The United States of Syrah: Red, White, and You

If you’ve ever had a bottle of Ridge Vineyards Syrah, you’ve probably checked out the label. And when you checked out the label, you probably saw this …

And when you saw this, you probably did a bit of a double-take, scratched your head, and went, “Wha?”

Ok, maybe not. Maybe you’re already familiar with the wines and processes of CôteRôtie, in the Northern Rhone. Or maybe you’ve caught onto some of the contemporarily tradition-minded Rhone offerings from Australia, or Santa Barbara. Or conversely, maybe you aren’t familiar with Viognier at all, and just didn’t know it was a white varietal.

But for most of us, when first we see this label, the inclination is to wonder at the unexpected  juxtaposition of red and white grapes in the same bottle. It just doesn’t seem … right, somehow.

There are, however, very good reasons behind why these two do reside together so well. Briefly and colloquially, it’s a triumvirate:

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.

It’s this last rationale, #3, that is truly at the core of the Syrah-Viognier co-fermentation construct. It can get a bit heady when you dive full bore into the chemistry of it all, but it’s fascinating stuff, so let me please introduce winemaker Eric Baugher, as he arrives to spelunk you through the caverns of 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 the 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.

And that, my friends, is, in a nutshell, not only a mini-dissertation on co-fermenting Syrah and Viognier, but also, an excellent explanation of the relationship between Ridge Vineyards, and technology. Yes, we are pre-industrial at heart, and we still do, for the most part, things the old-fashioned way. But that said, we do have a very sophisticated technical side to us; the distinction is how we deploy it, and to what purpose.

I call your attention to something Paul Draper wrote, in an essay entitled “Pre-Industrial Winemaking at Ridge”:

In a synthesis of past and present, we have taken the pre-industrial techniques and applied them in conjunction with the best, least intrusive modern equipment. We’ve been told that we have the most sophisticated analytical laboratory of any winery our size.

Combine this with Eric’s words above:

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.

And what you get is a lovely lil’ distillation of the Ridge philosophy on technology. In short, we essentially rely on technology to ideally confirm what we already knew by instinct.

For example, that Syrah and Viognier taste REALLY GOOD together, when co-fermented.

The next incarnation? The 2007 Ridge Vineyards Lytton Estate Syrah. Coming to a tasting room, or a cellar, near you. Soon. Very soon. Sooner if you’re an ATP member.

And if you can’t wait even that long (i.e. when your shipment arrives), you might want to consider coming to the annual Rhone Rangers event, held this coming weekend in glorious San Francisco. We’ll be pouring it there.

Come see Ridge Vineyards, at Rhone Rangers, to enjoy the benefits of citizenship in the United States of Syrah. Three cheers for the Red, White, and You!




Categories: Events, History, Lytton, Paul Draper, Rhone varietals, RIDGE Staff, Syrah, Tasting Flights, Varietals & Blends, Vineyards, Vintage Wine Labels, Viticultural Salmagundi, Wine Clubs, Wine Tales, Winemaking

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2 replies

  1. Well, what can I say?
    I could start by eulogising Ridge and the wondrous wines produced.
    I could continue by bragging that I have one of the few single bottlings of Ridge Viognier ever to leave your shores and find its way to the UK.
    But where then?
    To announce to all you blogreaders that I will be hosting a vertical tasting of Chateau Grillet (THE spiritual home of French Viognier) in a few months time? That might, unintentionally set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons.

    No, I will just say that I will open my last bottle of 1996 Ridge Lytton Estate Syrah over the Easter holidays.

    Maybe someone out there in the Ridgeosphere might be a tad jealous?

    Nonsense; come on and join me!

  2. Complex simplicity at it’s best with bated anticipation achieved.

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