The Battle for Syrah: United or Divided under the Stolpman Flag? + A sneak peak at 2010 L’Avion, Ruben’s Block, and Hilltops…

With a quick chance to breath between trips to Houston and Southern California, I met with Sashi, Erin, and John to taste through all the wines we have bottled so far in 2012. We spend so much time tasting wines out of barrel and tank, it was a great chance to analyze the results of our blending decisions.

I’d looked forward to this meeting for the previous week, as it would be the first time I would try the newly bottled 2010s including 2010 Ruben’s Block Syrah, 2010 Hilltops Syrah, and 2010 L’Avion.

Other than evaluating the brand new wines together, we also wanted to address what MBA students describe as  – SKU creep. Since 2008 when we started the process of taking back the vast majority of the vineyard for Stolpman wines, we’ve acted like kids in a candy store. We immediately found stunning cuvees from single blocks and coined them “Hilltops High Density”(1) and “Originals” (2). Of course, it was a given that we were going to keep the uniquely stunning, low-alcohol “Ruben’s Block” (3) by itself to age into our greatest masterpiece yet, but right there we had three new Syrahs.

And on top of single block bottlings, Sashi’s aggressive experiment, co-fermenting Syrah with 10% Viognier, yielded some of the most beautiful barrels I’ve ever tried from Stolpman. Two vintages after reclaiming the vineyard, the 2010 Villa degli Angeli (4) was born! Once we include our longtime Estate (5), Hilltops (6), and Angeli (7) Syrahs, we bottled 7 different Syrahs for the 2010 vintage. That’s a lot of Syrahs!

Now that the excitement of the new wine launch is behind us, it’s time to examine each wine in bottle, and decide whether the sum is greater than the parts.

Of course, in my personal quest, the battle for syrah, I love having seven arrows in my quiver. Like a shot from a Cherub, one of the beauties I pull out is going to make you fall in love with the grape. Isolating the different blocks also speaks to our inner geek, as each demonstrates the differences in plant material, elevations, soils, and vine age & density. But at what point do we take it too far and inundate our everyday fan. The one who just wants to drink Stolpman Syrah, and can’t remember which exact cuvee they tried last time?

The first step in self-examination is to taste all of these wines now in bottle, and make sure that we like the separate cuvees more than a combined wine. With beakers out – we set out to try all of our current wines out of bottle, and then blended in exact ratios. For example, we made 4,900 cases of 2010 Estate Syrah and 900 cases of Originals. Therefore, we lined up the Estate, Originals, and a blend of 82% Estate Syrah and 18% Originals Syrah. If we ended up liking the blend more than the Originals, it would be clear that we shouldn’t have isolated the Originals lot, and left it all together.

It just so happened that the first flight proved to be a no-brainer. The Originals showed rustic brawn that was lost in the more delicate, perfumed Estate Syrah when we blended the two together. Meanwhile, we didn’t think the addition of 18% Originals complemented the femininity of the Estate. Better off to let the boys and girls play separately in this case.

As we proceeded into the higher-tiered wines, the debate became a little more interesting. We tried a cuvee of the Hilltops High Density-Villa Angeli-Angeli all blended together in representative quantities. Now bottled, the mind-blowing wham off-the-charts aromatics have calmed down in the Villa Angeli, the biggest shocker of the tasting. The Villa Angeli seems like it’s in a quiet mood, and I recommend holding off popping it for at least a few months. Hilltops High Density is showing the best out of the three right now, with big, bold, ripe fruit, it’s currently the 2010 poster child of the low-yielding richness of our very best wines. Angeli is in a very primary holding pattern, showing pretty, but simple watermelon candy and firm young tannin, another bottle that needs some cellar time.

The sum of the parts: Angeli, Hilltops HD, and Villa Angeli showed pretty terrifically all blended together, but is this a big surprise? Extremely layered and interesting, if we had to do over again, it would be tough to tear barrels away from this cuvee. That being said, if we had blended all three wines together, we would have missed out on the accessibility of the Hilltops HD.

So now, we wait and see. We leave the notes from the meeting for the next few months as we return to the 2012 crop, with shoots reaching for the sky in the vineyard. The plan is to continue to isolate the rows that are showing off unique profiles in the vineyard, and let Sashi apply winemaking techniques to each as he sees fit, whether he wants to add Viognier, leave a percentage of the fruit whole cluster, or utilize new oak. But before we think about blending the 2011s, let alone the 2012s, we plan to revisit this blending experiment to see how the 2010 wines evolve. With a bit more bottle age, will the different bottlings compel us to repeat these cuvees? or will they drive us to blend the lots together?

Once we were through with the blending tests, I got the long awaited chance to try the brand new wines.

The 2010 L’Avion showed deep, beautiful pear on the nose, with hints of bourbon on the finish as the new oak has yet to fully integrate. While the nose and front palate are truly the most beautiful I’ve experienced from a pre-release L’Avion, the oak is still too omnipresent on the finish. We will try to push the release of the 2010 L’Avion until April of 2013 and by then, the wine will emerge as the seductive “height of blanc hedonism” we all know it to be. When I lamented that the new oak blocks the wine from being approachable while young, Sashi reminded me of the end-game. There are only four Rhone white wines in the world that are built to age like L’Avion: Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes, Chave Hermitage Blanc, Chapoutier L’Ermite, and E. Guigal Ex Voto. We have to sacrifice the cash flow of making an easily accessible wine now, to create an international stunner for the ages.

Next up was the Hilltops Syrah 2010. We didn’t mess with this wine at all in the blending tests because Sashi was confident we hit the nail on the head. Somehow the ’10 Hilltops combines all the luxurious richness of the top-tier wines with the delicate feminine perfume and austere balance that is Stolpman terroir. A hallmark Stolpman bottling I can’t wait to try it in a few years… FYI – if you have a bottle of the ’08 lying around it has opened up gorgeously, trust me, POP IT!

For professionals only, we end with Ruben’s Block. Amateurs end with it because it is the most expensive but this is usually a big mistake. Coming in once again under 14% alcohol, 2010 Ruben’s Block’s grip still dominates the wine. 100% wholecluster and picked in early September, I plan on delaying the official release at least 2 years. With barely over 100 cases made, I can afford to cellar this away from clawing hands for a bit! Not too long ago Ruben brought out a bottle of 2008 from his private stash on the vineyard and it got me giddy. High-toned ripe cherry fruit is starting to emerge to get even the most snobbish burgundy drinkers revved up. Although we have to search through the tightness of the 2010, I’m further assured that the Ruben’s block program will define Stolpman as a world-class estate. And just wait until you see the new ridgeline tee-pee blocks going in next year!