I have decided that one of my (wine) resolutions for 2014 will be to keep a closer eye on Washington State Syrah. I have admired Syrah wines from Washington for more than 15 years and as the number of wineries making Syrah increases, the category warrants closer and closer attention. From a mere 800 acres planted in 1999, Syrah plantings climbed to more than 3100 acres in 2011, and the Syrah grape now ranks a solid third among red grapes in the state, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
One of the aspects of Washington Syrahs that I admire is that they express a range of styles, from rather elegant wines with red-fruit character to powerful, near-jammy wines bursting with dark fruit tones to nuanced wines in which Syrah’s special savory notes shine through. In a recent blind tasting of Washington Syrahs, I found a fascinating variety of styles, even though the wines represented just a tiny cross-section of brands available.
In the bold camp, I admired the Owen Roe Ex Umbris Syrah 2011 ($28), sourced mainly from Columbia Valley with some Walla Walla and Yakima Valley fruit as well (including Red Willow Vineyard, mentioned below). The wine is voluptuous with sweet, ripe blackberry fruit, black pepper and smoky notes but its firm tannin gives it structure to hold the rich flavor in line. Although 2011 was a cool vintage, this wine shows beautifully ripe fruit.
At the opposite end of the style spectrum is the Arch Terrace Syrah 2009 from the Terra Blanc Estate vineyard in the Red Mountain AVA ($25). The 2009 summer was quite warm but temperatures dropped abruptly in mid-October, compromising the harvest for some wineries. To taste this wine, however, you’d think 2009 was an ideal vintage. The wine is full-bodied but has a backbone of acidity that keeps it light, and it shows beautifully nuanced aromas and flavors, with only 13.5 percent alcohol. Variously on the nose and in the mouth, the wine suggests smoked meat, sour cherry, blueberry, cedar, and tobacco. Although the wine has a solid foundation of tannin on the tongue, the complex flavor profile claims your attention and gives the impression of a wine made with a light hand. Part of the aroma and flavor complexity probably derives from a small amount of Viognier (one percent) that co-fermented with the Syrah juice. This wine has a great affinity for food.
Another favorite from my tasting turned out to be the Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Syrah 2010 ($55). It carries a Columbia Valley appellation, but the fruit sources include Walla Walla sites and, prestigiously, Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley. The late David Lake MW persuaded Red Willow owner, Mike Sauer, to plant Syrah in 1983; in 2010, Sauer offered Greg Harrington MS -- who is co-owner and winemaker of Gramercy Cellars -- the chance to purchase Syrah grapes from an old vineyard block, an honor for a relatively new winery.
The 2010 Lagniappe, from a cool vintage, is a dense, rather quiet Syrah, still very young and needing time to show itself. Initially, the wine has aromas of cocoa, vanilla and oak perfume but with time fresh blueberry and blackberry notes begin to emerge. The taste of the wine is a challenge to describe because the wine tastes just right, a harmonious whole that defies analysis. Full-bodied, velvety-textured, tannins ripe and ample, flavors of dark fruit and red fruit mingling with mineral notes -- the wine is all this, finishing with beautifully ripe dark fruit. It is substantial but refined.
I admire these three Syrahs and recommend them. I also know that they represent just the tip of an iceberg of fine Syrah from Washington. It is a category worth following.
Owen Roe, Red Mountain, “Ex Umbris” Syrah 2011, 91 Points
Arch Terrace, Columbia Valley Syrah, Terra Blanc Estate Vineyard 2009, 90 Points
Gramercy Cellars, Columbia Valley “Lagniappe” Syrah 2010, 92 Points