Monday, August 16, 2010

Impressions of Washington: Syrah

It has been nearly two months since I visited Washington State on the WBC or Bust tour and the Wine Blogger's Conference. In the time since I have posted my experiences with riesling, cabernet franc, semillon, and merlot. This leaves two big grapes for me to cover, and today's topic is the syrah of Washington.

Syrah has not had a particularly long history in Washington. The first block was planted in only 1986 by Mike Sauer, owner of the Red Willow Vineyard and David Lake MW, who believed syrah could be successfully grown and vinified in Washington. In fact, that first planting was the source of the Betz wine below. Bob Betz himself was instrumental in showing the rest of Washington, and the world, that syrah was a very viable option for the region.

The syrahs I found in Washington shared many of the upsides and downsides of the other big red wines. There were examples that were overripe and flabby, and several that had too much wood influence. However, when they were on they were perfectly structured, had great acidity, and beautiful dark berry flavors layered with earth, smoke, and leather. In other words there were some outstanding Washington syrahs. I would have to say that syrah, while an acknowledged favorite, was the stand out surprise for me in Washington. My favorites include:

Des Voigne Cellars 2007 Montreux - 100% syrah from 4 different vineyards, this wine gave smokey vanilla on the nose, and big blackberry and black pepper across the palette. It was a big wine but had enough structure to hold together and drink oh so smooth. Only 184 cases were produced of this wine, but it is available from the winery for $30.

Smasne Cellars Block 3 Syrah 2007 - Co-fermented with viognier (in true Northern Rhone fashion) this is a bottle of syrah good enough that superstar winemaker/consultant Robert Smasne has his own name on it. (He is the consulting winemaker for over 20 WA wineries) Tasted in a lineup of smashing syrahs this one stood out, and really has great aromatics from the viognier co-fermentation. It is available from the winery for $35.

Skylite Cellars 2005 Syrah - Tasted in a vertical it was the one with a bit of age that stood out. The tertiary flavors are playing well with the fruit at this point, and it has softened into a great texture. Some prefered the younger 2007 that was also poured, but for my $32 this is the year to drink now.

Distefano 2004 Santa Maria - A syrah forward Rhone blend, also blended with viognier, this wine had more dark cherry flavors, and a coffee finish with a bit of dusty dried fruit. Really nice for the price at $27.99.

Doyenne 2007 Aix - 61% syrah, 35% cabernet sauvignon, and 4% mourvedre this wine features outstanding earthy elements, coupled with delicious blackberry. The cabernet seems to give this wine a very structured feel, and this is one I would let sit for a couple of years. Doyenne is the Rhone focused arm of DeLille cellars, and the Aix is available from the winery for $34.

But the star of the week is Betz Family Winery 2008 Syrah La Cote Patriarche - 100% syrah, this wine is young, and powerful. To be released in October of this year, if you have an allocation you would be crazy to miss this wine. It is earthy, leathery, full of fruit, and has so much structure it is almost overwhelming. Put this one in the cellar, the 50% new French oak will integrate, the tannins will relax (yup big tannins for a syrah), and you will have an absolutely amazing bottle of wine. This wine is expected to be released at $55.

Rumors abounded around the Wine Blogger's Conference on other great syrahs, particularly from Walla Walla. Several bloggers have commented on K Vintners, Amavi Cellars, and Rotie Cellars. I think the point is that Washington can do syrah, and do it well. Whether you seek out one of the mentioned bottles above (for my palette all are worth their price), or find whatever is available for you locally, if you like a little smoke, a little earth, or a little black pepper with your fruit then you should try Washington syrah.


  1. Scott, I believe Syrah is one of Washington's strongest varietals. Extremely expressive of place (as well as sensitive to oak aging).

    At present I see a great deal of disparity between the high end bottles and the low end bottles unfortunately. It's easy to find good examples of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot under $20. It is exceedingly difficult to do this with Syrah at present. It will be interesting to see if the economy changes this or not.

    Hard to believe WBC was almost two months ago.

    Washington Wine Report

  2. I agree, the syrah was often overwhelmingly good. I also found the good examples to be a bit on the expensive side, but generally worth the expense.

  3. Scott, another great review. I'd be ineterested in which WA Syrah's you found to be too oaky, or flabby, or over the top.

    Like Sean, the $15 WA Syrah is elusive. There are few around though and it should be interesting to see if the $50+ syrah's remain the norm.