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Rhone on the Range: Syrah

Paul Gregutt is on the trail of Washington State's Syrah
  • It’s clear that what began as an experiment back in the mid-1980s has lit a firecracker under the growers of Washington State.
  • ‘A Bordeaux vine will do everything it can for the fruit to survive; it’ll drop its leaves. Syrah will do the opposite. It’ll drop its fruit to save its leaves.’
  • In Washington the goal is to make world-class Syrah that is different from that of the Northern Rhône, different from that of Australia.
  • It’s too soon to speak of a Northwest ‘style’ for Syrah

Syrah wine

On a glorious mid-spring morning I’m on the road in eastern Washington with Columbia winemaker David Lake. We’ve recently tasted a dozen vintages of his landmark Syrah, and even the oldest of them displayed lush, varietal flavours of plum and black fruits, highlighted with earth and roasted coffee. At 12 years of age, the first commercial Syrah ever made in the Northwest is alive and still delicious.

It’s becoming clear that what began as an experiment back in the mid-1980s has lit a firecracker under the growers of Washington State. Bearing Syrah acreage is up ten fold in less than a decade, and will double again this year. According to Steve Burns, the executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, Syrah plantings are on track to catch up with Merlot and Cabernet soon.

There are 18 Washington wineries currently selling Syrah, and at least a half dozen more with wine in barrel. Some, such as Doug McCrea, do as many as four different versions a year. But it’s Columbia Winery that has the longest track record with the grape. Lake’s string of Syrahs began in 1988, and provides the most convincing evidence to date that this varietal has a bright future in the Northwest. Today he wants to show me the grapes.

The region

We’re driving south through the Yakima River Canyon, following along beside the lazy, winding river. The hills surrounding us are draped in infinite tones of sage green, and spotted with the yellow blossoms of the balsam root plant. We pass through Union Gap, a break in the Ahtanum Ridge, and burst into the sun-drenched Yakima Valley, with its apple and cherry orchards, fields of mint and alfalfa, and endless rows of hops and vines.

Virtually all of the valley’s vineyards are spread out to the east, but we turn sharply west, towards the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, which separate the hot, arid eastern Washington desert from the cool, moist coast. Here at the northwestern edge of the Yakima Valley is one of the prettiest, and most unusual vineyards in Washington State – Red Willow – surrounded on all sides by the Yakama Indian Reservation.

The land was purchased from the Indians back in the 1920s, and farmed to alfalfa for decades, until present owner Mike Sauer decided to take a shot at growing wine grapes. He still farms alfalfa, much of which goes to Japan, but over the past quarter century has set aside 43.3 hectares (ha) for vinifera, beginning with a bit of Cabernet in the mid-1970s. Walking along the highest stretch of Red Willow vineyard, a section Sauer calls the Peninsula, he points out row after row of plantings: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc destined for Columbia Winery’s long-lived reds; experimental blocks of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, Malbec and Tempranillo, and some lovely Viognier to augment the Gewürztraminer and Riesling planted below. But more than all the rest, what excites him these days is his Syrah.

‘I like it,’ he acknowledges. ‘I think we’re gradually gravitating towards Syrah as our top variety at Red Willow. I think we’re getting better, learning from our own site. Eventually we’ll have our own identity with it.’ He first planted it on the steep south slope of the Peninsula in 1985. At the time it was just one more experimental block – as far as anyone can recall, the first Syrah ever planted in the Northwest. ‘Mike is someone who is always thinking about the possibilities,’ says Lake, ‘and he’s not afraid to try something that other people would have bridled at. He’s always prepared to be ahead of the crowd; he says let’s try it out and see.’

‘I’ve always found that if we’re willing to grow something, David is always willing to make the wine separate and experiment,’ Sauer confirms.

The land at Red Willow is extremely arid, even by eastern Washington standards, averaging just six inches of precipitation annually. The vineyards, planted at roughly 335–400m, lie above an ancient floodplain, and contain a wide variation of soils: calcareous, sandstone, clay, sand, loam and silt. This combination of poor, ancient, well-drained soils; east, south and west-facing slopes and an almost complete lack of rainfall provides perfect conditions for experimentation.

First with Red Willow Cabernet, then with Merlot, and now with Syrah, it seems to have hit the jackpot. Sauer followed the original Syrah planting with six more separate blocks throughout the 1990s, and will put in an eighth this summer. Still, all told, he’ll have only about nine hectares, out of more than 1,200 statewide. The question remains: is Red Willow a one-of-a-kind situation, or can other growers find success with Syrah as well?

Other growers have success?

McCrea Cellars, a 2,000-case Mom ‘n’ Pop-eration specialising in New World Rhône wines, made its first varietal Syrah in 1994, from vines planted along the Columbia Gorge in the spring of 1990. Ripe, rich and seductive, it served notice that Washington was no one-trick pony. Then disaster struck. A very cool 1995 vintage kept the Syrah from ripening sufficiently, so winemaker Doug McCrea declassified it, blending it with old vine Grenache from the same vineyard. Then in early 1996 came the Arctic blast, driving temperatures in eastern Washington well below zero for days on end. ‘The Grenache vines were killed,’ recalls McCrea sadly. ‘They were probably about 37 or 38 years old, the oldest in the state, and the cold just took them out. The Syrah was severely affected in terms of production. We only got about a barrel of it that year.’

Despite the setback, 1996 marked an important turning point. Red Willow’s Syrah survived the freeze just fine, as did other, younger vineyards in the Columbia Valley and on Red Mountain, at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley. More grape growers began to get interested. Doug Gore, whose first Columbia Crest Syrah was made in 1994, released a spectacular 1996 version, scented with smoke, black fruit and pepper. This is classic Syrah, polished, lush and firm, but smooth and approachable. New wineries, dedicated specifically to Syrah, suddenly began to spring up like chanterelles after an autumn rain. ‘I spent two years in Australia immersed in Shiraz,’ recalls Glen Fiona’s Rusty Figgins, brother of Leonetti’s Gary Figgins. ‘I came back home and I fell in love with the variety. I knew the conditions were right, especially in Walla Walla.’

Glen Fiona makes several different limited production Syrahs, notably a Walla Walla Valley designation that is fermented with Viognier ‘in the spirit of Côte Rotie’. Nearby Cayuse Vineyards has three different Syrahs currently in release, including one, designated ‘Cobblestone Vineyard’, from second-year vines planted on an ancient riverbed. ‘It definitely looks like Châteauneuf-du-Pape!’ enthuses vigneron Christophe Baron, who first explored the area while interning at Waterbrook Winery.

There is even Syrah coming from Canada. Mission Hill Winery, just across the Washington border in Osoyoos, British Columbia, planted French vines in the spring of 1997. Its first release, again from second-year vines is a smokey, deep purple marvel, with ripe black fruits and early intimations of leather and barnyard. Despite these promising new efforts, it’s too soon to speak of a Northwest ‘style’ for Syrah. The discussion among winemakers and growers these days has to do with such arcana as water management, trellising and co-fermentation. On the plus side, notes David Lake, ‘Syrah is a variety that’s typically trouble-free. Botrytis doesn’t seem to be an issue, mildew is not an issue.

Merlot is a problem grower, but Syrah grows strongly and doesn’t shade itself out too badly.’ On the other hand, some growers have had trouble with overcropping and shrivelling. ‘It’s very sensitive to water management,’ Mike Sauer points out; ‘over-irrigate and you grow a jungle; under-irrigate late in the season and it’ll shrivel. Controlled drought is what you want.’ Doug McCrea agrees. ‘Syrah behaves differently from Bordeaux grapes. A Bordeaux vine will do everything it can for the fruit to survive; it’ll drop its leaves. Syrah will do the opposite. It’ll drop its fruit to save its leaves.

The skins start to soften up, and the grapes do a kind of raisining. Once those grapes start to shrivel up significantly, that’s it for sugar. What you have to do is deficit irrigation. That’s why we can make these wonderful wines: you can water and back off, and when the plants begin to fade a little, you give them a little more water, and it’s kind of a dance really.’

In Australia this same penchant for dehydration gives Shiraz its typical jammy, raisiny character. But in Washington the goal is to make world-class Syrah that is different from that of the Northern Rhône, different from that of Australia. ‘Those are landmarks that we’re aware of,’ notes Lake, ‘but we just try to make the best possible Red Willow. We are looking for New World fruit; fruity, not raisiny qualities. We get smokiness, meatiness as well, and that’s a natural outcome of the vineyard.’

It’s not always easy to get a focus on the wines of America’s Pacific Northwest. Wine drinkers from outside the region often make the mistake of thinking of it as a unified whole. It then seems difficult to imagine that the same region can make wines that rival top red burgundies, classified growth Bordeaux, the dry white wines of the Loire and the seductive late harvest wines of Alsace and Germany, let alone the meaty, smokey red monsters of the Northern Rhône.

The solution

The answer, of course, is that any number of completely different winemaking regions comprise the Pacific Northwest. It takes in a vast area that begins at the Oregon-California border, continues on up through the Willamette Valley, includes Puget Sound as well as the sprawling Columbia Valley, crosses back into southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon with the Walla Walla appellation, and ultimately ranges north to the suddenly interesting young wineries of British Columbia. Taken all together, these hundreds of vineyards mimic a wide variety of Old World climates and soils, often finding a sweet spot between European and Californian winemaking styles.

Eventually each region of the Pacific Northwest will settle on a grape or two on which to hang its reputation, as California has settled on Cabernet and Chardonnay. In Oregon they’ve stuck with Pinot Noir as their red, and lately found Pinot Gris as a suitable candidate for their best white. In Washington the industry has lurched from Riesling to Chardonnay to Sémillon-Sauvignon Blanc; for red wines it’s leapt from Lemberger to Cabernet to Merlot, and now, finally, to Syrah. Hedges Cellars is one of the recent converts, with 2.7ha of Syrah on Red Mountain due to bear its first crop this summer. Says owner Tom Hedges: ‘I think Syrah’s going to be so good on Red Mountain we’d be crazy not to do it. It will be the next Merlot.’

McCrea, who is currently vineyard shopping himself, agrees: ‘We’re on the launch pad. The rocket’s gearing up, the engine’s just fired and you can see the smoke coming out. We’ve got a lot of miles to log before we’re gonna know what Syrah’s all about.’

Northern Rhone wine regions

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