Food & Drink

Syrah puts down roots in Washington state

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

Syrah’s sinking popularity in California has been well-publicized. But you won’t see any hand-wringing over syrah in Washington state. Syrah is Washington’s current “it” grape.

Wines made from syrah can run the gamut from Australian-style shiraz — ripe, jammy, often high in alcohol — to the more elegant, savory examples from France’s northern Rhone River Valley. The best Washington syrahs I’ve tasted have ample New World fruit, but it’s accented by nuances common in the northern Rhone, such as white pepper, smoke, roasted meat and mineral.

Syrah is popular now — at more than 3,000 acres, it’s Washington’s third most planted red grape, behind cabernet sauvignon and merlot — but the grape is a fairly recent arrival to the state. Syrah’s Rhone cousin, grenache, was one of the earliest vinifera grapes planted in Washington, but for years it was used mostly in rosé and cheap blends. In the mid-1980s, the late David Lake, then the winemaker at Columbia Winery, persuaded grower Mike Sauer to plant syrah at his Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Lake saw similarities between eastern Washington and the northern Rhone.

Lake clearly was on to something. He produced the state’s first commercial syrah at Columbia in 1988, and it was met with approval. The grape also proved to be cold-hardy enough to survive eastern Washington’s sometimes severe winters. Soon it was being planted elsewhere in the Yakima Valley and beyond.

“Syrah has probably been our best variety since day one,” Sauer says. “It can reveal its site more than just about any variety we grow.”

There are still some excellent syrahs from Red Willow and elsewhere in Yakima Valley, but the current hot spot is the Walla Walla Valley, where some syrah vines are planted on fine, wind-blown soils, while others are on sites littered with cobblestones.

The first syrah was planted in the Walla Walla Valley in the early 1990s, on the finer soils. Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards was the first to plant on the rocks, in 1996. Baron, a native of Champagne, had wanted to set up shop in the Willamette Valley, but on a visit to Walla Walla he spotted a 10-acre parcel “littered with stones,” as he puts it, and decided to start a vineyard there. Everyone thought he was crazy, but Cayuse is now one of the most acclaimed Washington syrah producers. (His wines, like the “Bionic Frog” syrah, are sold mostly through a mailing list.)

Soon others followed and planted syrah and other grapes on the rocks, and now a proposed “Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” appellation is being considered by the federal government.

Other good Walla Walla syrahs include those from Amavi Cellars, Spring Valley Vineyard, Gramercy Cellars, Proper Winery and Mackey Vineyards. Buty makes an excellent syrah-dominant blend called Rediviva of the Stones.

The best Washington syrahs are pricey, and many will be difficult to find. For more budget-minded options, look for the Columbia Valley syrahs from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, both of which are less than $15.

Pick of the week

Justin Vineyards 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($14)

Justin is best known for its reds, but this white is very refreshing for summertime quaffing. It’s citrusy and a little grassy and would make a good aperitif or partner for shellfish.