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Pax Wines

New Releases from the Sonoma Coast Syrah Whisperer
Pax Wines

Pax Mahle’s vibrant, spicy Syrahs were some of the stars of last year’s Wines of the USA tasting, and we expect no difference this year. Full of bright aromas, supple tone and sinew, Mahle’s wines, drawn from a variety of outstanding vineyards, fuse purity of fruit and expression of place to sit alongside the world’s very best examples of Syrah or, if you prefer, Shiraz.

While it is tempting to compare Pax’s Syrah with benchmarks from France—and the similarities are not hard to spot—Mahle’s desire is not to replicate the wines of his French mentors. With an earth-to-glass approach that has helped shape a new generation of individualistic winemakers in California, he believes his role is to express the essence of his sites and vintages. He’s also not setting out to try to make lower-alcohol Syrah for the sake of it but is instead driven to craft classic wines in the mould of those he loves to drink and cellar.

“I like the spicier, higher-toned flavours,” says Mahle. “I think Syrah is at its most interesting when it’s not all primary, when it’s not all alcohol, when it’s not all oak; when it is more olivey and rocky. Yes, it can have alcohol and yes, it can have oak and yes, it should have lots and lots of fruit, but it needs to have that kind of, like, driving dark middle of meat and smoke and olive and rock and granite. Syrah certainly does that better than any grape variety that I can think of.”

The current release includes the second vintage of Pax’s Sonoma Coast Syrah, a kind of baby Hillsides taking in compelling, ocean-influenced sites in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The North Coast Syrah includes fruit from as far north as Mendocino and, as such, paints a broader, more structured and robust instance of the variety than its spicier, blue-fruited sister bottling. Then, the big kahuna. Antonio Galloni has described Mahle’s Hillsides Syrah as “one of the very finest wines in Northern California for a number of years now”. Cast in a brighter, higher-toned style than last year’s wine, the umami-packed 2022 is another gorgeous example of this articulate winemaker’s special touch. 

Photo courtesy: Leigh-Ann Beverley / Bona Fide Productions

The Wines

Pax Wines North Coast Syrah 2022

Pax Wines North Coast Syrah 2022

The composition of this blend changes each year depending on the conditions, yet several key vineyards (that form the base of Pax’s top-tier Hillside Syrah) always appear. This year’s blend includes fruit from, among others, Castelli-Knight Ranch, Griffins Lair, Walker Vine Hill, Nellessen, Morris Ranch and Russell Ranch. The Castelli fruit brings high-tone spice and power; Nellessen provides nerve and acidity; the coastal Griffin’s Lair lends complexity and saline tang; Walker Vine Hill adds cool, slow-ripened detail; and the Morris Ranch and Russell Ranch sites round things out with deep fruit and vibrant acidity.

The key difference between this bottling and the Sonoma Coast wines is that the vineyard components may be sourced from anywhere within Sonoma up to the rolling hills of northern Mendocino County. So, it’s a true north-coast Californian expression of Syrah that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Fermented with 100% whole bunches, the wine ages for 10 months in neutral French oak puncheons and is bottled unfiltered. According to its maker, the 2022 is “just gorgeous, and probably the best North Coast we’ve made”. Like all of this producer’s Syrah, it is a compelling argument for how singular and delicious northern Californian Syrah can be.

“Damp earth, crushed cherries, white pepper, spice-laden black fruits with a taunt finish of black liquorice, tar and pomegranate liqueur. Medium-bodied and juicy, this one punches well above its weight class. Nothing less than a classic Syrah, this shows a lovely balance of fruit, spice and earth. Drink now and stash a couple away to be rewarded with more weight and texture.”
Pax Mahle, Winemaker
Pax Wines North Coast Syrah 2022
Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2021

Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2021

This is the second release of the Sonoma Coast Syrah. Pax Mahle first made this wine in 2020, when he decided not to bottle his top wine, Hillsides, after a challenging growing season. Instead, he bottled all his Sonoma Coast fruit as one new wine: a baby Hillsides. Now almost a permanent fixture in the range, the 2021 blend sees contributions from several coastal vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.

The organically farmed, sandy Nellessen Vineyard, planted in 2000 and located west of Sebastopol (where the Pax Wines Cellar Door is located) in the Russian River Valley, gives fruit with profound aromatic intensity. The coastal Armagh Vineyard in the cool centre of the Petaluma Gap, planted in 1997, is farmed organically and gives fruit with a distinct savoury character. The Majik Vineyard, adjacent to Nellessen but with a northerly aspect, lends pepper spice and umami tones. And the Griffins Lair Vineyard, also located in the cool Petaluma Gap, planted in 1990 and farmed organically, rounds things out with a marine, salty tang.

The winemaking is similar to the North Coast Syrah. Clocking in at a cool 12.5%, Pax describes this as a true “coastal Syrah” with nervy freshness and slightly lighter body. As for Mahle’s note below, many in the Rhône would love to claim this wine’s spicy vibrancy for themselves.

“Powerful aromas of pepper, tobacco and brawny Syrah fruit, this savoury Syrah is for the true fanatics. Textured and wild, this Syrah is loaded with tobacco, deep blue fruit, spicy mint and exotic flowers. We believe this wine is ready for immediate consumption upon release. Unmistakably Syrah, but hard to pin down as being from California because of its smoky, earthy soil aromas and flavours.”
Pax Mahle, Winemaker
Pax Wines Sonoma Coast Syrah 2021
Pax Wines Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2022

Pax Wines Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2022

Inspired by his visits to the cellars of Jean Gonon and Raymond Trollat, 2016 was the first release of Pax Mahle’s Hillsides Syrah. The wine received a rare 100-point score from Vinous, and Antonio Galloni also recently wrote that Hillsides represents “one of the very finest wines in Northern California”.

Hillsides is a culmination of the most compelling Syrah Pax can find in a given year. The wines are identified post-fermentation, taken from wood and blended into a single concrete tank. Pax explains: “Concrete gives a very dense core of fruit. Concrete breathes but not as much as wood; it brings the wine to a really nice reductive state, which allows us to minimise our use of sulphur.”

The sites used in the Sonoma Hillsides Syrah vary each year. However, each is chosen to showcase the freshness and vibrancy that Syrah can only achieve in these cool-climate hillside slopes. The common thread across the sites is high elevation, steep rocky slopes and old vines embedded in sandy soils. In particular, the Walker Vine Hill Vineyard in the Russian River Valley invariably forms the base of this prestigious wine. Situated in a unique mesoclimate that traps cool coastal influences to allow the fruit to ripen slowly, the vines are rooted in iconic Goldridge soil (a touchstone for cool-climate Syrah in California). The remaining sites include: Castelli-Knight Ranch, bringing high-tone spice and power; the Nellessen vineyard, which provides nerve and acidity; and the Morris Ranch and Russell Ranch sites, lending depth and vibrancy to the final blend.

The product of a great season, the calibre of the fruit in ’22 was such that Pax didn’t make a Sonoma Coast Syrah despite having purchased labels. All the fruit made the cut for inclusion in Hillsides, so thankfully, there’s more to go around this year. Compared to the 2021, Pax notes this release is “pure-fruited, higher-toned and brighter”. He continues: “It’s still a dense and weighty wine but with a more European feel than the California classic 2021. All told, the 2022 Sonoma Hillsides is as umami-packed as 2016 with the plushness of 2021 and the aromas of 2018.” Like the rest of the Pax Syrah range, the Sonoma Hillsides is fermented with 100% whole clusters and foot crushed. It matures in old wood, then concrete, for 10 months.

“The 2022 Syrah Sonoma Hillsides is a blend of several sites. Aging in cement helps retain a good bit of freshness, and that gives this wine quite a different feel from the other Syrahs, all of which are aged in neutral oak. The 2022 doesn’t have the immediacy or flashiness of the very best years, or of the other Syrahs in the range, but readers who can wait will and a wine of magnificent pedigree.”
94+ points, Antonio Galloni, Vinous
“Sweet purple flowers, pink peppercorns, blueberry liqueur, white pepper, and exotic high-toned fruit pastilles. Plush blue fruits on the palate, spicy with high-toned red fruits and swirling aromas of earth, umami and fresh summer fruits. Intense and vibrant, this will stay fresh and lively for many years into the future and improve with time in your cellar.”
Pax Mahle, Winemaker
“Smoked meat and black olive tapenade, bitter herbs, thyme, sage, ripe red fruit. Highly raised smooth acidity, velvety tannins, dried blood type of mineral tension to the finish lifted by a freshly cracked black pepper. Impressive.”
94+ points, Kasia Sobiesiak, The Wine Front
Pax Wines Sonoma Hillsides Syrah 2022

“Pax Mahle is one of the most thoughtful, articulate winemakers in Sonoma. His range always seems to have something new, as is once again the case this year. There’s plenty to explore in the other wines, but I always find myself especially drawn to the Syrahs here, as the wines are incredibly site-specific and distinctive.” Antonio Galloni, Vinous



“Although their wines are different, [the style leans] toward delicacy and grace, and they share a sense of exploration and curiosity, an aesthetic of sculptural discovery that looks at vineyards and grapes and asks what they want to become rather than molding them to fit some predetermined ideal.” Eric Asimov, The New York Times

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