With too many syrahs chasing too few buyers, this category has become a tricky one for producers on our West Coast. Many winemakers who buy fruit from high-quality vineyards have had to cut their prices to move their wines. It’s hardly surprisingly, then, that vineyard owners who have planted significant syrah acreage in recent years have been particularly hard-hit. But my recent discussions in Washington State with numerous winemakers during the course of my annual tastings of new releases suggest that the better syrah producers here are enjoying a bit more success in the marketplace with this variety than are their peers in California. And they also benefit from an avid local following. Is it because the wines are better?
Yes, Washington produces plenty of syrahs that taste much more like generic plump, ripe red wine than like perfumed meaty, peppery, berry-scented examples from the northern Rhône Valley. And as long as these wines retail for no more than $20 there’s a reasonably thirsty market for them. But at an event I conducted last week in Seattle for a Microsoft tasting group and their friends and associates, we focused on the best syrahs from Washington State–wines that are normally made in limited quantities. We tasted from the superb 2007 vintage, an extended growing season that yielded wines with a near-perfect combination of sweetness and healthy acidity. The wines were consistently at least very good, and a majority of them were splendid—not to mention balanced for a minimum of five to eight years of positive evolution in bottle. These wines are not cheap, but by all accounts they are selling steadily, even if a couple of their makers have had to adjust pricing.
The consistently strong group of wines made it clear that Washington holds out great potential for this variety, especially as growers pursue cooler sites, often at higher altitude. But the future is already here, as there’s a critical mass of excellent syrahs in the market right now, for those who know where to look. My recent tasting event also left me with the feeling that Washington’s better syrahs are more consistent, and more interesting, than those from California. While California’s very best are also world-class, they range tremendously in style, with many wines peppery and green while others are topheavy with alcohol or new oak. As a group, they are probably more confusing to casual consumers, who don’t know whether they’ll get a sweet, Australian-style shiraz or a peppery midweight along the lines of a Saint-Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage.
Interestingly, many of the best syrahs from Washington State seem to employ the same rough formula for success. I won’t call this formula a “recipe” since these are mostly hand-crafted bottlings from independent-minded winemakers, and yet… Common elements include the use of a moderate percentage of whole clusters in the vinification (typically 20% to 30%), a fairly gentle (i.e., not heavily extractive) vinification, minimal racking (typically just one or two, plus the racking prior to bottling), which means that the winemakers are able to stay cool about syrah’s tendency to become reduced in barrel, and the use of a fairly low percentage of new barrels (25% or less, and sometimes none at all) in order not to block varietal character or the distinctiveness of their vineyard sources.
Among the standouts of my recent tasting were the following 2007 syrahs, all of which merit a special search of the marketplace:
Abeja Syrah Walla Walla Valley
Betz Family Winery La Côte Rousse Syrah Red Mountain
Cayuse Winery Cailloux Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley
DeLille Cellars Doyenne Signature Syrah Yakima Valley
Gramercy Cellars John Lewis Syrah Walla Walla Valley
Grand Rêve Vintners Collaboration Series Syrah Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Mountain
Long Shadows Vintners Collection Sequel Syrah Columbia Valley
Rasa Vineyards Principia Reserve Syrah Walla Walla Valley
Waters Winery Forgotten Hills Syrah Walla Walla Valley
They are not cheap (retail pricing ranges from $32 to $60) but they are among the best wines I’ve tasted from Washington in recent years. Full tasting notes were provided on some of these bottlings in the International Wine Cellar last fall, and the rest will be included in my annual coverage of Washington due out in early October.