Discover Syrah in Ballard Canyon

One of Syrah’s problem with consumers has always been the savory nature of the wine that is often coupled with some aggressive tannins. The solution to both issues, if and when they are viewed as problems, has been to get Syrah so ripe that it is all about fruit, has minimal tannins, and at the same time low acidity and no real complexity. As a variety Syrah is tough to farm precisely because of this. However in the right spots and with the right soils, and of course conscientious care in the vineyards it is possible to get Syrah that is full of fruit, with ripe tannins, and intact acidity that still displays the savory and sometimes peppery complexity that the grape is famous for. Ladies and gentlemen, that place is Ballard Canyon. 

Located smack in the center of the Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard canyon is an AVA completely surround by the Santa Ynez AVA. One of the most recent AVAs, having achieved recognition only a year ago in October of 2013, Ballard Canyon is also on the most quickly developed AVAs. While blessed with a long history of farming and ranching, the first vineyards arrived in Ballard Canyon only in 1974 and significant planting in the region really didn’t kick off until the 1990s. And yet here we are, just a few decades later not only celebrating the Ballard Canyon AVA, but recognizing that this is a special place, and in particular a special place for Syrah, though the tiny plantings of Grenache and Nebbiolo have also been pretty impressive.
With only 18 producers and growers and under 600 acres, out of a potential of 7,700 within the AVA under vine, it might seem that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill , but those molehills, the elevation here rises to about 1250, made of Interlacing layers of sand and chert, over a base of chalk and precious limestone have proven to be ideal for Syrah. The orientation of Ballard Canyon, running South to North as it does, not only offers protection from the coastal influence that has made much of the region ideal for Pinot Noir, but also affords hillside vineyard a direct view of the sun throughout the day. 


While the sun does bless Ballard Canyon with a more moderate and warmer climate than much of the region, the canyon allows for excellent heat drainage at night ensuring the great diurnal shift that is one of the key’s to the region as a whole’s succes. Sun, well drained soils, cool evening and added warmth late in the season allow growers to not only fully ripen their fruit, which is of course rarely a problem in california, but they can do it while retaining acidity in the fruit, and developing both ripe tannins in the skins and deep rich flavors.


Ballard Canyon Syrah is still learning what it wants to be when it grows up. The wines are already undoubtedly quite fine, and among the best of the variety, but the wines up to now have often been made with young vines and clones that may not have been ideally suited to their sites. That’s the phase ballard Canyon already finds itself in. It’s a phase of refinement that will certainly lead to wines with more finesse and complexity in the future, though this remains a region where capturing the power Syrah is capable of might always be the variety’s ultimate expression.


neither inexpensive nor easy drinking, these are wines that strive to make a name for themselves, and rightly so. With such limited vineyard acreage, and limited potential for adding more, both due to the small size of the AVA and regions water issues, Ballard Canyon Syrah will, for the foreseeable future, remain a bit of a rarity. A such it make sense for producers to continue to push the boundaries here, and challenge us with their unique expressions of Syrah.  We should challenge them to keep going.


A few examples of Ballard Canyon Syrah will better help define the style of the wines, though as I have written I’m not sure that the style has been fully defined. It’s also worth noting that 2012 was a bit of a cooler vintage, and one that might appeal more to my palate than those of people more accustomed to richer vintages. 2010 was even cooler and longer, and again is my kind of vintage, which is reflected in my reviews of the following wines.



Planted in 1999. 12 acres, planted to Syrah, grenache, and Mourvedre. First harvest of mourvedre this year. Northern end of the appellation at an altitude of 1000 feet. Comes from the ridges in the vineyards with shallowest soils and most limestone influence. All spontaneous fermentation. 


Limestone gives great ripeness, helps hold the acidity, breezy late in the afternoon helps keep things cool after days that may reach the high nineties, overnight down to the fifties.


Effusive and bright on the floral nose rich with violets and roses and  great detail coming from the gentle wood framing notes, blackberry and plummy fruit, and base of mineral and black pepper notes. Polished in the mouth with some early chocolatey notes but showing superb balance with a lovely early note of herbal spice followed by almost creamy black fruit, black berries and black spice flavors with a nice pop of boysenberry on the backend before this transitions to a spicy, slightly hot finish. Milk chocolate and hints of grilled meats add further complexity on the palate, and this shows great cut with pinpoint tannins driving the long finish.93pts



Originally planted in 1970s then replanted in 2002 and 2003. Two different clones. Added three more since then,   four different soil types with clones planted on specific soil types,not simply in blocks


Sweetly smoky and toasty on the nose with lots of wood spice and plummy fruit. there’s a lovely texture in the mouth, bright and lacking the weight of many of these wines, with tannins that are refined and the acids do a lot of the heavy lifting here. The flavors are pure and delicate with great definition to the cherry skin, plum skin, and smoky notes. Good length and definition on the long finish which shows a bit of heat ntwo. Just a lovely wine in the style, bright juicy fruit, more red toned than many of these wines and showing compelling freshness. 92pts



11 clones of syrah on the estate, with a big contract operation with lots of custom crushing, also very sandy soils which lend a structure and strength to the wine


For this wine seven different clones were fermented individually


Fairly oaky on the nose with some older wood notes, baking spice, a bit of stewy plum fruit, licorice and black tea. Smooth and elegant with lovely brightness on the palate and a fine blend of fruit and savory character. With dark wild berry fruits on entry followed by leathery, dried meat notes this is detailed and possesses a sense of delicacy even with its medium plus weight on the palate. A nice hit of cherry fruit on the backplate is lively and bright with tannins that remain firm if well covered by fruit that lingers on the finish with baked fruit notes and wild red cherries.. Elegant with a hint of VA adding detail on the finish. 92pts



92 acres of Syrah. Clones from Cornas and Cote Rotie are now in the vineyard but these original vines are moderately old vines, old for the region, 18-20 years old.


Deeply fruited with hints of vanilla stemmy hints, mineral base notes adding complexity to the core of fresh plummy and red tinged fruit. Velvety and dark on the palate with a bit of bitterness adding a nice accent to the nuanced and deep flavors on the palate which shows soil tones, red earth, a hint of red peppery spice and lovely warm dark berry fruit. Good length, with fine tannins lending nice spice and Lipton tea notes on the finale  A bit gamy on the palate, with lots of detail,  this is texturally very lively with fine minerality on the moderately long finish. 92pts



From a big vineyard, over 365 acres of which some 18 blocks planted to 8 clones of Syrah, at  a variety of elevations between 700 and 1200 feet, this comes from the entire range of Syrah plots within the vineyard. The very top third up to about 1200 feet has very little topsoil, vines growing instead almost directly in the chalky limestone substrata. As you move lower there is more covering soil. The limestone soil helps the region act more like a colder region. farmed biodynamically since 2006. 


High toned and black fruits with a thin cedar veneer and spicy black and green peppercorns layered over blackcurrant fruit with a top note of garrigue like herb  Dry and  bit leathery on entry, this is a large scaled with with integrated acids supporting dark plummy fruit that is very spicy and peppery on the palate, with lots of fine grained tannins and leathery, meaty flavors on the backend through the long, slightly hot and jammy blackberry toned finish. The tannins here offer good contrast to the richness of fruit here and accentuate the chocolatey overtones and hints of black tea on the long, slightly tacky finish. 91pts



From vineyards located in the southwest corner of the appellation, a little bit colder, own rooted high density 2900 per acre. Low trellised fruit zone close to the ground, big canopy


Grilled meats, sour plum and pepper knit together with old wood smokiness emerge on the nose which starts out tight and small, then turns very aromatic with a decidedly savory character of mineral, dried meats and black pepper.  Bright with ripe tannins and fine supporting acids in the mouth,  this shows some warm climate texture, but cool if rich flavors. Powerful and savory with some stemmy tannins on the short finish, this is a tight wine with great raw materials. 90pts



All sand soils


Oily and seedy on the nose with fine briary accent notes. More in the strawberry end of the spectrum with asphalt and poppy seed base notes and hints of gamy hung meat. Big and dense in the mouth, chewy on the palate and packed with dry matter. There’s a nice, mineral note here on the  midpalate with tannins that close down the finish and coat the mouth and acids that manage to keep this fresh though it remains chewy and dense. The nose is more attractive than the palate with its hints of apricot, black spices, and violets. Too much power for me at this point in its evolution, though it is promising in the style. 90pts

Credit: Snooth – Articles


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