Syrah & Viogner: A Ten Percent Co-Ferment, a True-Fine Oh-Nine

2009 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Estate Syrah

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It is with great pleasure that I announce the arrival of the new vintage of our Lytton Estate Syrah!

This is a much-anticipated wine every year, and early tastings of the ’09 have made this vintage especially so; in short, this is a truly outstanding contribution to our long-standing Syrah canon, and we’re very excited to now make it available.

That said, this is a new ATP wine, so it’s currently only available to ATP Members, which means you’ve essentially got two choices: 1) Join ATP, or 2) Come visit us in about a month, and cross your fingers we still have some left to share with our guests!

Now, as we dig into this new offering, there is of course much to discuss, and I’d like to get the process started now by addressing two key topics:

1. Tasting Notes. Please see below.

2. Co-Fermentation. Please see below below!

First, tasting notes …

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2009 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Estate Syrah

Appearance:
Incredibly rich, dense purple, with burgundy and magenta highlights; tremendous bowl glaze, almost legless, just pure decadent lustrousness …

Aromatics:
Dark berry, succulent ripe plum, black cherry and black grape, threaded with strains of coffee ground, black pepper, chicory, and licorice root …

Front:
Broad, rich, full-bodied right away at entry, with a plush velvet spread that lays not alot of acidity out, and keeps its tannins at bay, driven largely by a tremendous dollop of lavish fruit …

Middle:
Tannis begin to emerge in the middle, fairly chalky in character, with an underlying minerality that seamlessly girds the wild and aromatic fruit that is now in full flower ….

Finish:
Suprisingly tempered for a wine of this size and power; the finish is as broad as the front, and the luxuriance of the dense fruit remains just as juicy and sappy and luscious and rich and concentrated and velvety …

Summary:
Just an astonishingly well-made wine, with everything in perfect place; so rich and intense, and yet so balanced and crafted. A true pleasure.

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Next, as to co-fermentation, it is important to note that our Syrahs are historically co-fermented with Viognier.

As to why, I have three answers for you: First, my own brief, three-part answer, then a more detailed answer from Eric Baugher (our VP of winemaking here at Monte Bello), then a REALLY detailed answer from Eric.

Depending on your interest level as regards co-fermenting red & white grapes together, read on!

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First, my three-part explanation for why we co-ferment these two varietals to produce this wine:

1. Texture. Viognier’s viscosity makes for a brilliantly smoothing and rounding counterbalance to the tannin-forward granular rusticity of Syrah.

2. Aromatics. Viognier’s perfumed floralilty makes for a deliciously decadent interweave with the darker, inkier, earthen aromatics of Syrah.

3. Color & Preservation. Aspects of the chemistry of Viognier serve to keep the parallel tines of fruit and tannin at an even pace along the developmental trajectory of cellar-worthy Syrah. Put another way, Viognier helps keep the fruit, color, and aromatics intact over the long process of tannin-softening.

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Next, Eric Baugher’s summarial statement about the co-fermentation process:

The idea of co-fermentation isn’t new, we see greater complexity and color develop when zinfandel co-ferments with field varietals such as petite sirah, carignane, alicante bouschet, mataro etc.   In the northern Rhone valley, viognier has been used in small percentages to co-ferment with syrah to aid in stabilizing the abundant color of syrah and to temper tannin extraction.  This has been successfully done for hundreds of years.  I would also say that viognier has a few extra weeks of ripening ahead of syrah, so in the northern Rhone valley, on a cold year, the viognier might bring ripeness to the wine.

Now, in Dry Creek Valley, the weather is much more favorable for bringing syrah to full ripeness. The challenge for us is that the viognier can become extremely overripe by the time syrah is harvested.  Fortunately, we have two small parcels of viognier that have northeast exposure to help moderate the rate of ripening so in the fermenter the brix doesn’t increase significantly.

Chemically, there are non-pigmented phenolics within the viognier skins that have a strong affinity for bonding to side-groups of the anthocyanin pigment of syrah.  Once these bonds are formed, they remain soluble and stable within the wine and provide a deep blue/purple spectrum of color.  Viognier also has a beautiful pungency of apricot, peach, and white flower which helps lift the total aroma of syrah which tends to be dark and gamey.

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And lastly, a detailed procedural on co-fermentation:

The approach we take with co-fermentation of Syrah with Viognier, is to first de-stem the syrah and open the crusher rollers.  This allows a high percentage of whole berries to travel through to fermenter uncrushed.

Next, based on calculated weight, we will destem and crush anywhere between 5-10% viognier on top of the syrah in the fermenter.

We then wait for natural yeast fermentation to begin, and pump-over and irrigate the cap to extract color and tannins.

The typical maceration time (crush-to-press) is 7-8 days total, with twice a day pump-overs given.

The viognier contains colorless flavanols from the skins that extract and conjugate with the extreme concentration of syrah’s anthocyanin color molecules.  Basically, the theory is that viognier helps stabilize syrah’s color; the condensation reactions between viognier’s flavanols and syrah’s anthocyanins form highly stable polymerized molecules that stay with the wine for life.   Once these polymers form, they don’t degrade through normal oxidation reactions.

There is also a shift in the color spectrum of a syrah that has co-fermented with viognier.  Normally, syrah has a deep ruby color.  Once viognier is thrown into the mix for the complex reactions to form, the color will shift from deep ruby to saturated purple/blue.   This has a lot to do with light absorption/re-emission quantum chemistry of the anthocyanin complex with the viognier flavanols altering the polarity and electron flow of the multi-six carbon phenol ring that forms the anthocyanim molecule, thus altering the molar extinction coefficient.  The absorption of green spectrum light (520nm) by these condensed molecules causes re-emission of red spectrum 700nm plus a stronger re-emission at 420nm (deep purple/blue).  That’s why the co-fermented syrah/viognier blend works magically, creating an inkier wine.   It’s strange how this all works, taking a dark grape and cutting it with a white variety, and end up making a wine that is even darker.   That’s the complexity of quantum chemistry, which I had the pleasure of studying many years ago while obtaining my biochemistry degree.

Now, I should say that this co-fermentation phenomena has been a very traditional winemaking approach taken in the northern rhone valley of France.  Through centuries of trial-and-error with many other varietals of the region, the combination of syrah with viognier became the standard.  This was decided by making better wine, not by having knowledge of the complex chemistry.  The chemistry came along much later to explain why it worked so well.

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And with that, back to the wine, cheers!



Categories: Syrah, Tasting Notes, Viticultural Salmagundi, Winemaking

Tags: , , , , ,

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