A Brief History of Syrah at Amalie Robert Estate
All of the local growers thought Ernie was daft. “Yeah, sure, go ahead. Let us know how that works out for you! Ha!” If you have met Ernie, you know he doesn’t really run with the traffic. He was simply more “encouraged.”
His research started as a consumer of some very fine wines. Specifically wines from the cool growing regions of Côte Rôtie in France, the Clare Valley in Australia and Martinborough, New Zealand. Of course, you never really know until you go, so it was off to Europe, down under and beyond. He learned about Syrah trellis systems, rootstock choices, reflective mulch, tons per acre, but most importantly the different clones of Syrah.
The defining moment came after tasting the “La La’s” in barrel at the cellar of Guigal in Ampuis. Ernie asked if he could speak with someone regarding Syrah clones, as he was getting ready to plant a vineyard in Oregon’s cool North Willamette Valley. After a few minutes, Marcel Guigal entered the room and Ernie had his opportunity to talk with the man who manages their vineyard holdings.
When asked about the proper clones for cool climate Syrah, Marcel said, “Well, we mostly take cuttings from our own vineyards.” Ernie was devastated. A well is a hole in the ground with water in it. Not much use to him. Also, he could not take cuttings from their vineyard and bring them back to Oregon.
But necessity is the Mother of invention, so Ernie countered with, “Well, if you had to plant new clones of Syrah, which clones would you choose?” The pregnant pause ensued. “Of course,” Marcel replied, and left the room.
After what seemed like 3 days, he reappeared with a single page. “This page is what we know about the best clones for cool climate Syrah.” Ernie’s eyes glazed over, as the page was in FRENCH! Marcel kept on, “I would recommend this clone and that clone, but avoid this one. Also, we have some experimental clones and you should try one or two of these.” “Merci, Bonjour” was the best Ernie could muster and the session was over.
The Top Barrel is the single best barrel of Syrah from the vintage.
2012 Top Barrel Syrah: "Brilliant violet. A complex, expansive bouquet evokes ripe black and blue fruits, smoky Indian spices and potpourri, backed by subtle olive and cola nuances. Sweet, sappy and penetrating on the palate, offering intense blueberry, cassis, bitter chocolate and spicecake flavors and a strong suggestion of candied violet. Strongly channels the savory qualities of the northern Rhône and finishes extremely long, smooth and spicy, with subtle tannins building slowly. 94 points." - Josh Raynolds, Vinous, February 2018
The 2012 Top Barrel is the highest rated Syrah from the Willamette Valley and the first to earn a 94 point review from Vinous. So for now, the Top Barrel reigns supreme.
“Amalie Robert, whose vineyard is in the western part of the Willamette Valley, makes a very strong case for Syrah, but production of their two graceful wines is painfully small, as in just a few barrels of wine per vintage.” - Josh Raynolds, Vinous, February 2018
Ernie was confident that he wanted to grow Syrah and Viognier. Dena said OK, but you can only have 1 acre – no more. Establishing an acre of vines is not the most difficult thing Ernie has ever done, by far.
But establishing the right clones of Syrah in that 1,485 vine planting took some research.
Back in the car, Ernie took another look at this page. Among all the gibberish were a few numbers. Yes, now we are getting somewhere, the clones are all numbered! His analytical mind was now engaged, and so the quest began. It took about 5 years, but Ernie finally planted the 4 select clones of Syrah that were indicated to him by Marcel Guigal. Note: That is 297 vines of each Syrah clone plus 297 Viognier vines. That makes an acre, and that’s all there is.
The 2007 Amalie Robert Syrah was selected for the “The Year’s Best American Syrahs” by Wine & Spirits Magazine with a 93 point rating. And in 2008 our Syrah had a new name: “Satisfaction.” And that’s how it worked out for Ernie.
Satisfaction is four clones of Estate grown, Northern Rhône clones co-fermented with Viognier.
“Even with a November harvest – which seems to be de rigeur for these vines, given that even the 2009 was picked in that month – the Amalie Robert 2010 Syrah Satisfaction barely reached 12% alcohol. (And that’s even with some – accidentally – inter-planted Viognier, for more about which and about this project generally, consult my Issue 202 review of the 2009.) That sounds like a recipe for ripeness-deficient trouble, but instead was one for a Syrah unlike any other I can recall, and whose ilk I have only remotely approached from Schneider Vineyards on Long Island or in Saint Joseph and Cote Rotie of three decades ago."
2011 Top Barrel Syarh: "Smoky Latakia tobacco and peat; burley tobacco and beef blood; plum and cherry; grapefruit rind and bittersweet floral perfume combine for a brightly juicy, if lean; dazzlingly diverse and interactive show. The tannins here are perfectly placed to invigorate without engendering roughness, and the combination of salinity and marrowy depth captivates the salivary glands in a sustained finish. But bear in mind my initial comment: this is certainly unlike any contemporary Syrah, and those drawn to it will probably think my score miserly while others will think I got carried away. How this will evolve in bottle can only be guessed at, but I would certainly encourage anybody lucky enough to make its acquaintance to follow at least a couple of bottles through at least 2018. 92 points.” - David Schildknecht, The Wine Advocate, October 2013