We tend to think of Oregon as Pinot Noir country, and that is richly deserved. The recent 2016 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Census Report showed more than 45,000 tons of the red Burgundy grape were harvested last year.
However, wine lovers might be surprised to learn the No. 2 red grape in Oregon is Syrah, just ahead of Cabernet Sauvignon. And while the red Rhône grape fits so well in the warm Columbia Valley and Columbia Gorge, Southern Oregon regions such as the Umpqua, Rogue and Applegate valleys have driven greater interest in warm-climate wine grapes.
Indeed, in recent years it’s become fashionable for Willamette Valley winemakers to bring Syrah north to craft a jammy, big red that’s an alternative to the ubiquitous Pinot Noir.
Last fall, Oregon winemakers brought in 1,663 tons of Syrah, up 91 tons from the 2015 harvest. Much of that growth is driven by Southern Oregon. Here are a few Oregon Syrahs we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the wineries directly.
Quady North 2012 Mae’s Vineyard Syrah, Rogue Valley, $32: Herb Quady came from a famous winemaking family in California and headed north to Southern Oregon in 2003. While he was making wine for others, he and his wife established a vineyard near Jacksonville and named it for their oldest daughter, Margaux Mae. This vineyard-designated Syrah remains his flagship wine. There’s a sense of a Côte-Rôtie in France’s northern Rhone Valley with its smoked meat and earthy aromas followed by rewarding flavors of Marionberry and cherry juice. (13.8 percent alc.)
Plaisance Ranch 2014 Papa Joe’s Private Stash Syrah, Applegate Valley, $30: Joe Ginet, whose French forefathers arrived in Oregon in the 19th century, is emerging as one of Southern Oregon’s most exciting winemakers. Using grapes from the fascinating and little-understood Applegate Valley, he has crafted a Syrah with elegance and power. The nose blackberry, dark chocolate and dark-roasted coffee to rich and dense flavors of plum jam and blueberries backed by sublime tannins. This earned a double gold medal at the 2017 Oregon Wine Competition. (14.3 percent alc.)
Cathedral Ridge Winery 2014 Moody Vineyard Reserve Syrah, Columbia Valley, $48: Hood River vintner Robb Bell continues to expand his vineyard-designate program, and Moody Vineyard east of The Dalles is featured for his distinctive bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and this Syrah. Moody’s northern aspect slopes toward the confluence of the Columbia and Deschutes rivers, and Bell’s winemaking team conjures up aromas of Hawaiian Fruit Punch and grenadine with nutmeg and bay rum. Inside, the pleasing mouth feel of sandy tannins and persistent push of dark blueberry, Marionberry and cola combine to make for a long and juicy finish. Enjoy it with a grilled cheese sandwich featuring savory bacon and fig jam. (14.4 percent alc.)
Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards 2015 Winemaker’s Reserve Syrah, Umpqua Valley, $39: Stephen Reustle has earned the Six Nations Wine Challenge award in Australia for best Syrah, and he remains on the mark with this reserve bottling, one of the four expressions of this Rhône variety that he grows near Roseburg, Ore. Aromas of blueberry and cured meat are followed by a structure of dark raspberry and pomegranate, making for a firm and juicy finish. Enjoy with barbecued ribs, peppered rib eye and Pecorino Romano. (13.4 percent alc.)
Schmidt Family Vineyards 2014 Syrah, Applegate Valley, $36: This Southern Oregon winery is on a roll, crafting superb examples of everything from Riesling to Pinot Noir to Syrah. This rather sensual Syrah comes off the Schmidt family’s estate between Grants Pass and historic Jacksonville. Tones of blackberry, blueberry and Jolly Rancher grape candy are presented with delicious balance of approachable tannins, juicy acidity and managed oak. It earned a gold medal at the 2017 Oregon Wine Competition. (13.2 percent alc.)
Griffin Creek Cellars 2013 Syrah, Rogue Valley, $45: Willamette Valley Vineyards near the capital city of Salem created this brand a couple of decades ago after their winemaker at the time — rising star Joe Dobbes — helped showcase the potential of Southern Oregon. The Moore family’s Quail Run Vineyards remain a part of the Willamette Valley Vineyards portfolio, and their grapes turned into this supple Syrah redolent of Marionberry, boysenberry and orange oil, backed by Bing cherry juice. Suggested pairings include bison blue cheese burgers, five-spice lamb chops and hanger steak. (14.2 percent alc.)
Red Lily Vineyards 2014 Ghost Lily Syrah, Rogue Valley, $32: The Martins have focused much of their attention on Tempranillo, and they’ve used just a bit of that Spanish grape to provide more texture to their Syrah. Baking spice, plum and blueberry aromas and flavors are presented in a bright style that’s capped by crushed boysenberries. Enjoy with cured salmon influenced by Middle Eastern spices. (14.1 percent alc.)
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.