Stephen Tanzer's

Winophilia

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.

August 6th, 2010 | 7 comments

7 Responses to “A vote for Washington State syrah”

  1. While syrah’s troubles in the marketplace have been well documented, the grape continues to do well in Washington in terms of quality, at least at the higher end. Though many here have jumped off the syrah bandwagon and funereal jokes about the grape abound, I believe the above producers – many of whom are doing quite well despite the economy – show that syrah can succeed here commercially as well, if done properly.

  2. Washington syrahs are exquisite and affordable. Try Olsen Hills, Corvidae, Goose Ridge, Davenlore, Va Piano, and Columbia Crest for syrahs under the $30 mark.

  3. Mr. Tanzer,

    The article mentioned 20% – 30% “whole clusters”, which include the stems, in the vinification. Do you if the winemakers meant “whole berries”, which do not include the stems?

    Thank you for recognizing the high quality of our Syrahs!

  4. Yes, the reference to vinifying with 20% to 30% whole clusters definitely included use of the stems.

  5. Glad Syrahs from Washington are recognized for bringing pleasure and quality to the table. Here’s my take on why:

    The later parts of our Columbia Valley growing season offer an advantageous day/night temperature range and the possibility of extending the growing season for minute “bits” of ripening, both sugar and physiological, on a daily basis.

    Without being too critical of California Syrah, because there are some compelling wines, I could build an argument that their variations in style have lead to customer confusion and to a lack of the zeal this variety deserves. As the big dog of American winemaking, what holds for California typically applies to other American wine areas in the consumers’ mind. An analogy could be made with Riesling, the great “site-communicator” of white varieties: as long as customers were confused about dry, sweet, medium, dessert, full or light, … the variety foundered. Only with concerted efforts, from a wide range of sources, to help define character and style by origin has the variety been able to get hot.

    Syrah needs to do the same. I hope that over time we can achieve a communication of style and character for Syrah for Washington Syrah, and help eliminate confusion for the variety. Perhaps this would help more people to appreciate the genuine pleasure Syrah offers.

  6. Mr. Tanzer, you mention that Washington syrahs are all over the map, stylistically speaking, then you say that in contrast to WA, high-end California syrahs are “confusing to casual consumers.” I guess this seeming contradiction leaves me confused, particularly as you don’t clarify whether the high-end WA syrahs are “peppery midweight[s]” or something else entirely. So what do you think they are like?

    Mr. Betz focuses on casual consumers on his comments about the relative sugar levels in riesling, but as a “Joe Consumer” guy I’d be horrified if producers in the Mosel eschewed one category or another particularly because riesling is a great “site-communicator” — from trocken to auslese and beyond, it conveys the “somewhereness” that is specific to Mosel riesling: that slate, that twist of lime in the finish! As a Loire partisan, I’d be even more horrified if Vouvray producers chose but one style, and I’d be saddened if chenin grown on Anjou schist was styled to taste like chenin grown on Touraine tuffeau.

    Personally, I’d hope that WA producers would pursue the same sense of somewhereness rather than style. I’ve never tasted any Betz wines, but I can say that neither the Reininger merlot nor the Reininger syrah, with their specific dusty minerality, could have come from anywhere but eastern WA, which I think is a real triumph. (The same wines also communicate their variety — the merlot is not structured enough for my taste, which is why I choose not to drink it, while the syrah shows terrific structure, and so I do drink it. And yes, they follow the formula of little or no new oak.)

    Let Walla Walla wines be specific and unlike Red Mountain wines, and vice versa. Trumpet these differences. Argentina will eventually (and soon, I think) pay the price for producing the same kinds of malbecs just as Australia has for their shiraz. Let a thousand flowers bloom, rather than just a few here and there.

  7. I have long been a Syrah fan but only recently have started drinking Washington Syrahs, and I whole-heartedly agree with the positive comments.

    A couple of observations of my own: first, I do think that Washington has found its own voice with Syrah, as it has with other varietals, and I am thinking mostly of Cabernet and Merlot. That voice seems to reflect Washington’s moderate climate (if I can use that word to describe a near desert!) that produces wines that are generally not baked or jammy but nor are they green and excessively “cool-climate”. Syrah is often characterized by its extremes; those extremes have largely been avoided by Washington vintners, in my experience with their Syrah’s (and other red varietals too). This makes them all the more drinkable.

    Second, I would just add two other note-worthy Syrah’s from Washington: McCrea Cellars and Sheridan Vineyards. Both make excellent Syrah’s and are worth seeking out.

Leave a Reply

*