Northwest Wine

Northwest Wine: Syrah changed Washington wine industry

Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, stands in front of the Syrah he planted in 1986, the first in Washington.
Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, stands in front of the Syrah he planted in 1986, the first in Washington. Great Northwest Wine

For the last 20 years, we’ve seen the rise of Washington Syrah. Since it was first planted in the Yakima Valley in the mid-1980s by Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard fame, acreage and fascination with the bold, jammy Rhône red has grown.

It’s now Washington’s No. 3 red grape, behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The resulting wines tend to be consumer favorites because of their big, jammy, approachable tannins.

There are some secondary benefits to the rise of Syrah. A lot makes it into other wines, adding depth, especially to the midpalate. Secondarily, it has led to an increasing interest in other Rhône red varieties, which over the past few years have been some of Washington’s most interesting wines.

Here are a few Washington Syrahs we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

L’Ecole No. 41 2015 Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $36: One of the Pacific Northwest wine industry’s most famous plantings is Seven Hills Vineyard near Milton-Freewater, Ore., and L’Ecole No. 41 is among the ownership group. A record-warm vintage and the winemaking team of Marty Clubb and Mike Sharon combine for a theme of ripe purple fruit akin to Marionberry and blueberry with savory notes of black olive, Baker’s chocolate and baking spices.

Three of Cups 2015 Les Collines Vineyard L’Astre Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $30: L’astre translates to “the star,” and Mike Metheny brought this lot of Syrah from Les Collines Vineyard back to the Artisan Hill district of Woodinville. His work, which involves a 35 percent new French oak program, retained the characteristics of that site in the foothills of the Blue Mountains above the Walla Walla Valley. Plums, blueberry and cherry include complex notes of basil, evergreen forest and wet granite. Bright flavors bring juicy flavors of boysenberry and pomegranate that are capped by a turn of a pepper mill. Enjoy with bold meats such as lamb or venison.

Ridge Crest 2015 White Bluffs Vineyard Syrah, Columbia Valley, $14: The Claar-Whitelatch family continues to deliver bargains with its Ridge Crest tier for Claar Cellars. Their White Bluffs Vineyard estate has earned Salmon-Safe and L.I.V.E. designations, and their farming of this Syrah shows cool-climate characteristics despite the record-warm vintage. As a result, the harvest for this bottling came off Sept. 4. Fascinating tones of charcuterie, dark blue fruit and toast, includes vanilla, chalkboard dust and sea air. Crunchy tannins and pomegranate acidity leads to a bright finish. These wines are available in nearly 20 states.

Stemilt Creek Winery 2014 Ascent Syrah, Columbia Valley, $45: Richard Hood has taken over the winemaking at Stemilt Creek as founding vintner Jan Mathison stepped away. The Mathison family’s vineyards, planted at 1,600 feet in the hills surrounding Wenatchee, set the table for this cool-climate example of Syrah. Hints of blackberry jam, maple syrup drizzled on bacon and sun-dried tomatoes come with a structure that’s rich and round with sweet tannins and finish of pie cherry, clove Necco wafer and cola.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at