by Fred McMillin
for September 30, 1997
Mistral Above All
Le Mistral—"Only the sturdiest of temperaments can live with the Mistral wind that scours the Rhone Valley from the Alps to the Mediterranean. The vines of that valley, too, need vigor and tenacity to resist it...the reason, perhaps, why the wines made from them are prized for their boldly individual character. When grown in California, these Rhone varieties display that same distinctive character, thus our choice of the term Vin Du Mistral to describe them."
...from Joseph Phelps, winery's founder
The Rest of the Story: There's little doubt that both men and vines require considerable character to withstand Le Mistral. It whistles down the valley some 80 days a year in the north, 120 days in the south, sometimes for days at a time. It is frigid in the winter, warm and very dry in the summer. As a result, many homes are built facing south.
As to the grapes, the Syrah has displayed the most "distinctive character." Critic Giles MacDonogh points out that Joseph Phelps was the first California vintner to recognize it: "The Syrah in California began with Joseph Phelps. In 1974 he planted the vines [obtained from famed U. Of Cal. geneticist Prof. Harold Olmo] and made his first wine in 1980...I remember it had a lot of deep blackberry aromas." Later, the London Times Magazine would say "the Rhone's high-class Syrah is beginning to find a serious New World rival...in the pioneering Syrahs from Joseph Phelps."
My panel just tasted the 1994..those first vines were 20 years old in 1994, but the blackberry aromas and flavors are still alive and well. The panel gave the bottle a rare rating of Excellent.
1994 Vin du Mistral Syrah, Napa Valley
Postscript: How long has the Syrah been battling the punishing Mistral? A very long time...legend says Roman legions of Emperor Probus brought the Syrah to the Rhone over 17 centuries ago!
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