confusing Syrah advice from Wine Spectator

by Stevie on August 3, 2010

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I really enjoy Wine Spectator, but maybe I’ve been taking it too seriously lately. I went a little crazy over 2009 Bordeaux futures after WS and everyone else went hog-wild about the vintage. My checkbook is still recovering. The same happened with the 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape vintage. WS loved it, and, by extension, I did, too.

In the latest issue (Aug. 31, 2010), I was thrilled to read Matt Kramer’s column, “OK, So I Was Wrong” about American syrah. Have you seen it? Apparently some time ago he’d speculated that syrah would be the new “it” grape in American viticulture. Of course, pinot noir won that crown. Too bad if you ask me: I adore syrah but I’m still waiting to be bowled over by pinot.

Brian Benson 2005 Syrah Denner Vineyards with hand written note

Brian Benson 2005 Syrah Denner Vineyards with hand written note

Kramer gives some reasons for the failure of American syrah to excite the imagination. One of them is that “syrah needs cellaring.” In fact, he reports that “California’s best syrahs, like those of France and Australia, put on a show only after a decade in bottle.” That’s good to know!

WS has that famous 100 point rating scale which they apply to wines that they review for the magazine. At the top of the scale, 95 to 100, are “classic” wines. 90 to 94 are “outstanding.” These wines are the best of the lot.

WS assigns a number to each wine but also attaches tasting information and recommends the best time to drink the wine in question. And that’s where the confusion starts.

Remember Kramer saying that the best syrahs need to age for a decade? Well in the same issue that that column appears, WS reviewed thirteen American syrah and syrah blends that it scored 90 or higher: three from California and ten from Washington. The highest score, 97, went to the 2008 Owen Roe Syrah Yakima Valley Red Willow Vineyard Chapel Block. They liked it so well that they put it in their “highly recommended” category, the group for “[t]he issue’s most impressive wines.” Oddly, WS says that the optimal time to drink this winner is “now through 2016.”

Normally I might not notice something like this, but Kramer just made a big point about quality syrah needing to age for a decade. The inconsistency is glaring. The Owen Roe is best up to eight years post vintage date: just eight. Eight, huh?

When I looked more closely at the other dozen wines at the 90-plus rating level, WS recommends drinking them all before the magical ten year mark. Sure, most of these are from Washington (which Kramer doesn’t really comment on specifically) but the three California highly rated syrah or syrah blends all should be drunk “early” too. No wonder folks are confused by syrah! Even the “experts” can’t get it together!

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