As a follow-up to Josh Raynolds’ article on good inexpensive shiraz bottlings from Australia, I thought you might be interested to see the results of a tasting of high-end Washington State syrahs I conducted in Seattle in late July for a mostly-Microsoft group of wine lovers. [This short report was published a couple weeks ago on the International Wine Cellar site.] Most of the dozen wines we tried were from the outstanding, cooler 2010 vintage, which yielded fresh, rich, structured wines with all the elements for greatness, with the rest from the considerably warmer growing season of 2009.
The point of the exercise was to show the many styles of syrah being made in Washington today. The event organizer divided the wines into four categories: traditional, modern, hot vineyards and “rocks” vineyards. Hot vineyards in this case meant syrahs from the Red Mountain appellation, while “rocks” refers to the alluvial fan of the Blue Mountains east of the town of Walla Walla, where rounded pebbles and cobblestones store the heat of the day and release it to the vines during the evening hours. (Christophe Baron of Cayuse was the trailblazer here.)
Although there is obviously considerable overlap among these categories, the winemakers seemed satisfied with having their wines so classified, and the categories made sense over the course of the evening. Incidentally, we had five of the winemakers in attendance: Greg Harrington (Gramercy Cellars), Jon Meuret (Maison Bleue), Peter Devison (Efesté Wines), Bob Betz (Betz Family Cellars), and Steve Robertson (Delmas), and they joined in an active discussion about such variables as use of whole clusters in fermentation, new oak, length of elevage, single-site wines vs. blends, recent vintages, and so on.
Of course, I tried to further complicate the exercise by introducing another way of categorizing syrah, one that is probably more familiar to IWC readers: New World vs. Old World. To me, Old World syrahs are generally smoky and gamey; they usually lead with non-fruit qualities like bacon fat, flowers, olive, dried herbs and spices. They have firmer tannins, more obvious structure and at least the impression of more acidity. The wines often show saline and earthy qualities. The shorthand descriptor I would use for this type of syrah is savory. These wines are about much more than just sweet fruit.
The New World style is more about fruit, black fruits more often than red, and often with a very ripe, jammy character. When syrah is labeled as shiraz, as it is with most Australian wines and some from South Africa, it’s more likely to be dominated by black and even blue fruits and to be more immediately approachable. To me, shiraz on a label suggests lower acidity, a plush texture, high alcohol and round tannins. And it’s much more likely to be aged in American oak. New World syrah is less likely to feature savory elements like earthiness, tobacco and olive.
But, as you’ll see in my brief notes below, even where the Washington wines showed dramatically complex aromatics with a nod toward the northern Rhone, they normally had too much ripe, sweet berry fruit to be mistaken for Old World wines. One possible exception was the three highly distinctive wines from the “rocks,” which certainly make the case that this area of Walla Walla Valley deserves its own appellation. (It’s in the works, by the way.) If my notes get a bit skimpy toward the end, that was a function of being the MC of a 3+-hour event along with a certain failure to spit.
The wines were uncorked an hour or three before they were poured but were not decanted.
Incidentally, while producers in California, Australia and elsewhere still struggle to sell their syrahs once retail prices exceed about $25, the top syrahs of Washington State still enjoy solid demand, particularly in the local market. The wines we tasted in July all sold for $40 to $80 on release–in other words, they’re far from cheap.
FLIGHT ONE: TRADITIONAL
Gramercy Cellars 2010 Lagniappe Syrah Columbia Valley: Deep, bright ruby-red. Black raspberry, black cherry and bitter chocolate on the nose. Great freshness and clarity; superb fruit intensity and energy to its dark fruit and savory flavors. Finishes saline, dry and long. Very rich and savory syrah, one of the best–and richest–bottles of syrah I’ve tasted yet from Greg Harrington and one of the group’s favorites of the tasting. Vinified with its stems. At roughly 14% alcohol, this was the lowest-octane wine of the tasting. 94
Waters Winery 2010 Syrah Loess Walla Walla Valley: Bright, full ruby. Very tight aromas of blackberry and menthol. Extremely primary, even a bit youthfully pinched, with blueberry and licorice flavors dominating. Firm tannins give the finish a distinct austerity. This wine probably would have benefited from time in a decanter. 90(+?)?
Maison Bleue Winery 2010 Syrah Liberté Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley: Bright, dark red-ruby. Musky aromas of dark raspberry, smoke and meat. Supple, lush and pliant, with a touch of sweetness to its expressive flavors of red and darker fruits, mocha and smoked meat. A slightly roasted quality and a peppery nuance add complexity to this long, still-young wine. 92(+?)
FLIGHT TWO: MODERN
Avennia 2010 Syrah Arnaut Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley: Bright ruby-red. Hermitage-like aromas of dark berries, black cherry and licorice. Sleek, juicy, penetrating and highly concentrated, showing terrific verve and acidity to its tight black fruit, pepper and spice flavors. This energetic, firmly built syrah is still an infant. 92+
Corliss Estates 2009 Syrah Columbia Valley: Good bright medium ruby. Blackberry, black cherry, sweet oak and a hint of herbs on the nose. Fine-grained, lush and palate-saturating but a bit youthfully medicinal, with emerging oak tannins giving the red and darker fruit flavors a slightly raw edge today. I’d like to revisit this wine again in several years, when it’s had time to absorb more of its oak. Today this comes across as syrah in a cabernet style. 91(+?)
Long Shadows Vintners Collection 2009 Syrah Sequel Columbia Valley: Saturated bright ruby. Knockout nose combines black fruits, meat, mocha and gunflint. Plush and fine-grained, with dense, concentrated dark fruit flavors complicated by a light gamey quality. Impeccably balanced, ripe syrah with suave tannins and excellent length. A great showing for this wine made by Australian John Duval. Another group favorite. 94
FLIGHT THREE: HOT VINEYARDS
Efesté Wines 2010 Syrah Ceidleigh Red Mountain: Good deep ruby-red. Musky, reticent nose. Shows a minerally firmness allied with good sweetness in the mouth, conveying a very primary fruit impression and serious concentration. A solid edge of acidity, serious tannins and a hint of warmth give this very young wine a youthful dryness. 90(+?)
Force Majeure 2009 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Collaboration Series III Red Wine Red Mountain: Bright ruby-red. Very tight and unforthcoming on the nose. Dense and deep but slightly rough today, with a chewy texture to its flavors of black raspberry and smoked meat. Finishes with serious tannic clout. Needs time. 91
Betz Family Vineyard 2010 Syrah La Cote Rousse Red Mountain: Good bright ruby-red. Profound aromas of black raspberry, black olive and smoked meat. Began a bit dry, then gained rapidly and dramatically with air to show compelling sweetness, breadth and fine-grained texture to its black raspberry, mineral and sexy new oak flavors. Really spreads out to saturate the palate on the back end, finishing with suave tannins and a whiplash of flavor. The star of the tasting. 95
FLIGHT FOUR: “ROCKS”
Delmas 2010 Syrah SJR Vineyard Walla Walla Valley: Dark ruby-red. Wild aromas of black raspberry, black olive, brown spices and garrigue. Intensely flavored and thick, showing superb intensity and a lightly grilled quality to its savory dark berry, spice and licorice flavors. Really remarkably concentrated for a wine made from extremely young vines (in their fourth leaf). 92
Cayuse Vineyards 2009 Syrah En Chamberlin Vineyard Walla Walla Valley: Good deep ruby-red. Musky aromas of black raspberry, roasted meat and saline minerality; just a bit rude. Thick as a solid in the mouth but in a shell today, with its sweet dark berry and herb flavors currently dominated by crushed rock, gunflint and smoked meat. This is more northern Rhone in style than many northern Rhone wines but is going through a very dumb stage today. 93+
Reynvaan Family Vineyards 2010 Syrah In The Rocks Walla Walla Valley: Good bright, deep ruby-red. Intense dark berry aromas complicated by smoked meat, woodsmoke and spices. Thick and silky yet juicy too, with lovely peppery lift to its dark berry and smoked meat flavors. Can’t quite match the Cayuse example for depth of flavor but I love the combination of fresh dark berry fruit and soil-driven smoke, herb and earth notes. 93