Vertical Tasting of Colgin Cellars' IX Estate Syrah Napa Valley

The Colgin Cellars syrah is one of the handful of syrah superstars made on California's North Coast.  It is priced at superstar level too:  through 2009 the tariff was $175, and the pre-release price for the 2010 version is $200.  That makes it one of California's most expensive syrahs along with bottlings from Manfred Krankl and John Kongsgaard.  It's also one of the most complex and distinctive.

Ann Colgin and Joe Wender were long-time lovers of northern Rhone wines when they decided to plant syrah in 2000 on their steep IX Estate on Pritchard Hill outside St. Helena.  Colgin had already established a cult following for her hugely rich cabernet-based wines, so syrah was a new direction and something of a risk--in fact, one that her vineyard manager and others cautioned her not to take.

In the end, 4 acres of syrah vines (ultimately enough to produce 300 to 350 cases of wine per year) were planted to Cote-Rotie and Hermitage clones in 4 east-facing one-acre parcels within the 20-acre vineyard on Pritchard Hill, on well-drained soil rich in iron, clay and rocks (many rocks were laboriously pulled out and carted away before the vines were planted).  Each plot features a different clone and rootstock combination as well as different soil composition, and thus the winemaking team begins with four distinct components.  Extraction is normally very gentle, so that the flavors of the terroir of IX Estate and the various northern Rhone clones can best express themselves.  The lots are fermented and aged separately and racked only when necessary (usually only for the assemblage prior to bottling), with the objective of producing the most complex blend possible.

Colgin's first syrah release was from the 2002 vintage, when the two-year-old vines produced just a half-ton of fruit per acre.  The maiden wine, aged in 50% new oak, was a stunner.  While many new California syrahs established in the late '90s and early '00s were successful red wines, the Colgin example stood out for its wild northern Rhone aromatics, complex varietal character and layered richness, and made it clear from the outset that the IX Estate site offered outstanding potential for syrah.  The 2002 carried a full 16% alcohol yet did not come across as overripe or heavy.
The next vintage, the 2003, was aged in 100% new oak and since that time the Colgin syrah has been aged in what Ann Colgin describes as "almost 100% new French oak" from a constantly evolving variety of barrelmakers.  In the vineyards, strict control is maintained over crop levels, a necessity with young syrah vines, which are very likely to overproduce if left to their own devices.

I should point out that Mark Aubert made the first five vintages of the Colgin syrah, with current winemaker Allison Tauziet taking over in 2007.  Saint-Emilion-based superconsultant Alain Raynaud has consulted on the syrah project since its first vintage, in addition to the estate's red wines from Bordeaux varieties.

The Colgin syrah is always mostly destemmed, but some stems or whole clusters have gone into the fermenter from time to time.  In recent years, Colgin has used smaller fermentation tanks sized to match their various blocks of syrah, and has also done some fermentation in barrel.  The vinification of the syrah normally begins with a cold maceration lasting 5 to 7 days.  Total time on the skins is usually 25 to 35 days, including some post-fermentation maceration.  Some "small" punchdowns are done during fermentation in barrel, and pumpovers may be carried out for wines fermented in 900-gallon tanks.  The malolactic fermentation takes place in barrel as the estate likes to keep the syrah on its lees.

From the start, Colgin has dropped a lot of fruit to minimize yields and ensure concentration of aromas and flavors.  The crop level is normally in the 2.5 to 3 tons-per-acre range, and as of the 2005 growing season the vine loads were cut back to less than one cluster per vine!

The Colgin syrah is bottled in May or June of the second year, with finished alcohol typically in the high 14s to low 15s and pHs routinely 3.9 or higher.  But despite the often full-blown ripeness of the fruit, the wines come across as fresh.  And, as my tasting at the estate last year proved (I have added a note on the 2010, which I sampled just a couple weeks ago), they are capable of aging gracefully.