Opinions about the merits of U.S. Syrah and why the varietal is slipping in sales are like noses; everyone has one. Here’s Jay Soloff: “Syrah is inconsistent and the big guys jumped in with too much production and frankly I think made it very difficult for small artisan producers of high quality, Rhône-styled Syrah priced higher than these brands.” Soloff is one of the partners in Washington’s DeLille Cellars, a producer of Syrah and Bordeaux-style red wines.
Earlier this year, Soloff reported that DeLille had reduced the price of its Syrah and cut back on the quantity the winery produces. When I asked why he thinks Syrah is loosing sales, Soloff quipped, “Because we need a movie. Do you know any movie producers?” The reference is, of course, to the popular movie “Sideways” that trashed Merlot, while glorifying Pinot Noir. Unfortunately, Syrah, a wine that easily showcases some of the best things about both Pinot Noir and Merlot, didn’t even get a little boost from the movie. But then Syrah didn’t get stomped on either, so maybe the red star of Northern Rhône does need a movie with Washington the setting.
Soloff and his partners, including winemaker Chris Upchurch, are unabashed Francophiles. “We are Old World traditionalists, but in a New World context,” Soloff maintains. The traditionalists includes Charles Lill, descendent of French Huguenots who bankrolled the winery in 1992 and, according to Soloff, “wanted to use his ancestral name to pay homage to his ancestry,” thus the name DeLille. Located in Woodinville (about 20 miles northeast of Seattle), the hub of western Washington winemaking, DeLille is a 7,200 case operation plus an additional 4,200 cases for Doyenne, a second wine that Soloff describes as an artisan label with a French regional model for the wine styles, including Syrah, Roussanne, a Rhône-style Rose and a single vineyard Grand Ciel Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah sourced from the Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain.
DeLille’s French association also embraces its other line, taking a cue from premier growth Bordeaux. Soloff explains it this way: “With no varietal names being used, we chose instead of using a word like Meritage to trademark our proprietary names, like D2 and Chaleur Estate. Thus, like Ch. Latour, Ch. Lafite, Ch. Mouton, if you like DeLille wines, there is only one Chaleur Estate or only one D2.” DeLille Cellars wines are made from grapes commonly associated with Bordeaux, while the Doyenne wines stylistically follow the wines of France’s Rhône Valley, Provence and Bandol.
Soloff points out that there is a story behind DeLille’s trademarked wines. “We are educators and not just winemakers,” he explains. “We educate consumers about the ‘world’ of wine and thus we prove we make ‘world-class’ wines by teaching them to compare our wines to any wines made elsewhere in the world.” He also agrees with the description of DeLille Cellars as a “garagiste” winery, a French term meaning a small artisanal winery often taking a sustainable approach to grape growing and winemaking. “We started as a garagiste winery and although we have a beautiful chateau now, we still are [a garagiste] with regard to size.”
DeLille Cellars is housed in a French-style chateau, on a ten-acre farm in Woodinville, while sourcing their grapes from estate vineyards and contract growers in eastern Washington. DeLille owns the Grand Ciel Vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA and buys 30% of all the grapes grown in the Ciel du Cheval Vineyard owned by Jim Holmes. The winery also contracts with other growers in the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain and Columbia Valley, including Harrison Hill, the second oldest vineyard in Washington in the Snipes Mt. AVA.
Syrah is a variety that has done very well for DeLille, so I asked winemaker Chris Upchurch what he considered the best sites for Syrah in Washington. “In my opinion, the County Line Road in Yakima Valley is the best in the state. I also like the expressive fruit from the Boushey Vineyard and then there’s Walla Walla.” Although Upchurch takes Syrah grapes from Red Mountain, he admits that the noted vineyard is best for Cabernet Sauvignon. “I also like Horse Heaven for Cabernet Sauvignon.” He says that one drawback is Washington vines are on their own roots, presenting a challenge in the nurseries. “We’re a stickler on certified grapes and thankfully our (Washington) barn door hasn’t been opened yet for bringing in uncertified grapes.”
The Grand Ciel Vineyard supplies Syrah for their high-end Doyenne Grand Ciel Syrah. Upchurch describes Grand Ciel Syrah as “the classic iron fist in a velvet glove; it’s big but not overblown. The Syrah we get from our Grand Ciel Vineyard has very good acidity and it’s not overly tannic or green. The wines have great structure and are fully ripe.” Upchurch believes that generally flavor ripeness is easier to achieve in Washington than in California or Australia. But the consequence of that push for flavor ripeness is the 15.2% alcohol in a very ripe massive 2006 Doyenne Grand Ciel Syrah.
Over-extraction and high alcohol are two factors of Australian Shiraz that earned some Down Under wines heavy criticism, so I asked Upchurch how Washington Syrah differs from Aussie Shiraz. “Australian Shiraz have a generosity of flavors, but they are often big and jammy, super ripe monsters, whereas Washington Syrahs are more structured, because we are cooler than most of Australia and California and we harvest later in Washington than either of those places. I think that old vines are the factor that is saving Australian red wines,” he says. Then, reflecting on Syrahs from Washington and Australia, Upchurch summed up the differences by falling back on his default style: “Washington is a ‘tweener;’ that is, we can make Australian-style Syrahs, but I would always lean toward the northern Rhône Valley and, specifically, Hermitage.”
Making both Bordeaux-type and Rhône-type wines presents a challenge for the winemaker dealing with ripening different grapes in the vineyard and working with them in the winery, but that’s a challenge that hasn’t lessened the enthusiasm or assuredness of Upchurch as a winemaker. “I love both types of wine. I’m as proud of our Roussanne as our Chaleur Red. We’ve discovered our Roussanne can be one of the best in the world. And the Semillon we blend in our Chaleur Estate Blanc is some of the best in the world. That’s encouraged me to do cool things, great things.”
By some estimates, DeLille Cellars, with Chris Upchurch at the winemaking helm, is doing great things, by melding an admiration for French wines with Washington-grown grapes, producing a hybrid that stands on its own.