If you go back 15 years, Syrah from Washington State was somewhat dismal. First planted in 1986 at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, Syrah had become the state’s No. 3 planted red grape variety behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Sure, quality bottles existed at the time, but many of the state’s young winemakers seemed to misunderstand Syrah. They produced it in a style similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, with generous amounts of new oak that obliterated the variety’s subtleties.
Fast-forward to the present day, and much has changed. Oak usage has become considerably more judicious. Proper locations have been identified. Washington is now awash in high-quality Syrah made in many different styles. Problems, however, still exist.
Many of the state’s Syrahs cost north of $40, a high barrier to entry. Many are also made in such low production numbers that national distribution isn’t even a consideration. This makes it difficult for consumers nationwide to recognize the strength of Washington Syrah, consistently the state’s top-rated variety in Wine Enthusiast tastings.
An intriguing new partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and two Rhône stars aims to change the calculus for Washington Syrah. If successful, it could alter how Syrah is grown and produced in the state as well as the variety’s national presence.
“We’ve obviously been very impressed with Washington Syrah for quite some time,” says Michel Gassier, of Michel Gassier Wines, based in the Rhône. “I knew Ste. Michelle had projects with the Antinoris and Dr. Loosen. I asked them if they might want to collaborate on something.”
“Using stems is a little bit like using parsley in cooking. It brings out freshness. It also brings an aromatic complexity, and as a result, you can pull back on the oak and still have a complex flavor profile”—Michel Gassier
The result is Tenet Wines, which teams up Gassier, Chateau Ste. Michelle and famed Rhône enology consultant Philippe Cambie. Tenet made its inaugural Washington Syrah, called The Pundit, in 2013 (rated 91 points), along with a Costières de Nîmes Syrah named “Le Fervent” (which Ste. Michelle Wine Estates will distribute) and a Columbia Valley “Tenet” Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend.
“I love the elegance, balance and the strong sense of place Washington Syrah has,” says Gassier.
The goal of the project is to focus on that sense of place.
“We are looking for the true terroir of Washington State Syrah,” he says. “The end-product is to retain hedonistic style, but to try to have a distinctive aromatic profile that would be Washington state’s signature—blood orange, iron and basalt.”
Much of the focus has been to employ techniques that Gassier and Cambie feel will accentuate these attributes. The adjustments began in the vineyard, where crop load was brought down to increase concentration. They’ve also left more canopy on the vines to provide shading. Irrigation techniques have also been adjusted.
“There’s a common strategy in the vineyards in the U.S. to stress the vines after fruit set to try and promote tiny berries,” says Gassier. “Sometimes, it can be detrimental to the canopy size. So we recommended going easier on the water restriction so we do get a full canopy. This also helps stretch out the growing season to gain full phenolic ripeness.”
In the winery, part of the focus has been on grape-stem inclusion during fermentation.
“Using stems is a little bit like using parsley in cooking,” says Gassier. “It brings out freshness. It also brings an aromatic complexity, and as a result, you can pull back on the oak and still have a complex flavor profile. And by pulling back on the oak, you get a sense of place that’s revealed.”
They have also used extended maceration, increasing the amount of time fermenting juice is in contact with skins.
“Shorter maceration maximizes the fruit pop,” Gassier says. “Extended maceration gets more structure from the fruit, so you don’t need as much from the oak.”
With a retail price of $25, The Pundit Syrah plays in a different market than the majority of Washington’s current offerings. Ste. Michelle also has the production to distribute nationally, with 10,000 cases made annually. That should raise Washington Syrah’s profile, especially if the project continues to produce high-quality wines .
“We want The Pundit to be a [measuring stick] for Rhône varieties in Washington,” says Gassier.
So, 10 or 15 years from now, when consumers think of Washington wine, will high-quality Syrah be top of mind? If Tenet Wines is successful, it just may be.