Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Relentless 21st Century

Shafer Vineyards released its first vintage of Relentless, its Napa Valley Syrah blend, in 1999. This week, for the first time, father and son John and Doug Shafer lined up every vintage through 2007—plus barrel samples of 2008 and 2009—to see how the wine ages.

Turns out they age quite well. Not a big surprise, given the amount of alcohol, tannin and fruit we're dealing with here. Relentless ranges from 14.8% to 15.5% alcohol, and 20% of this unusual blend is the never-petite Petite Sirah. Shafer doesn't make dainty wines.

Relentless is made to age from 10 to 15 years, but is also advertised as drinkable upon release. But based on this tasting, the next time I get my hands on a bottle, I'm going to lay it down and wait ten years. My favorite wines were the unmistakably the 1999 and, especially, the 2000. The huge flavors of dark fruit had receded, and secondary flavors of tar, twig and tobacco came to the fore, and balance the palate out. Furthermore, the nose had opened and released wonderful scents of sagebrush and cooked fruit. The noses on the younger wines were still quite closed. Age also seemed to bring the wines together. The looser assemblage of tannin, juicy fruit and acidity found in the recent vintages wove into a harmonious blend. The big tannins never receded, but they integrated themselves. The 2000, a bit tight at first, just got better as it received more time and air.

Doug Shafer also liked the 2005, which was indeed drinking well. It was full (they were all full) and ripe, with notes of tobacco among the cherry, plum, prune and such. It will likely go a long way.

Relentless ages for 26-30 months in French oak, and then eight months in bottle. It's all new barrels now, but in the past there were some older casks. Much of the Syrah and Petite Sirah are co-fermented.

The Relentless wines are remarkably consistent, just as all Shafer wines are. From 2007 to 1999, there were differences from vintage to vintage, but it was always recognizably the same savory wine taking a long, slow journey into maturity.

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