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The state of syrahs

Washington apples might get the publicity, but the weather and soil east of the snowy Cascades give root to top-of-the-line red wines.

Published April 5, 2006

[Red Willow vineyard photos]
Syrah grapes are just one of the types grown at the Red Willow vineyard in the Yakima Valley of central Washington, one of the oldest vineyards in the state.


She says shiraz, he says syrah.

Whatever, so long as you say "Washington state'' first.

If you want a great squeezing of this grape, look beyond its home in the Rhone valley of Southern France and its way station down under in Oz. And don't think all the wacky Rhone Rangers are in California.

Rich, dark syrahs come from Washington state, which may surprise or confuse you. Yes, Washington's vineyards can be covered with snow, but its summer sun has created a red gold of the deepest purple. These syrahs have the plums, berries and spice we love in Aussie shiraz and also the coffee, smoke and pepper of French syrah.

Washington winemakers are used to undoing confusion:

Their Washington is a state, not the nation's capital.

It is not all rainforest, too cold and wet: The Pacific side of the Cascades does get 48 inches of rain a year; but most farmland and vineyards are on the east side, where rainfall is barely 8 inches and the landscape is more desert brown than forest green.

Their bushel isn't all apples. There are enough grapes on 30,000 acres to support 400 wineries.

Riesling and cool-climate whites can be exceptional, but more than half of Washington's grapes and wine are red. It grows fine cabernet sauvignon and great merlot.

Syrah adds a new, delicious element of confusion: There's more to the reds than cabernet and merlot; syrah may be even better. It's now so widely planted, it's the third most popular red grape in the state.

Washington syrah is further evidence that the game of matching vineyard land say terroir in French with grape goes on. It's like Concentration - pick a grape and pick a plot, and in five years it might turn out to be a good match. Or not.

Washington growers and winemakers contend they are closer to Europe than California, especially in latitude. They're right: The Rhine and Burgundy and Bordeaux wine regions are at the same level; ditto for Hermitage in the northern Rhone.

The soil's worth bragging about too. Unlike farmers, winemakers boast about bad dirt, and the famed Red Willow vineyard is clay and granite, "very difficult to work,'' says Erik Hoins of Columbia Winery. "We had to use these big claws in tractors to turn it.''

That's a good thing. "Poor soils led vines to struggle and that produces great wine,'' he said.

Red Willow, Columbia's best syrah site, also faces south for plenty of sun and is high and steep enough that the winter frost freezes don't hang long.

The hot-cold balance is another Washington puzzlement. Winters in eastern Washington can be bitter; it dropped below freezing all through February and half of March. At least once a decade it's so cold grapevines freeze down to the ground.

Yet it is the high heat and the pattern of the heat - mild frosts in fall and spring and long summers - that make Washington so good for syrah, says Bob Betz, a Washington visionary who retired from Chateau Ste. Michelle to run a small, premium family winery.

Syrah grapes like high heat during the growing season, especially in July and August, and long hang time later in the season to ripen.

That matches the weather at Betz's vineyard. The Columbia Valley gets very warm days in July, building thick skins on the grapes . . . then as we get to September the nights cool dramatically, extending the ripening period and pushing harvest late.

By the time Betz's crews pick in late September or early October, heat, thick dark skins and long ripening have made grapes that yield rich complex wines.

The syrah movement began 15 years ago. David Lake, winemaker at Columbia Winery and one of the state's great pioneers, got his training in European vineyards and saw possibilities for syrah in the late 1970s. In 1988 he released his first syrah. "It was exceptional,'' remembers Hoins, and followed by still better wines in '89 and '90, "and '91 was spectacular."

No fluke. A few years later when the killer winters of 1995 and 1996 destroyed many vineyards, other growers followed suit. It's a natural for Washington, Betz says.

"It does well in so many spots,'' Hoins agrees. On the other hand, the hottest areas can produce intensely extracted fruit bombs; the slightly cooler vineyards make wines with more exotic flavors and aromas.

It has produced syrahs as complex as the best of the Northern Rhone and commanding $35 or more, especially if they come from vineyards like Red Willow. And as production has increased in the last decade, Washington has made affordable syrahs that could be the best American reds under $10.

Both are because of a Washington ingredient as important as European traditions and latitudes: ingenuity and innovation you can taste.

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or

The ripe syrah for you

Syrahs of Washington vary by price and complexity, yet all are dark, richly flavored, lush and easy to drink.

They are picked late, at their ripest, and aged for several years before release. Most improve with a few minutes in the glass and will last 5 to 10 years.

That's not because the wines are harsh. More likely they are packed with so much flavor from a big fruit basket and a full spice chest, it takes a while to get out, as when the doors open at recess and kids pile out onto the playground.

Some are blended with small lots of other grapes, from merlot to white viognier. Alcohol is often 13.5 percent or more.

Like the wine of the Rhone Valley, Washington syrahs go with hearty meals, stews, grilled meat, barbecue, roasts or strong cheese. Syrahs start at $10 with the best at $15 and up.

Apex II Syrah, Yakima Valley 2002 ($15 to $20): The second label of the pricier Apex, this is earthy and velvety, with black fruits and hints of cedar in the nose, not too sweet but a touch sharp. Look elsewhere while you save for the big one.

Gordon Brothers Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2002 ($15 to $20): Sleek and juicy stuff, full of plum and berries with aromas of coffee and chocolate to boot. Best of the midrange drinking. Get lamb chops on the grill now. Or roast an ox.

Bridgman Syrah, Yakima Valley, 2002 ($15 to $20): Dark in the glass and thick in the nose even before drinking. A sibling to Apex II, but more ripe and friendly. Texture is rich and portlike. Flavors are berries and thick tobacco and smoke. Give it time, now and later.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley, 2002 ($8 to $12): This is plum jam, simple strong fruit, deep and dense on the tongue. A few berries and dark cherries but good enough for toast. Very smooth tannins, no waiting. For racier and leaner tastes, move up to CSM's reserve and better grades.

Columbia Winery Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley, 2000 ($35): Combine the master palate of David Lake and the premier grapes of Mike Sauer's prize vineyard and you have syrah for grown-ups: strong backbone and lean texture that stands up to true Rhones. Plenty of berries, cherries and dark fruits with smoky, spice pepper hints. Not picnic shiraz; this merits time to air or cellar. Save for a grand dinner in another two or three years.

Covey run, washington state, 2002 ($7 to $10): With plums and berries, black and white peppers, spice and rich perfume, it is slightly sharp at first, but broadens into rich mouth feel and easy finish. This is the mass-market sibling to Columbia and it has similar standards. It's a great wine for the price.


[Last modified April 4, 2006, 12:35:44]

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