Washington Winemakers are Taking Syrah to New Heights

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Syrah’s ascension in Washington State has been swift. First planted in 1986 at Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley, the grape almost immediately garnered attention, with high-quality bottles from the likes of McCrea Cellars and Glen Fiona in the 1990s.

Come 1997, Frenchman Christophe Baron planted the first in a series of vineyards on an ancient cobblestone riverbed in Walla Walla Valley. At Cayuse Vineyards, Baron forever changed Syrah’s fate in the state, putting a focus on single-vineyard, terroir-driven wines. Two years later, K Vintners from Winemaker Charles Smith had its first offerings.

The success of these early advocates and others launched an entire industry. Washington Syrah production was not even tracked until 1999. Today it is the third most produced red variety in the state and makes many of the region’s best wines.

The road to Syrah’s coronation in Washington has not been without speed bumps, however. As producers jumped on the bandwagon in the early 2000s, many made wines of mediocre quality.

Others that largely focused on Bordeaux varieties found Syrah a tough sell. Some growers and winemakers began to explore other grapes in the state, which now has more than 100 varieties planted. Meanwhile Cabernet Sauvignon production surged, leaving Syrah in the rearview mirror.

Though Washington Syrah has yet to gain the broader consumer awareness it deserves, growers and vintners continue to explore the variety’s full potential. Today’s wines show great finesse and diversity, with plentiful appellation and vineyard-­driven differences. While Cayuse’s Walla Walla Valley offerings still set the standard for quality, other producers are now exploring areas like Horse Heaven Hills, Royal Slope and the upper reaches of Red Mountain with thrilling results.

King Cabernet will likely always dominate in a state where it makes up nearly 30% of production, but look just off right and you will find Syrah as Washington’s queen.

A Six-Bottle Master Class to Syrah and Shiraz

Reynvaan Family Vineyards 2018 Foothills Reserve Estate Foothills in the Sun Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $90, 93 points. This wine comes from a vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, a region few other producers have explored. The aromas are expressive, with notes of sea salt, olive brine, kelp, tapenade, smoked meat and peony. Pillowy soft, lithe, sophisticated savory flavors follow. It shows plenty of hang time on the savory and flower-filled finish. Editors’ Choice.

W.T. Vintners 2018 Les Collines Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $49, 93 points. The aromas erupt from the glass, with achingly pure, well-delineated notes of pomegranate, dried herbs, huckleberry and violet. On the palate, there is an immediately noticeable perception of lower alcohol, with the flavors providing much of the feel, texture and structure. While it doesn’t have the roundness that alcohol brings, there is no shortage of intensity and depth of flavor. It’s thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable to boot, needing food to be appreciated. Editors’ Choice.

Canvasback 2018 Red Mountain Syrah (Red Mountain); $50, 92 points. Canvasback is a Washington offering from Napa Valley’s Duckhorn. The aromas offer notes of plum, flower and olive. The palate is rich, with seamless dark fruit flavors that carry on the finish. It’s a power packed, no-holds-barred offering of this variety, high on the hedonism scale.

DeLille 2018 Signature Series Syrah (Yakima Valley); $46, 92 points. Blue fruit aromas erupt from the glass, followed by notes of huckleberry, spice, coffee and herb. It saturates the palate, covering it from end to end with blue and purple fruit flavors that sail on the finish. It has a big time yum factor, nearly irresistible, with fruit and barrel both playing big parts in the show. Editors’ Choice.

XOBC 2018 Catherine Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $40, 92 points. Hailing from the Rocks District, this wine from singer Brandi Carlile brings aromas of wet rock, funk, blue fruit, dried orange rind, black olive and sea breeze. Soft, plentiful savory flavors follow. It’s rich but still brings plenty of sophistication. Editors’ Choice.

Amavi 2018 Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $33, 91 points. This wine is a mixture of 32% Stone Valley, 25% Les Collines, 23% Seven Hills, 13% Summit View and 7% Pepper Bridge fruit. Expressive aromas of blueberry, huckleberry, coffee, smoked meat and herbs lead to full-feeling blue fruit flavors. It’s outright delicious. Give it some time in the cellar to see it at its best. Editors’ Choice.

Foundation 2019 The Silence Rockgarden Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $38, 91 points. This wine is unmistakably from the Rocks District. The stem influence is upfront, with notes of grilled asparagus, Stargazer lily, fresh parsley and flowers in front of black and green olives. The palate brings an abundance of savory flavors, with gravel notes on the finish. Like many wines from this vintage, there is a sleekness to the feel.

Gramercy 2018 Les Collines Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 91 points. This wine hails from one of the valley’s top Syrah sites. Bright, fresh herb aromas are out front, along with violet. Beyond that are notes of whole orange, tobacco leaf and whiffs of smoked meat. The palate is elegant and sumptuous. Pair it with seared flank steak.

Revelry 2018 Aerial Series Block 18 Weinbau Vineyard Syrah (Wahluke Slope); $48, 91 points. This comes from clone 174 vines planted in 2005. The aromas are like smelling a glass of wet stones. Behind that are notes of barrel spice, coffee, smoked ham and scorched earth. The palate has restrained savory flavors, showing plenty of sophistication.

Efeste 2018 Ceidleigh Estate Syrah (Red Mountain); $45, 90 points. This wine always captures a savory aspect of this variety on Red Mountain that few others do. The aromas are expressive, with notes of smoked meat, firepit and olive. The palate is soft and plush in feel, offering a compelling texture and structure.

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Published on September 1, 2021
Topics: Washington