Most wineries and wine merchants agree that once New World syrahs get much above $25 at retail, they become tricky to sell. These wines are made in a wide range of styles—from sweet, soft berry bombs to more peppery, spicy, structured Old World versions—and too many consumers are unwilling to shell out serious money for wines they don’t really know. But that has never really been true in Washington State, where syrah not only performs well in the state’s high-desert vineyards but is also strongly supported by the local market.
As syrah plantings in Washington have increased over the past decade, there are more good choices than ever before. This is due in equal part to the discovery of outstanding new sites for this variety, including cooler, higher-altitude locations such as the Blue Mountains east of the town of Walla Walla and the cobblestone-strewn riverbed in Walla Walla Valley called “the Rocks,” and to the growing number of talentedn winemakers who have a good working knowledge of the great syrah wines of France’s northern Rhone Valley. The most spectacular syrahs from Washington now routinely exceed $40 and many of them are $50 or $60. But as a quick perusal of my annual coverage of Washington in the current issue of the International Wine Cellar will reveal, there are many outstanding wines available for $35 or less. In this price range, you can find seriously concentrated and characterful wines that can be enjoyed now or cellared.
Not coincidentally, all of these selections are from the 2011 and 2010 vintages, two cool, long growing seasons that were conducive to a slow build-up of flavors in the grapes without loss of acidity. These vintages mostly avoid the roasted character and tired aromas that can plague Washington’s red wines in hot years. On the contrary, they are perfumed and sharply delineated.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 2010 Syrah Ethos Reserve Columbia Valley ($35) offers enticing scents of red berries, flint and star anise. It’s lush and velvety on the palate (the wine wears its 15.5% alcohol gracefully), with sweet red berry and smoke flavors complicated by an earthy nuance. The finish is sweet and long, with plush tannins.
Foundry Vineyards’ 2011 Syrah Columbia Valley ($28) offers a more floral nose, with captivating, high-toned aromas of blackberry, licorice and dark chocolate lifted by a violet topnote. It’s juicy, spicy and sweet, with very good energy to its expressive dark berry and saline mineral flavors. This fine-grained midweight finishes with good verve, sneaky length and tannins that dust the front teeth.
Januik Winery has a winner in 2010 with their Syrah Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard Red Mountain ($35), which leads off with smoky aromas of raspberry and coffee. Red berry and spice flavors show little in the way of syrah funkiness but boast excellent intensity and a seamless texture. The wine finishes with sweet, horizontal tannins and lovely persistence.
The entry-level syrah from L’Ecole No. 41 is a winner in 2010, as well as a terrific value. The plush, generous 2010 Syrah Columbia Valley ($25) offers aromas of black raspberry and exotic nutty oak. Its dense, creamy-sweet black raspberry fruit shows no rough edges, but there’s good medicinal reserve here for all of the wine’s lushness of texture. The finish features sweet, easy tannins and lingering berry flavors.
Owen Roe’s Syrah Ex-Umbris Columbia Valley, which is aged with just 10% new oak, is a standout almost every vintage. The 2011 edition ($28) shows a deep bluish-purple color and a sexy perfume that combines boysenberry, black raspberry, kirsch, cocoa powder, coffee and violet. It’s juicy and light on its feet, more savory than sweet, boasting excellent floral lift to its sharply defined dark berry, spice and licorice flavors.
I also liked the Pomum Cellars 2010 Syrah Columbia Valley ($32) for its cool, highly aromatic scents of red berries, smoke, game and dried herbs. It’s a suave and savory syrah, ripe but not at all overblown, showing lovely precision to its flavors of red fruits, smoke and herbs. The finish is broad and sweet, with very suave tannins.
The deeply colored Syncline Wines 2011 Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley ($35) offers lovely delicate floral lift to its raspberry aroma. It’s silky and pure on the palate, with dark cherry and floral elements perked up by a peppery note. This classy, understated syrah has a subtly complex, lively finish that throws off savory hints of spices, herbs and meat.
Finally, W. T. Vintners, in just its third vintage, has made a distinctly Old World style of syrah, vinified with 25% whole clusters. The 2011 Syrah Gorgeous Destiny Ridge Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills ($24) displays savory aromas of blackberry, flowers, pepper and game. It’s restrained but varietally accurate, showing very good energy and a firm underpinning to its smoky dark berry, spice and pepper flavors. The tannins are quite suave. This is another terrific syrah value.