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Colgin Syrah IX Estate: A Complete Retrospective

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Monday, April 17, 2017


Ann Colgin established Colgin Cellars in 1992 and then in 1998 purchased a 125-acre high-altitude estate on volcanic soil in the Pritchard Hill area overlooking Lake Hennessey. She and her husband Joe Wender named their property IX Estate because it was parcel #9 when previously owned by the Long Family and because Ann married Joe on September 9 (9/9). In 2000, they planted 20 acres of vines on IX Estate and in 2002 they completed their winery there and vinified their first harvest—not just the IX Red Wine (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) but a 100% Syrah that was stunningly rich and complex from the get-go. Subsequent vintages have only proven the site’s greatness for Syrah.

Planting Syrah Was a Risk

At a comprehensive vertical tasting of the IX Estate Syrah at the property in March, Colgin told me that she and her husband had long enjoyed the wines of the northern Rhône Valley and that she had never intended to plant her Pritchard Hill property entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon. But planting four acres of Syrah was a risk at the time. “The Syrah project was really our own idea. Most of our friends, as well as our vineyard manager David Abreu, thought we were crazy,” she said, noting that she worked with clones that originated in Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, as well as an Entav clone that contributes bright berry and floral notes to the earth, meat and savory spices brought by the northern Rhône plant material. The idea proved to be a sound one, and all four parcels planted were used to make the IX Estate Syrah from the beginning, although one block was ultimately determined not to be at the same level of quality and was replanted with better Syrah material after the 2011 harvest.

Syrah in Napa Valley is always a tricky commercial proposition. One reason is that, as Syrah bottlings vary so widely in style in California, consumers often have little idea what to expect from a particular version, so it can be challenging for producers to sell significant quantities of a given Syrah. Then, too, inexpensive bottlings of Syrah, which are rare, tend to be rather generic in style. But even the priciest and most distinctive versions often represent a financial sacrifice for an estate, as the sites that can produce high-quality Syrah could in most cases be used to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, which generally commands a considerably higher price in the marketplace. In fact, Colgin’s Syrah has always been considerably less expensive than their Cabernet-based wines - but don’t feel sorry for the winery. The current vintage of their Syrah retails for $250 a bottle (vs. $450 for the Cabernets), making it the most expensive Syrah in America. In this case, you get what you pay for.

An Overnight Success

From the start, the Colgin version has been one of California’s most dramatic Syrahs: a flamboyantly ripe, head-spinning rich wine with deep dark berry fruit flavors complicated by iron-like minerality, earth and animal tones, wild herbs and sage. Yes, it displays glorious California mountain fruit intensity and high octane levels but its soil-driven complexity—its notes of gunflint, violet, pepper, olive, meat and herbs—give it a distinctly Old World aspect and leaven its New World sweetness. The maiden release, the 2002, was shockingly impressive for a Syrah from two-year-old vines, but it must be emphasized that even today the Colgin Syrah comes from relatively young vines—particularly by northern Rhône standards. Still, noted Colgin, the increasing vine age and deeper root systems have in recent vintages brought even darker color and “inkier,” stronger raw material and the vines have reached a better balance. It’s already incontestable that the site can produce outstanding Syrah but the best is still to come.

Colgin’s IX Estate, planted at the top of Pritchard Hill at an altitude stretching from 1,150 to 1,350 feet above sea level, faces eastward, an exposure that protects the vines against the hottest afternoon sun and preserves flavor intensity and aromatics. Peak daytime temperatures at this altitude are typically about eight degrees cooler than on the valley floor. The weathered volcanic soil of IX Estate features fast-draining gravel, rocks and boulders, as well as iron-rich clay that allows for some moisture retention. The ruggedness of the site makes the Syrah a powerful, intense, tannic wine. Although its alcohol level is typically around 15%, Chief Operating Officer Paul Roberts, MS, noted that the fruit is harvested “just under perfectly ripe—in other words, still crunchy.” Vine yields are normally between 2-1/2 and 3 tons per acre, and total annual production has typically been between 350 and 450 cases but has been lower in recent years owing to a short crop in 2011 and to the replanting that took place after the ’11 vintage (the wine from these replanted vines may make the cut to be included in the 2016 blend).

On the subject of Syrah and Cabernet, by the way, Colgin noted that the actual quantity of tannins in her Syrah is roughly equal to that of her IX Estate red blend, which goes a long way to explaining why none of the vintages made to date is past its peak. (According to winemaker Allison Tauziet, this is unusual for Syrah in California, and she credits the strong anti-oxidant properties of this tannic content for the color intensity and longevity of the wines.) Although the earlier Syrah vintages are in their windows of peak drinkability, they all still have life ahead of them—and more recent vintages, thanks to the greater depth provided by vines that are now well into their teen years, appear capable of a 20+ year evolution in bottle.

The Vinification and the Wines

Mark Aubert was the winemaker at Colgin Cellars at the beginning of the Syrah project and made the 2002 through 2006 vintages. Tauziet took over in 2007. Both had previously served apprenticeships at Colgin as assistant winemakers. Consultant Dr. Alain Raynaud, who has owned several properties in Pomerol and St.-Émilion, has played an active role in blending the Colgin Cellars wines since 2001.

The estate has typically picked its Syrah from mid- to late September (mid-September has been the practice more recently). Tauziet generally begins by carrying out a short cold soak lasting no more than four days. The fruit here has always been destemmed; Tauziet believes that vinifying with stems would give the wines an element of rusticity and distract from their fruit. For extraction, Colgin Cellars has traditionally relied on pumpovers, but Tauziet has introduced some punchdowns in recent vintages, particularly with specific blocks that she feels produce fruit with “more extractable skins that have more to give.” The early vintages were aged in about 50% new oak but from roughly 2004 through 2010 the Syrah was aged in 100% new barrels. Since 2011, Tauziet has brought that percentage down to about 75% - “or whatever percentage feels like it will promote the best fruit aromatics while ensuring evolution of the wines and good support of their tannic structure.” She added, “Once-used wood tends to preserve fruit aromas but it also prevents evolution of the tannins. These wines have such good structure that they need to evolve in barrel to carry finesse, so they are really best suited to new oak. It’s always a question of balance.”

The IX Estate Syrah, in theory at least, is racked only once, a couple months prior to being bottled early in its second summer, without fining or filtration. Finished alcohol levels are typically around 15%, although the great 2004 exceeded 16% and the 2008 also reached that threshold. The pHs have been in a fairly narrow range, between 3.85 and 3.95 following slight acid adjustments in the fermenter. Total acidity levels have ranged from 5.8 grams per liter to 6.2.


Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2013
Drinking Window: 2022 - 2036
Score: 96
Tasting Notes: (75% new oak): Saturated deep ruby. Brooding, primary aromas of blackberry, cassis, black cherry, violet and licorice. Wonderfully tactile and chewy, showing more definition and detail today than the 2012 version in spite of its extreme youthfulness. Succulent purple fruit and spice flavors are complicated by a brisket-like meaty element I also found in the 2007 bottling at this tasting. At once bright and thick, this utterly seamless Syrah finishes with substantial dusty tannins and outstanding length.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2012
Drinking Window: 2023 - 2034
Score: 94
Tasting Notes: (75% new oak): Bright saturated ruby. Extremely primary aromas of dark berries and violet, with a touch of reduction. Thick, very ripe and sweet, with some exotic oak notes (Colgin uses Damy and François Frères barrels plus a bit of Hermitage) currently dominating the wine's fruit and spice flavors. A distinctly saline style with a note of black olive, this young Syrah appears to be going through a sullen stage, showing more depth of texture than flavor definition today. The toothcoating tannins will require patience.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2011
Drinking Window: 2021 - 2030
Score: 93+
Tasting Notes: Bright dark ruby. Reticent aromas of black fruits, peppercorn, fennel and licorice showcase the coolest vintage to date here. Offers lovely density of flavor and texture if less sweetness than most of these vintages. A distinctly salty, backward Syrah with hints of menthol, maple syrup, beef and pepper. Strong natural acidity accentuates the wine's impression of dryness. This very young wine went into a shell in my glass and will need at least three or four more years in bottle to harmonize. According to winemaker Allison Tauziet, almost all of the Syrah fruit was harvested before the rains started on October 4, and the latest-picked block was eliminated from the blend. A very Old World style with a light touch--and a complex, strong wine from this cool, late vintage.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2010
Drinking Window: 2022 - 2036
Score: 97+
Tasting Notes: Saturated medium ruby. More Hermitage than Côte-Rôtie on the extraordinary nose, conveying an impression of granitic minerality to its scents of crushed blackberry, blueberry, violet, licorice and charcuterie. Delivers an uncommon combination of density, energy and definition, not to mention a deeply spicy quality and more obvious iron-like minerality and gaminess than the 2011 version. Still a baby, this remarkable, tightly wound Syrah boasts a slowly mounting, palate-staining finish and perfectly buffered tannins. Exceptional--and built for a long life in bottle.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2009
Drinking Window: 2019- 2032
Score: 96
Tasting Notes: Bright, saturated medium ruby. Youthful but already highly expressive high-pitched perfume of blackberry, violet, licorice, crushed rock and honeysuckle. Savory, sappy, thick and fine-grained, delivering uncommon depth of texture and a strong umami character to its sweet/salty dark fruit and meat flavors. This wine stands out for its restraint today but it's much easier to taste than it was shortly after being bottled, and there's still a lot to come. Finishes classically dry and very long, with wonderfully suave, integrated tannins and mouthfilling perfume.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2008
Drinking Window: 2019 - 2029
Score: 94
Tasting Notes: (16% alcohol due to the tiny, concentrated berries, but balanced by 6.2 grams/liter total acidity): Saturated dark ruby! Brooding black fruits, black olive, lavender and flinty, smoky minerality on the nose. Dense, superconcentrated, rather wild flavors of saline olive tapenade, dark berries and smoked meat. Displays superb thickness and chewy depth but still needs time to gain in complexity and open. The tannins are dusty but not dry, and the finish is very long and spicy.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2007
Drinking Window: 2018 - 2032
Score: 95
Tasting Notes: Saturated dark red-ruby. Aromas of blackberry, violet and licorice are accented by dried herbs and mocha. Savory, tactile and highly concentrated, offering outstanding precision to its complex flavors of dark raspberry, licorice, flint, smoke, beef brisket and black olive. Really remarkable retention of primary fruit for a ten-year-old California Syrah. At once salty and energetic, this beauty finishes with incredibly plush tannins and palate-staining length.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2006
Drinking Window: 2017 - 2026
Score: 94
Tasting Notes: Good full red. Sexy, savory scents of plum, brown spices, mint and meat. Plush and liqueur-like, and sweeter than the 2005, with its dark raspberry fruit complicated by notes of smoked bacon, minty herbs, fennel seed and stewed vegetables; this Syrah is animal, vegetable and mineral in the same mouthful. Serious but ripe acidity and suave tannins give this midweight wine lovely shape and a light touch. Still, I find it most impressive on the front half. With its smoky and saline elements, this should match up beautifully with quail or pheasant. (This wine was going through a sullen stage when I last tasted it in 2013, but today it's delivering on its early promise.)

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2005
Drinking Window: 2017 - 2027
Score: 93
Tasting Notes: Healthy dark red. Very ripe, musky, perfumed aromas of red plum, raspberry and olive tapenade take on orange blossom and herbal nuances with aeration. Very plush, rich and fine-grained, if without quite the dimension of the 2004 version. But this is similarly broad and palate-coating, with its salty and meaty qualities giving it a strong umami character. Much less fruity and sweet on the back end, finishing with mineral and bitter chocolate notes and good grip. This growing season featured relatively long hang time as the budbreak was early and the harvest occurred at the end of September.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2004
Drinking Window: 2017 - 2030
Score: 96
Tasting Notes: Dark red-ruby. Explosive, slightly liqueur-like aromas of black cherry, black raspberry, orange zest, gunflint, black pepper and sexy oak. Spectacular on the palate: savory, thick and dense, yet with lovely shape and definition to its flavors of dark berries, gunflint, licorice and dark chocolate. Strong acidity gives this compellingly sweet Syrah excellent balancing energy and a light touch. The peacock's tail of a finish spreads out horizontally to saturate the entire palate. Between the wine's fresh acidity, incredible retention of youthful fruit and substantial succulent tannins, this beauty is just at the beginning of a long plane of peak maturity. The crop was light in 2004 as the canopies were quite small and some of the shoots were short and unable to support full clusters, according to winemaker Tauziet. I've been a fan of this wine since the outset but this is the best bottle I've yet tasted.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2003
Drinking Window: 2017 - 2026
Score: 93
Tasting Notes: Good medium red. Aromas of black fruits, violet, licorice and bacon fat complicated by pepper and herbs; one can sense the heat of the vintage. Juicy, tightly wound and rather powerful, with its salty, penetrating dark berry and licorice flavors showing good energy and a serious tannic edge but still evolving. (Winemaker Tauziet referred to the wine's "hot/cool aromas and flavors.") Production in 2003 jumped to 250 cases from 2002's 100 cases, but the estate nonetheless dropped a lot of crop in '03.

Wine: Colgin IX Estate Syrah
Vintage: 2002
Drinking Window: 2017 - 2022
Score: 92
Tasting Notes: Good medium red. Black raspberry, plum, gunflint, licorice, smoky oak and a carnal quality on the nose. Lovely filled-in wine with surprising energy and saline complexity to its deep flavors of red and darker fruits, iron, meat and musky gunflint. Notes of burnt sugar and orange peel emerge with aeration. The tannins are a bit drier than most of the subsequent vintages so I suspect there's little to gain by holding this wine longer. This maiden release was aged in 50% new oak and bottled with 16% alcohol.

 By Stephen Tanzer

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