The Problem with New World Syrah
Rhone varieties in California are nothing new, even though many consumers are only now just being introduced to them. The fact is that quality-minded, passionate winemakers have been making these wines for quite some time, but over the decades they would only be scooped up by a small niche of collectors who had been turned on to them. In most cases, this required an introduction from a trusted friend who would put the glass in their hand and get them to taste.
In my opinion, the biggest problem with New World Syrah is that it doesn’t necessarily appeal to a “New World” palate. In most cases, these wines are being made by people who have a passion for the Rhone and wanted see what could be accomplished in their native soils, hoping to produce wines that they would want to drink. The problem is that the average buyer of Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir in the ‘80s and ‘90s would usually turn their nose up at the peppery, earthy aromas and youthfully taut palate of Syrah. I’m sure that this had a lot to do with the style of these wines when Pax Mahle first hit the scene. However, those dark, inky giants are becoming a thing of the past, and Pax had a lot to do with the changes that we have witnessed throughout the category.
Telling It Like It Is
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Pax Mahle over lunch at Rebelle in New York City. It was an opportunity that I did not want to pass up, as I’ve witnessed the evolution of these wines first-hand. Also, let’s face it, Pax is one of the most influential and inspiring producers of Syrah in the United States. As well as being one of the most down-to-earth and straight-talking winemakers that I’ve ever met. No offense to anyone else out there, but it’s a breath of fresh air when someone who you’ve only ever met across tasting tables is willing to sit down with a buyer-wine writer and simply tell it like it is.
Pax started in the wine business as an east coast sommelier, who was lured to the west coast when he became a wine buyer for Dean and Deluca in 1997. However, it wasn’t long before the winemaking lifestyle started to look much more attractive to him. Pax’s time spent with winemakers, specifically of the more traditional and old-world sort, made him rethink the entire direction of his life. He craved being the guy in the vineyard, in the cellar, and living the life of wine.
With that in mind, Pax set out to learn and understand the processes, but what he found throughout much of California at the time was very different than what he expected. The machine and chemical treatment mentality of the region went against everything that he believed would make great wine. One story that Pax told at our lunch was of a time when the winery crew had “retired” for the evening, and he decided to start a batch of wine which was foot-trodden, left-whole-cluster and made to ferment without any additives–a wine which he stated, “Turned out pretty good”. Realizing that he disagreed with the methods of winemaking in the region, Pax decided that he would go his own way and produce his wines as he saw fit.
It wasn’t long before the name PAX became synonymous with California Syrah, even at a time when the popularity of the variety was still shaky. In the consumer’s mind, these wines were PAX before they were Syrah. This was also a time when the wines were considered much larger in scale than what we find in the glass today.
The Stylistic Shift
Pax will be the first to tell you that this was a slow and steady evolution, not a paradigm shift or purposeful stylistic change. For one thing, as a wine lover, Pax is a fan of the traditional wines of the northern Rhone, citing his tremendous respect for Raymond Trollat (we’ll touch on that later) and how the wines that he enjoys drinking aren’t necessarily the same wines that most of California produces.
The stylistic shift that many consumers think of happened as Pax continued to gain access to more and more vineyards throughout California, specifically the cool-climate sites that would naturally produce wines with much lower alcohols. It took time for him to realize that the best move, to avoid confusion, was to separate these wines from the PAX label, hence Wind Gap was born. Today, PAX continues to represent the “warmer” sights, while Wind Gap showcases the cooler climates.
The PAX style still relies on ripeness, but it’s an ideal ripeness, while pushing the cool-climate locations to produce fruit that was given as much time as possible to fully mature on the vine. With that said, it’s remarkable to taste the Nellessen vineyard Syrah from the Wind Gap lineup, as it shows so much textural depth and fruit, but with a mere 11.7% alcohol.
If my time with Pax taught me anything about the perceived changes in the wines, it’s that balance is the real difference; that plus a willingness to keep an open mind and experiment whenever possible. I was hugely impressed to hear him speak about the wines of Arianna Occhipinti (an emerging icon of Sicily) and how he has applied methods that were learned from her cellar to his production of Syrah.
Speaking of Experimentation
Speaking of experimentation, one of the highlights of our lunch was the Sonoma Hillsides Syrah. In an attempt to pay tribute to Raymond Trollat, one of the icons and hardline traditionalists of Saint Joseph, Pax created the Sonoma Hillsides Syrah, which is sourced from a mix of the Griffin’s Lair, Walker Vine Hill and Castelli-Knight Ranch vineyards. Fermented whole-cluster and without the addition of any sulfur in the winemaking process, the Sonoma Hillsides has an energy, verve and exoticism that verges on mesmerizing. Pax decided to release 2016 early due to the absolutely incredible performance that the wine is already demonstrating, and I for one can’t wait to try it again. It’s one of those wines that you simply can’t seem to put down.
Of course, that wasn’t the only standout of our tasting, and it’s important to understand that Pax is about much more than just Syrah. Chenin Blanc, Carignan and Grenache were represented on the table, and Pax is also experimenting with a number of indigenous Italian varieties (I heard talk of Frappato and La Crima), as well as a few forgotten grapes from around the globe.
Wrapping It All Up
Lunch ended too quickly and goodbyes were brief, as they usually need to be in this business, but I left feeling quite satisfied. It’s great to know that the man behind the wines has so much insight and continues to push forward and experiment. Always a terroir fanatic, detesting modern technology, and still trying to live that winemaker lifestyle–Pax Mahle left quite an impression on me. As do his wines, which I highly recommend.
On to the tasting notes
Pax Chenin Blanc Buddha’s Dharma Vineyard 2015 – The ‘15 Chenin Blanc led off with an intense display of ripe pear, crushed stone, wool and floral undergrowth on the nose. Expecting a ripe expression on the palate to match the bouquet, I was instead surprised by medium-weight textures yet a very dry mix of young pear with penetrating tart lime and notes of wet stone. It finished long and savory with lingering notes of green apple and minerals. (91 points)
Pax Carignan Testa Vineyard 2016 – Here I found a bouquet of dark red berry fruits, with hints of licorice, tart cherries, and dried floral perfumes. On the palate, lean textures gave way to a mix of crunchy strawberry and cherry fruit, with cascading minerality. The finish was medium in length with saturating tart red berry fruit. (89 points)
Pax “The Vicar” Red Blend 2014 – (95% Grenache, 5% Syrah) The Vicar was intense with deep, dark red fruits on the nose, followed by crushed blackberry, purple floral tones, and sweet spice. On the palate, I found medium-bodied, silky textures, with saturating dark red fruit, savory balsamic spices and intense minerality, which bridged into the finish, becoming spicier and even a bit floral. Hints of tannin lingered long, providing a slightly chewy grip. I’m impressed. (92 points)
Pax “The Hermit” Syrah 2014 – The nose was firmly rooted in the northern Rhone, with a display of ripe black fruit, sweet herbs, pepper, minerals and charred meat. On the palate, I found silky, expansive textures with tannin-encrusted black fruit, minerals, savory spices, herbs and hauntingly dark inner floral tones. The finish was long and spicy, cleaning up the palate with mouthwatering acidity. (92 points)
Pax Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2016 – Once in a blue moon, I have started my tasting with an official “Wow”, and this was one of those times. The 2016 Sonoma Hillsides was gorgeous, with a beguiling display of sweet pepper, exotic florals–sometimes purple and sometimes red–ripe cherry and blackberry, with dusty earth tones. On the palate, I found silky textures with juicy acidity creating vibrancy, as notes of tart blackberry, savory herbs, and minerals upon minerals drenched the senses. The finish was long with palate-staining black fruit and hints of peppery herbs. (94+ points) M
Pax Syrah Castelli-Knight Ranch 2013 – The nose was spicy and peppery, a mix of red and black fruits, with a mix of sweet spice and minerals creating an airy feel to the experience. On the palate, I found silky textures with a mix of strawberry and cherry, followed by savory spice and white pepper. It finished fresh on fine tannin with lasting raspberry and inner floral tones. (93 points)
Pax Syrah Griffin’s Lair 2013 – The nose was dark and smoky, showing crushed stone minerality, with savory blackberry and exotic spice. On the palate, I found silky textures, yet it was still youthfully lean, as layers of saturating blackberry, dark chocolate, saline minerals and inner floral tones were briskly carried across the senses. The finish was long with tart blackberry and brisk, mouthwatering acidity, as a hint of bitter herbs and fine tannin lingered. This wine remains quite young but full of so much potential. (94 points) M