If you look to Syrah for intensity, concentration and weight — as the ideal match for, say, steak au poivre — you'll want to stick with the muscular expressions from the grape’s classic territory, the Rhône Valley.
But if you are open to a fresh, supercharged experience of Syrah — a wine driven by brilliant aromatics, a gorgeous array of seamlessly integrated flavors, bright acidity, restrained tannins, and zero-gravity weight — the 2011 Element ($37.99 at Grape Collective) is your pick.
The Finger Lakes of New York are uncommon ground for Syrah. Although the growing climate is generally excellent for the variety, hard upstate winters pose a risk: “It's that winter kill that's a real challenge for stuff like Syrah,” says Christopher Bates, the fearless co-founder and winemaker at Element. Bates admires cool-climate Syrahs, and has pursued the grape, despite the inherent hazards of his terroir.
2011 was an extremely challenging vintage in the Finger Lakes. Heavy rains brought disease pressure and wiped out Bates’ entire crop of some other varieties. But his Syrah emerged healthy and thick-skinned, even if yields were significantly lower that year. With hand-harvesting and -sorting before manual crushing, 100% whole cluster fermentation, spontaneous fermentation, no additions or additives, and no SO2 until after malolactic fermentation, the 2011 Element is as close to a pure expression of cool-climate Syrah as you are likely to encounter east of the Sta. Rita hills.
On the nose, tobacco and cigar box, cedar, black pepper, black cherry, and purple flowers, especially violets - it's tempting to say ultra-violets, as the aromas waver at the delicate yet electric end of the floral-botanical spectrum.
In the glass, the wine is ruby-garnet, with an almost water-clear rim. On the palate, a surprise: dancing lightness, sheer weightlessness, tannins so seamless they fade to a nearly impalpable presence in the mouth. Alongside the pronounced floral and spice notes, you find a smokey flintiness and the hallmark black pepper of Syrah. With two years in neutral wood and a bit of bottle age under its belt, the result is an arrestingly elegant expression of Syrah’s seriously refined side.
It is a wine you could match to brilliant effect with a dish of olives or a simple burger straight off the grill. It could also step up to play a starring role in a meal of roast pork loin with cherry vinaigrette - the smokey, peppery elements of the wine playing off the black cherry and charred flavors in the pork.
Welcome to the world of cool-climate Syrah.
Other cool-climate Syrahs to explore at Grape Collective:
Wind Gap ($41.99)
Lagier Meredith ($54.99)
Check out our full interview with Christopher Bates or watch the video: