2017 Saxum, James Berry Vineyard, Willow Creek District AVA, Paso Robles.
The gorgeous, opaque purply and exceptionally enticing 2017 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Red, a blend of 55% Grenache, 29% Mataro (Mourvèdre), 13% Syrah and a 3% touch of Carignan thrills the palate with a contrast of pretty aromatics, dense fruit coulis and savory/earthiness with a steady tension and a firm tannin structure that hides the heft and alcohol, matching some of the very best of Chateauneuf du Pape! There’s an almost endless array of complexity and purity here with a hedonistic layering of blackberry, plum, Italian cherry, Mission fig and blueberry compote fruit along with meaty and leathery notes, coming obviously from the Mataro and the heady violets from the Syrah, while the Grenache, in a way, plays the role of central midfielder here directing the play, but not taking the center stage, allowing the other grapes to show off their best qualities here. There’s no overt oak presence and a nice mineral, stony element to go along with loads of snappy herbs and spices and a long exciting finish with a touch of creme de cassis, sous bois and tarry/salty licorice. There’s plenty of opulence here, but I can tell you, there’s a class and raw elegance that make this wine outstanding and extremely compelling, it’s unapologetic in density and ripeness, but will an old world soul, even more impressive considering the warm vintage! There was an extra degree of care sorting clusters in 2017 and a riper profile in the finished wine, though the effort paid off, with an excellent depth and supple mouthfeel, though I do recommend focusing a meal around this deep and inky James Berry red, with meat dishes very much a compliment.

Winemaker Justin Smith, one of the state’s most acclaimed, says, the James Berry Vineyard is the family’s main estate vineyard, adding that it is located just about 10 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean with an average elevation of 1200 feet. This is the stuff of legend, being the site of many 100 point wines and producing incredible age worthy Rhone style offerings with soils, as Smith adds, consisting of a shallow clay loam topsoil over ancient seabed, complete with fossilized shells and even ancient sharks teeth! This site allows for intense ripe flavors and the cooling influence, especially at night gives a nice cut of natural acidity, so even at 15% natural alcohol there is still a finesse to these wines and a fine mineral tone. This cuvée, Smith explains, is always a red fruit driven, Grenache based wine, with a large portion of Mataro for texture, and Syrah as spicy support, which you can instantly identify. The James Berry Vineyard red wine typically is aged for 18-21 months in a variety of vessels with the Grenache portion seeing a combination of in concrete tank and larger set of new puncheons and foudres employed (close to 50% in this vintage), while the Mataro and Syrah ages in the smaller French barrels. These, which also get a high percentage of new wood, has ideally absorbed it well, leaving only the faintest of cedary and vanilla hints. I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed some of Justin’s earliest efforts, before he blew up, as well as some well aged, magnum bottlings, thanks to my ex-bosses, and the wines are spectacular and this wine, which a friend blind tasted me on gratefully, very much shows off its pedigree and place, these Saxum’s are truly are not to be missed wines.
($98 Release – $180 Est.) 96 Points, grapelive

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