Sunday, April 17, 2011

Struggling with Syrah in Chile

Given the success of Syrah across the globe - there are notable examples from warm and cool climates - it is only natural that the producers of Chile would want to work with this variety. There certainly are plenty of warm areas in the country where the variety thrives, be it modestly priced bottlings from the Central Valley or more full-bodied offerings from an excellent territory such as the Colchagua Valley, some 175 miles south of Santiago. 

Lately however, some vintners are experimenting with Syrah in cool climates and results are encouraging, though wildly uneven. A cool climate for a variety such as Syrah will often mean a very deep color as well as very good natural acidity. As the tannins are never very strong with Syrah, the wines are approachable upon release, though the structure of these wines argue for at least a few years of aging.

To date, my favorite Syrah from Chile has been from Maycas in the Limarí Valley in northern Chile not far from the Pacific Ocean. There are only a handful of producers that are working here and the wines from Maycas, especially the Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah, display excellent varietal character and intensity along with beautiful complexity. These are not simple, fruit-forward wines, but bottlings with ideal structure for aging for 5-7 years and they are priced quite fairly right around $20 or even a few dollars less.

So I was intrigued to learn what's been going on with Syrah in Chile lately, especially with versions made from grapes in cool climates. I tasted versions from Limarí, Leyda, Casablanca and Lolol Valleys are the results were a bit disappointing. The best wine I sampled was the 2009 Reserva from Tamaya in Limarí Valley. Though not as rich as the Maycas (the 2008 was the most recent Syrah I've tasted from them), the Tamaya did offer very fine complexity and balance with an appealing note of dark chocolate in the finish. The wine should be at its best in 3-5 years, while the $18 price tag is fair for this style and quality.

I also enjoyed the more approachable 2009 Undurraga from Leyda Valley, part of their T.H. series of wines (T.H. for terroir hunter, a clever name!). This is a medium-bodied, round, straightforward Syrah with blackberry, black plum and chocolate flavors, medium tannins and good acidity. It's got a little bit of spice, making it a nice partner for grilled meats and lighter game. It's very elegant and well made, though the $25 price range seems a bit high for the overall quality.

There were other Syrahs I tasted recently that just weren't very good; I don't believe in embarrassing producers, so I won't mention them. But overall, I'm just not finding the quality with Syrah in Chile as I have been recently with Pinot Noir (see post). Too many of the wines are overly ripe and have deep purple colors, yielded no doubt from the ever present Chilean sunshine as well as too much time in small oak barrels (one example I had was basically black in color and opaque - you literally couldn't see through it). Do we need all this oak with Syrah from Chile? Do we need jammy, super ripe bottlings of Syrah from Chile? It's as though the producers were chasing points when they crafted these wines. They may be for some people, but they're not for me. I have to think that even the people that like them now may do so for a momentary pleasure, as this style is a bit of a flash in the pan. These wines are not elegant and would overwhelm most food.

So what I've learned so far about Syrah in Chile is that Limarí is an ideal zone for this variety as is Leyda (I've also enjoyed a few lovely examples of Syrah from Matetic/EQ in Leyda- the wines offer excellent structure). I have to think there are other areas as well that are capable of notweworthy Syrah. I just haven't tried many, I'm sorry to say. 

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