We often hear about how difficult it is to sell Syrah. Which would lead you to wonder why the rich red variety native to France’s Rhône Valley continues to grow in popularity.
Since Syrah was first planted in Washington in 1986, it had grown to become the state’s third-most popular red grape, after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In the wake of Australia’s flooding of the market with inexpensive Syrah (which they label as Shiraz), U.S. consumers lost their taste for Syrah, especially higher-priced examples. Despite this, Washington continues to plant and grow more Syrah. Last fall, Washington harvested 21,300 tons, up from 16,000 tons the previous season.
The reason is simple: Washington Syrah is delicious and can produce irresistible wines at various price points.
Additionally, Syrah is viewed by winemakers as a “universal donor,” a grape that makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot softer, more approachable. It is the centerpiece of GSM blends with Grenache and Mourvèdre, which are among the most dynamic styles of red wines made in Washington.
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As a result, Syrah often makes proprietary red blends and as well as bottlings labeled as “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Merlot” a bit more approachable, that’s what Washington winemakers love about the grape, and why growers continue to put more in the ground. Add to that Syrah is an early ripening variety, so winemakers can pick it in early September and wait until late October before harvesting their Cab.
Here are a handful of Washington Syrahs and Syrah-based blends we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.
Charles Smith Wines 2014 Boom Boom! Syrah, Washington, $18: The iconoclast Charles Smith developed brilliant branding to grow his House Wine before selling that to Precept Wine. His Boom Boom! Syrah helped paved the way for Charles Smith Wines, among the programs he carved off last year to global giant Constellation. Aromas range from cherry jam and strawberry compote to dark chocolate, toast and bacon. Its structure is silky, jammy and juicy with supple tannins, blueberry acidity and a finish of black cherry and coffee. Suggested food pairings include Lamb Cutlets with Romesco, rich stews or roasted pork tenderloin. (14 percent alcohol)
Helix by Reininger 2014 Pomatia Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $22: Chuck Reininger created his Helix brand in order allow him to explore Washington’s top vineyards outside of the Walla Walla Valley, and his annual Syrah-based blend hails from illustrious vineyards such as Bacchus, Phinny Hill, StoneTree and Weinbau. Cabernet Sauvignon (36 percent), Merlot (18 percent) and Cabernet Franc (7 percent) form the structure built upon fruit notes of blackberry, blueberry and plum, while touches of black olive pit and black pepper appear in the finish. This earned a gold medal at the 2017 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition in Oregon, and it’s available at the new Helix tasting room in downtown Spokane near the Davenport Hotel as well as the Reininger winery in Walla Walla. (14.9 percent alcohol)
Saviah Cellars 2014 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $32: One of the Northwest’s most-decorated expressions of Syrah brings a delightfully complex nose, and Richard Funk’s vineyard sources at Saviah Cellars help answer that. It’s an array that includes his own Funk Estate and Watermill in the very cobbly loam soil within the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater as well as Anna Marie. Myriad earthy aromas, bold fruit and a touch of thyme lead to the palate that’s a tour of blackberry, chocolate, hay and cured meats with a finish of pepper. This bottling has earned gold medals at several major Northwest wine competition this year, including the Walla Walla Valley Wine Competition in June and this fall’s Great Northwest Invite. (14.5 percent alcohol)
Northwest Cellars 2013 Syrah, Columbia Valley, $32: This Syrah marked the start of three successive warm vintages in Washington’s Columbia Valley, and Kirkland vintner Robert Delf has dialed in Spofford Station and 10-year-old Tasawik Vineyard, a pair of Walla Walla County sites, for this smooth Syrah. Ripe plum, dark cherry, elderberry. (13.9 percent alcohol)
Airfield Estates 2014 Syrah, Yakima Valley, $18: Of the more than 20 varieties grown across the Miller family’s 800+ acres in the foothills of Washington’s Rattlesnake Mountain, Syrah is among the standouts year-in and year-out, including the 2014 vintage. The 15 months in oak barrels helps account for jammy aromas of blueberry and cherry compote on toast, backed by a whiff of gaminess. (14.5 percent alcohol)
William Church Winery 2014 Red Willow Vineyard Jennifer’s Vintage Syrah, Columbia Valley, $40: One of Woodinville’s top artisans with Rhône varieties offers vineyard-designated Syrah from both ends of the Yakima Valley. Lewis Vineyard is toward the eastern end of the American Viticultural Area. The Sauer family established iconic Red Willow Vineyard at the opposite end of the valley in the foothills of Mount Adams. (14.1 percent alcohol)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company; www.greatnorthwestwine.com