of mineral tension to the finish lifted by a freshly cracked black pepper. Impressive.”
94+ points, Kasia Sobiesiak, The Wine Front
Pax Wines Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2022
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Radio-Coteau Sonoma Coast Dusty Lane Syrah 2016
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Radio-Coteau Sonoma Coast Dusty Lane Syrah 2016

The Dusty Lane block lies in the certified-organic Dierke Vineyard, a hillside site on the western flank of Sebastopol planted on Goldridge soils by the affable and passionate John Dierke in 2006. Facing southeast, the site has excellent drainage and good exposure to coastal influences from the west. It is home to a “suitcase selection” of clones from northern Rhône and California and is famed for its powerful and expressive fruit. Sussman has a long-term contract with Dierke and has been working with the fruit from this site since 2008. The 1.5 acres of vines he works with are farmed according to Sussman’s specifications.

The fruit is handpicked and fermented as a combination of whole bunches, whole berries and crushed. The whole bunches contribute aromatic lift and spice, and in 2016, Sussman used 20% in the blend. Pumpovers are gentle, and as with all Radio-Coteau’s reds, only the free-run portion of the juice is used. The wine matured for 18 months in 500-litre puncheons (one-third new). The wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered. 

“The 2016 Syrah Dusty Lane has started to come around beautifully since I last tasted it in barrel. Dark and unctuous on the palate, the 2016 has more than enough fruit to stand up to its formidable tannins. But that is just the beginning. Black cherry, chocolate, leather, licorice and spice all build as this ample, full-bodied Syrah gains volume in the glass. Wonderfully complete and memorable, the 2016 is deep, persistent and exceptionally beautiful from start to finish. In a word: superb.”
96 points, Antonio Galloni, Vinous
“From the same vineyard as the Dierke Pinot Noir, the 2016 Syrah Dusty Lane comes all from the Alban clone and was brought up in one-third new barrels. It's another Côte Rôtie styled wine that has lots of raspberry fruit, some savory herbs and pepper, and a hint of graphite. Medium-bodied, silky, and elegant on the palate, with ultra-fine tannins, it has plenty of structure and will benefit from short-term cellaring.”
93+ points, jebdunnuck.com
Radio-Coteau Sonoma Coast Dusty Lane Syrah 2016
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