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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Negroamaro - the next Syrah?

(Note - we have our first vintage of Negroamaro in barrel now - part estate, Yolo and Mendocino counties. I definitely see some intense viticultural issues with this grape, especially with its peculiar cluster morphology, so it will be management intensive. What we have is quite unique - extremely dried plum-ish that would seem high-ripeness but it is rather low alcohol, has silky tannin and very soft acid. The non-estate fruit had poor canopy management, but sometimes that overshaded fruit (which is better than over exposed), unmanaged rusticity is a key component, and I think maybe 30% of our block I will leave with heavy canopy to preserve that brambly element. It tickles in the right places.

But, to answer the question, could it be the next Syrah? Maybe, but the current California Italian market is still uphill - especially with lazy wholesalers and their mistaken status quo low-hanging-consumer-fruit focus, though it is slightly easier to navigate with the newer wine drinkers with direct contact. The flavor profile is unique though, and gentle... Fingers crossed!)

Negroamaro or "Negro Amaro" could be the new Syrah, with the exception that it might actually sell. Syrah is actually doing ok realistically, the good producers doing serious work are still making great wine with it. It is not a grape suited for the cheap mass market though, so the shakeout is a good thing.
Anyway, Negroamaro has several things going for it:

Freshly planted on Kelsey Bench
1. It has a pronounceable name that is descriptive and its meaning can be inferred by most folks with a bit of work that lends an adventurous/exploratory element that some consumers love. It is not as foreign as Aglianico...

2. Negro Amaro is like Syrah in that it has good dark violet color that consumers seem to expect these days and only moderate tannins (Syrah has a particular tannin-color linking structure that prevents it from becoming too tannic and drying, excluding viticultural or winemaking error). It can be silken or a little chunky, but never astringent when properly handled. Negro Amaro also tends to be fairly warm-climate vibrant with that violet flower and touch of high-toned delicate white blooms coming through against a deeper and more musky/rustic background - a lot like Mourvedre and North Rhone Syrah.

3. Like Syrah there can be strong leatheriness that forms the backbone in conjunction with a brambly spice element that evokes the old world (perfect in our lineup) while still being a relatively fruity warm weather grape. It has skank and finesse.

4. Coming from Puglia it is obviously drought tolerant and heat loving without compromising its typicity- yay. (But, it does sunburn, and crop load can be vary with soil type.)

5. Negro Amaro is often blended - the Salice Salentino DOC specifies minimum 85%, and often Malvasia Nera, Sangiovese or Primitivo are added to bump up the fruit/floral quotient. Hopefully this will not be the case in Lake County where we need to actually restrain the fruit bomb character of our wines and try to produce something with actual structure and character. For us, the more bramble the better - we don't need to worry about fruit here.

6. Negro Amaro rosato is known to be very, very good.

Needless to say we are excited to try our hand with this one. Its mix of backward rusticity, delicacy and aromatics should be exciting. Now if we can just get Nero d'Avola to pass quarantine our Southern Italian plantings will be complete. Sorry Calabria, but we don't see Gaglioppo in our future.

(Oh, incidentally, Negro Amaro may be a distant cross between Verdicchio and Sangiovese).


Mark's Wine Clubs said...

Syrah is an interesting case study if for no other reason that at first the hype was out of control, only 5 years ago it was going to be bigger than Pinot.

Now, there are truly world class Syrah's being produced for $35 a bottle in California and they don't sell. When we ship them to our clients we hear the same things universally, I don't usually drink Syrah, but that was really, really good.

I wonder if people just haven't been exposed to it enough.

Pietro Buttitta said...

Thanks Mark. I agree, there certainly isn't any problem with the quality of Syrah - it is better than ever. There has been an interesting discussion at Sommelier Journal regarding this issue. The general thrust does seem to be that consumers aren't sure what they are getting when they buy a Syrah, but might know what to expect when they purchase a "Shiraz". Unfortunately Australia is full of widely varying sites and terroirs like anywhere else. With the Pinot boom there were no $10 Pinots to provide a gateway to higher quality bottles and consumers of Pinot seem to have a better framework of reference regarding it. Its complexity is its virtue. Same thing for Cabernet were quality really starts at $20. A $10 Cab generally has some sort of tangible link to higher priced bottlings of increasing quality. Not so with North Rhone Syrah. I still believe that Syrah is fundamentally NOT a consumer-friendly grape in its French expression. It is stinky, it can be weird, it can be very non-fruit bomby in all of its North Rhone incarnations. To be really consumer friendly all the qualities associated with it must be stripped away into a purple vanilla oak soup, which only hurts gateway buying to higher priced purchases. Its esoteric nature is not really a virtue here.
It will be interesting to see how it ends up on the next revolution. Unfortunately I know of many good Syrah blocks being grafted over right now. It is unfortunate that the agricultural reality is only responding to and reinforcing the economic reality.