The Making of 100-Point Wines: Syrah Ascends In the Sierra Foothills | Wine Enthusiast
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The Making of 100-Point Wines: Syrah Ascends In the Sierra Foothills

It’s rare enough when a wine receives 100 points from a Wine Enthusiast reviewer. But when the same wine earns 100 points two vintages later, it’s unprecedented.

Ascent Syrah Sierra Foothills is a wine from Domaine de la Terre Rouge winery in Amador County, California. Two years ago, I wrote an effusive review for the 2016 Ascent and awarded it 100 points in a formal blind tasting. Recently, the same happened while tasting the 2018 vintage, after a small dip to 98 points with the 2017 vintage.

The two 100-point scores reflect a mastery by winemaker-founder Bill Easton and his high-elevation vineyard sources in Amador and Calaveras counties. It’s a feat never before achieved by a California red since our in-house tasting program started in 1999. Ramey Cellars in California earned two 100-point reviews for its vineyard-designated 2018 Chardonnays, but these were different vineyard bottlings. Cayuse in Washington state received two 100-point ratings for its Walla Walla Valley Syrahs, but also under two different designations.

Bottle of Ascent Syrah.
Photo by Amanda Easton

The rarity of repeat 100s reinforces that the Wine Enthusiast team of reviewers is conservative regarding the highest end of the 100-point scale. In my case, Ascent is the only wine I have given a perfect score in eight years of reviewing for the publication.

But beyond the point value, what does the stunning quality of these Syrahs from a largely overlooked region signify? First, that excellence in California winemaking is not limited to the coastal appellations. And second, that Syrah is arguably, even demonstrably, what the Sierra region does best.

With due respect to Zinfandel, the variety most often associated with the Sierra Foothills, Syrah is the real star here. Vineyards at 2,000 to 3,000 feet of elevation on the endlessly varied slopes and in the granitic, volcanic soils of eight counties—particularly Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras—are superbly suited for Syrah and other Rhône grape varieties. The signature grape variety of the Northern Rhône Valley of France could one day be as closely linked with Amador and El Dorado as it is with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.

Portrait of Bill Easton, winemaker for Terre Rouge.
Bill Easton, winemaker for Terre Rouge / Photo by Krista Glavich

Ascent is not the only standout Syrah in the region. Terre Rouge winery alone makes three others: Sentinel Oak, High Slopes and DTR Ranch. Close behind with multiple glowing reviews are Sierra producers including Amador Cellars, Cedarville, E16, Lava Cap, Le Casque, Prospect 772 and Scott Harvey.

Beyond initial scores of new releases, a wine must also age well, evolving in a positive way over time, to earn accolades of greatness.

Ascent vintages from 2001 through 2018 showcase the label’s inherent ageability. The 2001 still shows a fascinating bottle bouquet, warm plummy flavors and resolved, silky tannins. The 2005 remains bold and ripe, the 2009 bursts with blackcurrants and a still young in texture. The 2013 is all dark chocolate and firm tannins.

As for the 100-point bottlings, two years after I gave it our highest score, the 2016 still tastes like perfection, packed with tobacco, beef and blueberries, saturated with fine-grained tannins, having barely moved in its evolution. And the recently reviewed 2018 Ascent? Even young, it’s off the charts. Seductive, complex, plowed earth and blackberries combine on a posh, velvety texture.

The owners chose the name Ascent to indicate the wine’s high-elevation vineyard sources as well as its place at the top of their lineup. But “ascent” also works beautifully as a metaphor. This singular wine has climbed all the way to the mountaintop twice, marking a trail for others in the Sierra Foothills to follow.