Lenn_ArrowSyrahBANNER By Bryan Calandrelli, Niagara Region Editor

Duncan Ross is not one to get too visibly excited or emotional when he’s discussing his Niagara Escarpment winery in Lockport, NY.

Arrowhead Spring Vineyards had just released their first 100% estate-grown red wine when I stopped in to speak to him about his 2008 Estate Syrah. Just as I expected, he was calm, cool and collected — until the end of our interview when I asked him his overall impression of this wine. To which he responded, “It’s the best wine I’ve ever made.”

If I weren’t sitting there with a glass of it in front of my nose, I would’ve thought it was just a calculated response to promote his new wine. Ross has made some impressive reds with sourced fruit for the last few years, which only adds to the impact of him declaring it his best.

Even though the decision to go against the grain and plant syrah in an area that didn’t have any already may seem bold, there’s been some success in Niagara, Ontario with the grape. It turns out that syrah actually ripens just after merlot and before cabernet franc, so ripening isn’t the biggest question mark.

As with any grape variety in such a cool climate, winter survivability is the issue when planting a vineyard.

After hearing Andy Reynolds of Brock University give a seminar at Schulze’s farm in Burt, NY, Ross was convinced that he could add syrah to the Bordeaux grapes and chardonnay he was planting. “It seems to winter well," he says. "It’s a little more cold hardy than merlot." So he decided to plant 650 syrah vines separated in two different areas of his vineyard.

His first full harvest came in 2008 and Ross was rewarded with a fantastic crop to make his first estate wines. "Everything lined up in our favor and 2008 was a phenomenal year for us," he says. Phenomenal because Mother Nature was generous enough to let many varieties hang into November, achieving a ripening level in which other areas like the Finger Lakes couldn’t replicate. “We are just a bit warmer on average, not to say that happens every year, but on average we do get a couple of extra weeks," says Ross.

Ross didn’t rely on his twenty years of experience working with Bordeaux grapes either while working with this syrah in the cellar. “This syrah is different. It’s a northern cool-climate syrah so it’s not that big Australian shiraz," he says. "It’s not a South African shiraz or not a California syrah, so you want to make sure you protect the fruit qualities. Which to me says French oak, but we had done a lot of experimentation with other wineries on American oak.”

He found that Keystone Cooperage in Pennsylvania had some low-intensity, low-impact American (Pennsylvania and New York) oak and he brought some in for the 2008s. After getting some advice and some research he went for larger-format barrels. “We ended up doing American oak which is really counter intuitive to retaining the fruit but we did it with the 500-liter barrels, and I think it just worked perfect with a little bit of oak. It was very controllable and there wasn’t a point I thought I’d over-oaked it, which can happen in a smaller barrel.”

The final blend for his 2008 Estate Syrah also included a barrel in year-old Francios Freres French oak, as well as a half barrel of Hungarian oak which only contained pressed juice. He’s convinced he made the right choices in the winery as the wine has been outselling his popular Apogee red blend in the tasting room, even at $34.95 a bottle.

 “We have had people come in and try our syrah after trying those other ones and say they are really excited to have a locally grown syrah," he says.

Ross’s excitement for this wine is obvious when he talks about the future of his vineyard. “It’s definitely on the short list of things I want to plant more of. That will be one of the first ones to go in and we are thinking about planting again in 2011.”

Until then if you want to taste his first effort, you’ll have to get a bottle from the 150 cases he made from the 2008 vintage. It has ample blackberry fruit with black pepper and vanilla. There’s no doubt that it’s plush mouthfeel and overall volume is going to make it a popular red this season.

Thanks to Ross, more are sure to follow with syrah plantings in a region still looking to carve out its identity with red grape varieties.