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Spring 2010

Three to Watch

Have you tried Cabernet Syrah? These winemakers think you should.

By Linda Murphy

Adding a shot of Syrah to Cabernet Sauvignon is nothing new. The French did it, though secretively, in the 1800s to bolster wimpy Bordeaux wines, and Australians have boldly put these two very different grape varieties together in a bottle since the 1950s, with their famous Cabernet Shiraz blends (Shiraz is Oz-speak for Syrah).

In Napa and Sonoma, blending tannic Cabernet Sauvignon with fruity, spicy, sometimes meaty Syrah is a steadily increasing trend built on the premise that just as chocolate and peanut butter meld harmoniously in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, so do Cab and Syrah as a wine. The former provides the backbone and cassis and cedar notes; the latter contributes berry fruit, spice, and sometimes that meaty character.

“People still love Cabernet Sauvignon, yet Syrah makes it even better,” says Geyserville-based Kerry Damskey, who produces such a blend for his Palmeri Wines ($47), using grapes from the Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa Valley, and for a handful of wineries for which he consults. “Syrah gives Cab a longer midpalate, makes it more supple, and gives it a smoky, bright berry character.”

Damskey says he believes he is the first California winemaker to add Syrah to Cabernet Sauvignon to create a new style of wine (as opposed to covering up Cab deficiencies). His first Cabernet Syrah was at Sula Vineyards in India, in 1999. In 2001, he helped Hedges Family Estate in Washington State introduce Syrah to its Cabernet Sauvignon, and he led Debra Mathy at Dutcher Crossing Winery and Lise and Vincent Ciolino of Montemaggiore, both in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, down the Cab-Syrah path.

“We call it Cabernet Sauvignon, but we’re very honest about the fact that we blend Syrah into it,” Damskey says. “Without losing the signature of Cabernet, Syrah adds voluptuousness, darkness, and interest.”

While Damskey concedes that Cab-Syrah blends won’t conquer the wine world, they fill a need for consumers who prefer a kinder, gentler style of Cabernet. The category is growing, and one of its newest entrants is Fuse Wines.

“There is a history of the Bordelais [winemakers in Bordeaux who traditionally make red blends containing Cabernet] adding Syrah to their wines to add color and character,” says Michael Updegraff, who, with Ray Signorello Jr. and their partners, launched Fuse with the 2006 vintage. “Add to that the very successful renditions in Australia, the Languedoc [in southern France and Italy], and you’ve got a rich backdrop for creating a modern version at an affordable price from Napa Valley. The Syrah adds that gamy-earthy character, white pepper, spice, and color. It’s really one plus one equals three.”

At $20, the 2006 Fuse Napa Valley is a fine value. “It will always say Cab on the label and be at least 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon,” Updegraff says, “yet it will have a big dollop of Syrah.” A fusion, if you will.

In Glen Ellen, Australia-born Chris Loxton has produced his Loxton Cellars Grandfather’s Cuvee Cabernet Shiraz ($30) from Sonoma Valley grapes since the 2005 vintage.

“I like blending Syrah with Cab,” Loxton says, “as it can soften the bigger tannins of Cab and fill out the middle palate. In Australia, we sometimes called Cab a ‘doughnut’ wine, as it can have a hole in the middle palate. Syrah has a great middle palate and can fill that dead spot in Cab.”

His grandfather grew Cabernet and Shiraz in Riverland in South Australia, and his father continues to do so today. “Grandfather’s Cuvee pays tribute to the wines my grandfather liked and to all those bottles of Cabernet Shiraz we all shared in the late 1970s,” says Loxton, who founded his winery in 1996, after working in wineries in California and Australia.

“Consumers have reacted very positively. For most people, it’s a new wine, but they get the logic of what I’m trying to do with the blend.”

Where to Find Them
Fuse Wines, (707) 265-6492,
Loxton Cellars, (707) 935-7221,
Palmeri Wines, (707) 857-1890,

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