Syrah is a red grape with a lot of history, and it has been making its mark in the Northwest for more than a decade.
One famous story tells the tale of Alexander the Great bringing a syrah vine from the ancient Persian city of Shiraz back to Europe, while another asserts the vine is Egyptian in origin and was brought across the Mediterranean through the Sicilian city of Syracusa.
While both stories provide fanciful romance to syrah's backstory, neither is true. In fact, syrah is indigenous to France and has been grown in the Rhü:ne Valley for as long as anyone can remember.
Its history in the Northwest is much more clear. Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyards in the Yakima Valley planted the first block of syrah in Washington in 1984, and David Lake of Columbia Winery made the first wine from it in 1988.
Still, the grape did not catch on for several years because growers feared the tender vine could not survive Washington's occasional harsh winters. But when Red Willow's syrah came through the near-apocalyptic freeze of 1996 with little damage, plantings took off.
By 2001, syrah surpassed cabernet franc as the state's No. 3 red grape with 4,400 acres planted. In 2009, that amount increased to 10,000 acres.
Here are a few syrahs we have tasted recently from Washington, Oregon and Idaho:
Abacela 2007 Estate syrah, Umpqua Valley, $32: This Syrah from Abacela's estate Fault Line Vineyards leads with purple fruit, rather than black and comes with a remarkable twist of Red Vines licorice. Boysenberry and dark raspberry bounce with brightness, and bittersweet chocolate notes carry just a bit of grip.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 syrah, Columbia Valley, $13: Sometimes we forget that the big chateau in Woodinville, has grown because wine of this quality is crafted on a large scale at an affordable price. Here's a refresher course, exemplified in this oak lover's syrah that's busty, beveled and black. Aromas leap out with ripe black cherry, blackberry jam, Dr Pepper, mocha and a hint of gaminess. There are no edges on the palate, which pays out more blackberry, smoked meat, vanilla bean, plum and a hint of citrus.
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2008 Umiker Vineyard syrah, Idaho, $25: Boysenberry, blue SweeTart candy, cedar, bergamot and leather fill the nose. Inside, it's akin to berry picking with blackberry, blueberry and marionberry flavors and acidity to match. A dusting of earth, a pinch of mint and integrated tannins make for a long and spicy end.
Bunchgrass Winery 2007 syrah, Columbia Valley, $28: This Walla Walla winery has bottled a Syrah with aromas of blackberry, blueberry, dried lavender, vanilla, cocoa powder and cedar. The drink is of rich boysenberry syrup and sweet plums, and while there's nice acidity, the tannins actually lift the wine to another level.
Koenig Vineyards 2006 Ameila Cuvée Reserve syrah, Snake River Valley, $50: This superb syrah from the Gem State opens with scents of blackberries with Wheaties, some caramel and a sniff of gunmetal. It bursts with density from those supple blackberries and black licorice chews. Coffee with a caramel-flavored creamer gives you the sense of the finish.
Olsen Estates 2008 Edythe Mae Vineyard Estate syrah, Yakima Valley, $38: There's deep blueberry, blackberry, smoked meat, leather and gunmetal aromas. Opulence waits as the expressive drink delivers more brambleberries with Chukar Cherry, licorice, coffee and leather tones.
Willow Crest Winery 2006 syrah, Yakima Valley, $12: This is not a smoky, oaky and jammy syrah. Instead, it shows more restraint with boysenberry and marionberry notes, balanced by lengthy pie cherry acidity and diminished tannin -- adding up to a great dinner wine.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.