Syrah is becoming synonymous with Washington, as winemakers discover the perfect environment for the Rhône varietal, writes STEPHEN BROOK
Most North American wine regions are identified with a certain variety or style: Oregon with Pinot Noir, Napa with Cabernet, or Ontario with ice wine. Washington state, however, lacks a clearly defined image. Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Washington, white wines dominated. Today Washington is best known for red wines based on Bordeaux and Rhône varieties (although Riesling has also enjoyed an unexpected revival). Washington’s best winemakers have now demonstrated that its red wines can be world class.
Much of the explanation for this is climatic. Seattle is grape-free thanks to its rainy climate, but 160km southeast, beyond the lofty Cascade Mountains and into the Columbia Valley, the situation is reversed. The valley is arid enough to qualify officially as a desert, but thousands of hectares of vineyards flourish with irrigation. The northerly latitude ensures that the grapes enjoy at least one more hour of sunshine than vines in California, and although summer days can be torrid, it cools down fast at night, with a considerable gap between daytime and nocturnal temperatures. All this has a critical effect on the flavour of the grapes.
The Columbia Valley pushes up acidities to levels markedly higher than in California, giving quite a different flavour profile to the red wines, endowing them with freshness and elegance. They don’t usually have the power of Napa or Sonoma reds, and they rarely have their jamminess either. At their best, these are beautifully balanced wines.
Syrah is a relative newcomer to Washington. Mike Sauer, the respected owner of Red Willow Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, planted some of the first Syrah vines in 1988. Most of his grapes go to Columbia Winery, where winemaker David Lake MW has long worked closely with Sauer. I recently tasted the 1988 Columbia Syrah during a visit to Red Willow. It wasn’t brilliant, but for a first attempt from young vines, it was pretty good; it still looks youthful, though the aromas were leathery and the finish quite dry. The 1994 was better, but again it showed burly, leathery tannins. By 2000 and 2001 Sauer and Lake had the measure of Red Willow Syrah. These are wines with polish, zest, freshness and finesse.
Sauer and Lake made the hard slog as Syrah pioneers, evolving from rusticity to elegance, and many others have profited from their experience. In 1994 there were only 6ha (hectares) of Syrah under vine; today there are well over 1,000ha. Styles vary.
Many Syrahs from Walla Walla, a prosperous wheat town in eastern Washington, are big wines with serious extraction of tannins, while others are more graceful. Some winemakers add complexity by blending in Grenache or Mourvèdre; others follow the Australian/ Californian fashion of co-fermenting a portion of Viognier with the red grapes. Fortunately, Syrah is fairly indestructible and can survive such stylistic wrenches.
Along with David Lake, Washington’s Syrah pioneers include Rusty Figgins at Glen Fiona (though Figgins himself left in 2002) and Doug McCrea at his eponymous winery, where he fashions some of the state’s grandest Syrahs from purchased fruit.
Bob Betz MW, another Washington veteran, was vice president of Chateau Ste Michelle until his recent retirement, and now devotes his time to the small-scale Betz Family Winery. He makes two Syrahs from different vineyard sources, of which I prefer the lightly gamey but velvety La Serenne.
Chateau Ste Michelle itself has been producing Syrah for 10 years, with a variety of estate bottlings. Its sister winery Columbia Crest shows what can be achieved with slightly less ambitious winemaking: the Two Vines Shiraz may not have much class, but it’s inexpensive and deservedly popular.
Washington’s high estimation of its red wines, which is reflected in their price tags, is not mere self-regard. Other nations have also come to pay homage. Christophe Baron has created one of Washington’s most brilliant Rhône-style ranges under his Cayuse label, and John Duval, formerly Penfold’s winemaker and responsible for two decades of Grange, has teamed up with Long Shadows winery to create a superb wine called Sequel.
Christophe Baron comes from a family of Champagne producers. John Alban, a leading Rhône Ranger from California, once introduced him thus to a wine gathering: ‘Christophe realised he was not like the other children in his village. He didn’t like the sound of popping corks, and from the age of three acquired a taste for Châteauneuf-du Pape. Later he stowed away on a ship and arrived in America with just a few euros in his pocket.’ This biographical sketch may be a trifle embroidered. However, once stateside, Baron wanted to produce Oregon Pinot Noir, but was deflected after a visit to Walla Walla in 1996. Driving through its southern outskirts, he spotted some exceptionally stony ground. Tens of thousands of years ago glacial floods deposited all kinds of sedimentary material on the soils of Washington’s valleys, and here the waters dumped a sea of potato-sized stones. Baron had a conversion experience.
‘As soon as I saw this, I realised the soil was similar to Châteauneuf,’ says Baron. ‘Poorer soil, if anything, as the rocks go deep. I just knew I could make great Syrah here, so I began buying land and in 1998 I started planting vines.
‘It hasn’t been easy. Most growers have planted on the slopes, where there is less risk of frost and winter freezes. Here on the valley floor I’m asking for trouble, as the risks are higher. After each harvest I have to hire crews to bury the lower parts of each vine. With 20ha of vines, that costs $50,000 each year. Man, I could buy a Hummer for that kind of money!’
And to make life even harder for himself, Baron has since 2002 opted for biodynamic viticulture, waging war, as he puts it, against ‘the forces of death all around me’. He makes three Syrahs from three vineyards, and a lush, spicy Viognier. We tasted them in the vineyard, the bottles lined up on the flatbed of his pick-up truck. They were all delicious. The winemaking is simple enough: low yields, partial destemming, indigenous yeasts, a modest use of new oak, and no fining or filtration. Hence Christophe Baron gives expression to the unique vineyards he has created.
Baron isn’t the only wild guy in town. A long-haired former rock band manager called Charles Smith has also caught the Syrah bug. Inspired by Baron, he began making Syrah in 1999 from six separate sites. He likes to retain a lot of stems to give the wines more structure, and ferments at high temperatures. ‘That’s to get the fruit out of the way. I want to show everything else that’s there: earth and minerals.’ These are powerful wines which show concentration and complexity, and that characteristically Washington delicacy and elegance on the finish.
The well-known Ecole No 41 winery near Walla Walla, owned by Marty Clubb, embraced Syrah at the same time as Smith and produces lush and spicy wines from the Seven Hills Vineyard. More recent converts are former pharmacist Brett Isenhower, who makes four different Syrahs each year, and Ron Coleman at Tamarack Cellars.
Whether the moment is approaching when the market for American Syrah will reach saturation point, it is hard to say. The impassioned producers here, including most of those mentioned above, are unlikely to flag or lose their loyal following.
The Syrah bandwagon, on the other hand, is getting crowded, and many of the me-too wines and producers may run out of steam. But ever since David Lake’s first tentative Syrah vintages, Washington has shown that its climate and soils are ideally suited to this forgiving but irresistible variety.
Written by Stephen Brook