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Is Cabernet-Syrah the Next Pinot Noir?
Geyserville | CA
GEYSERVILLE, CA, February 6, 2006 Kerry Damskey, internationally respected winemaker and co-owner of PALMERI, is advancing a new category with his first proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, a 2002 vintage from the Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa Valley. Although the blend has been done for decades in Australia, this is a new concept in California. It is also similar to the Super Tuscans made in Italy from Cabernet and Sangiovese, he explained. At the forefront of this fusion of flavors in California, Damskey is taking the Australian model to a higher level with pedigree mountain fruit, small lot fermentation and punch-downs done by hand. "The combination excites me because it gives a lush cedar, tobacco Cabernet component with the exuberant blueberry fruit and slightly savage, leather character of Syrah."
California Cabernet-Syrah blends are a fusion of the New World and the Old World, sometimes called Super Rhones or New World Syrahs. "It's kind of a ying-yang phenomenon", said Damskey. "Cabernet can be rich, dense, like a meal in itself. Syrah is typically edgy, sometimes a bit harsh, and magically the two together transform into a softer, more exotic, feminine style of wine. In light of the recent fame of Pinot Noir, reputed for its feminine qualities, this new and innovative varietal blend may be the next trend to appeal to the American taste."
Cabernet Sauvignon has been the king of red wine since the inception of the state's wine industry, however the popularity of Syrah is still relatively recent. Brought to California in the 1860s along with other varieties, Syrah languished and basically disappeared. The recent trend in Syrah's reputation is reflected in the planted acreage of this grape variety that originated from the Rhone region of France. In 1977, there were approximately 83 acres planted to Syrah in the entire state according to the California Grape Acreage Report. Fewer than 1,000 acres were planted to Syrah in 1992, increasing to more than 17,500 acres presently planted in California.
The PALMERI 2002 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet-Syrah has the elements of a Napa Valley hillside Cabernet - lively aromas of cedar with tobacco, cocoa and coffee, tight texture and intense tannins - coupled with a fuller black fruit component, white pepper and nutmeg spiciness, and broad, supple but distinguished tannins from the Syrah. "One of the benefits of blending Syrah with Cabernet that are both grown in a vineyard located at 1,700 feet is to add lushness to what could otherwise be quite stark mountain tannins," said Damskey.
The marriage also softens and tames the concentration of the Cabernet, opening it up to the opulent Syrah fruit. "The Syrah really helps define the wine, even though it makes up just a little over one third (32 percent) of the blend," he stated. "In the nose, the Cabernet seems to dominate, but in the mouth, the palate definition is driven by the Syrah." Purple-black in color, full and voluptuous, the wine is a sensory experience of nuances and levels of flavors that will develop and age gracefully.
PALMERI is a focused hillside Syrah brand, named for a native species of oak, Quercus palmeri that grows at high altitudes. The whimsical labels features the boar, the bat or the fox, representing the diverse fauna that is found in the mountain ranges that Damskey gravitates to when selecting ultra-premium grape growing land. "I make two Syrahs, one from Napa Valley and one from Alexander Valley. Both are made from hillside grapes with southwest exposures and similar soils, but they are very different wines due to the uniqueness of each site," said Damskey. "A great terroir is defined by its location, soil and climate and what it lends to the essence of a particular grape variety. In addition, wines from a great terroir increase in quality and complexity as they age."
The Stagecoach Vineyard along the Vaca ridge on the eastern edge of Napa Valley was traditionally and historically known for Cabernet Sauvignon, but not necessarily for Syrah before PALMERI began making a vineyard designate. "The PALMERI story is about site, which is mountain fruit, specifically about Syrah and the ramifications of the variety on specific locations," said Damskey. Like a chef who experiments with new flavors, he wanted to make a third wine that was unlike the others. His blend of Napa Valley Cabernet with Syrah from the same rocky, volcanic mountain vineyard creates a distinct wine that expresses the best of both varieties. "Mountain Syrah and mountain Cabernet are my specialty. We were willing to take risks, to take the best fruit we could find and craft it into a product that was uniquely ours."
An expert at weaving these two varieties into a distinct flavor profile, Damskey is also winemaker and winemaking consultant for four other wineries that produce a Cabernet-Syrah blend. A founding partner in Sula Vineyards in Mumbai, India, he is responsible for the first Cabernet-Syrah blend made from the 2002 vintage. As the consulting winemaker for Hedges Family Estate, a 50,000-case winery in the state of Washington, he has been instrumental in their decision to make a Cabernet-Syrah blend from two different vineyards, beginning in 2003. "Red Mountain in Washington produces great Cabernet that ages well, but because it is Mountain fruit, it is somewhat less approachable when young. We believe the addition of our Syrah gives a more voluptuous mouth feel and will add complexity as the wine ages," explained Winemaker Pete Hedges. "I refer to this wine as a Super Rhone - blending two French grape varieties to make an amazing New World wine."
In California, Damskey is the winemaker for Dutcher Crossing, a new winery in Dry Creek Valley that is also bottling a blend of these two varieties. Montemaggiore, also located in Dry Creek Valley, makes use of his talent to create a Cabernet-Syrah along with other varietals. As Lise Ciolino of Montemaggiore expressed: "We produce a Cabernet-Syrah blend because we've discovered that our hillside estate Syrah and Cabernet fit together perfectly like an elegant hand in a silk glove. The intense fruit of the Syrah tends to brighten the sternness of the Cabernet, while the big tannins of the Cab seem to give the Syrah more structure."
PALMERI is on the cutting edge of this category in California. Only 365 cases of the 2002 Stagecoach Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet-Syrah were produced. Shipped nationally, the wine is also available to reciprocity states directly through the website at http://www.palmeriwines.com.