A haven for syrah
Washington state offers prime growing conditions for renowned red grape
Syrah fever: In recent years, syrah fever has touched the Central Coast of California, Chile and Argentina, and of late and most notably for us American wine lovers, Washington state. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
In France, where it has been best appreciated as a wine, and in much of the rest of the world, it goes by the name "syrah," whereas it is called "shiraz" in Australia and by some winemakers in both South Africa and California. Same grape, different names.
But the twofold name is a mystery. Is it after the city of Shiraz in Persia? The Sicilian city of Syracuse? Even more obscure are the grape's origins: Via Egypt through Sicily? Planted in the Rhone Valley by a passing crusader or even, as some allege, St. Patrick himself? Or, simply, hundreds of years ago, a mutation of a vine indigenous to the Rhone?
The latter, scientists say, and probably fathered by the ancient vine Allobrogica, written about by both Pliny the Elder and Julius Caesar. Allobrogica was termed "serus" in Latin ("late ripening"); hence, "serine" in old French, then "syrah."
In any case, syrah's present notoriety is based, by and large, on its wines made in two places on the globe: along the northern Rhone and throughout Australia. But in recent years, syrah fever has touched the Central Coast of California, Chile and Argentina, and of late and most notably for us American wine lovers, Washington state.
While there are but 3,100 acres of syrah in Washington to California's 19,000, Washington's syrah acreage has quadrupled since 1993. Because syrah from Washington is proving to be so outstanding, it is a sure bet that even more plantings are to come.
Syrah, like the cabernet sauvignon and merlot for which Washington long has been famed, enjoys the state's extended hours of sunlight as it develops flavor compounds and deep pigmentation that grapes at lower latitudes simply cannot imitate.
Furthermore, the significant day-to-night swings in temperature (up to 40 degrees) help Washington syrah grapes retain acidity, something devoutly to be wished for in a red wine, both for texture and refreshment, as well as for aging potential.
Finally, the very soil in which Washington syrah vines grow antes up the flavor in their grapes. "Where the best syrah is planted," says Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estates, "like Red Mountain or Walla Walla, the soil pHs are super high, like 7 to 9.4, where the normal is 3 to 7. Acidic soils like these mean that nutrients are absorbed slowly, so that there's a real limit on (grape) yield. That means more concentrated flavors."
What all this agriculture, viticulture and winemaking culture add up to in the glass is a terrifically interesting, delicious and multilayered red wine — in my experience like no other.
The color on a Washington syrah is shockingly saturated; you can't see through a pour of it. You'd think that means cheek-chewing tannins, but, no, the texture is sleek, as smooth as cat's ears. The wine is chock-full of tannin, all right, but it's the round-the-mouth sort, dusting and fine-grained, not astringent or grating.
The color is a harbinger of intensity of flavor, dark red fruit aromas and tastes such as blackberry and black raspberry, those accented with a panoply of grace notes of black olive, tobacco, black pepper and, sometimes, bacon fat or green, piney herb and, in the more interesting syrahs, bewitching scents of blueberry or pomegranate.
Then, there is the liveliness of all that deeply wrought color and fruit, a refreshing and buoyant personality tied together with snappy acidity and (miraculous these days in a red wine) low alcohol (14-15 percent tops).
When used in a red blend — a particular strength of Washington red winemaking — syrah donates all those goodies, but then might be given more grip from cabernet sauvignon, even more depth of color from mourvedre or in-your-face fruit from grenache. Many interesting red blends from Washington take their cue from syrah as their base.
2009 Sequel Syrah, Columbia Valley ($50; the nose won't allow you to put down the glass in your hand); 2010 Gramercy Cellars Syrah Lagniappe, Columbia Valley ($50; terrific note of blueberry); 2009 Amaurice Cellars Syrah, Columbia Valley ($35; juicy, sparky fruit, liveliest of the bunch); 2009 Buty Winery Red Blend Rediviva of the Stones, Walla Walla ($60; a fourth cabernet sauvignon; superslick texture, crisp finish, gorgeous feel); and 2009 Cadaretta Red Blend Windthrow, Columbia Valley ($60; pretty note of mint, filet mignon "meaty").
If you can find it, though, buy this syrah to experience the best that Washington will give you: 2010 Gramercy Cellars Syrah, Walla Walla Valley. You will want to smell this wine into your tummy, so come-hither are its aromas of fruits, earth and the darks of black pepper, campfire and dried rose, but your tongue will thank you for passing by it such sleek texture, chin-dripping juicy fruit and zesty acidity. It's made by a former sommelier with an eye to the table, its absolutely happiest setting. ($50-$55)
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.