After wandering the US viticultural wilderness for nearly 40 years, often mired in a homogeneous stylistic rut, Syrah may have finally found footing in Washington State’s Columbia Valley and its many sub-appellations.
The growing season here is kind to this changeling variety: its northern latitude allows for extra hours of sunshine, the heat ensuring full ripeness, and an autumn that is characterised by milder days and cold nights, such that, if desired, the best wines can retain a fresh acidity and firm contour that effortlessly averts flab and jam.
Patrick’s top Washington Syrahs:
The state’s first Syrah Red Willow, planted by Mike Sauer in 1986 in the Yakima Valley, continues to produce one of the coolest, most elegant expressions of the grape. Since Columbia Winery relinquished its hold on all its fruit, the list of wineries with Red Willow Syrah contracts reads like a Who’s Who of Washington’s leading Syrah producers, with names including Avennia, Betz Family, Gramercy, Efeste, Owen Roe, Andrew Rich and Mark Ryan.
Red Willow may be Syrah’s historic home in Washington, but its spiritual home at present is unquestionably The Rocks District of Milton- Freewater in the Walla Walla Valley (in Oregon, in fact). This newly minted AVA lies on an ancient branch of the Walla Walla river and is characterised by dramatic, Châteauneuf-style basalt cobblestones, yielding a spicy, almost feral intensity that is among the most exotic flavour profiles for any red wine in the United States. Credit goes to a Frenchman, Christophe Baron, of Cayuse Winery, for discovering this remarkable patch of land; he now has five parcels here.
After two remarkably cool El Niño vintages, 2010 and 2011, the state’s last three have reflected the warmth and unmitigated sunshine of a more typical growing season. Still, those cooler years instilled in some winemakers a taste for more elegance: look for Gramercy, Reynvaan, Maison Bleue and àMaurice to reflect this aesthetic direction.
Patrick Comiskey is a senior correspondent for Wine & Spirits magazine, where he is the critic for Washington wines.