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Getting to Know Washington Syrah

The first Washington syrah that made my toes curl : McCrea Boushey Vineyard 2005 Syrah

Washington Syrah It’s Awesome!

I predict that as the Washington wine region expands syrah will outrank merlot and will be the second most coveted wines out of Washington state. To date, Washington’s most widely grown red varietals are Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah–in that order(1). Increasing numbers of wine producers in Washington are focusing their efforts on syrah and the results are knocking the socks off wine critics(2).

The secret sauce behind Washington syrah is the growing conditions of Eastern Washington. The long, hot summer days with massive temperature shifts at night (up to 40 °F differences between highs and lows(3)) and the right mix of volcanic pumice and dense loamy soil make for complex flavors and well maintained fruit acidity. Acidity is one of the 4 conditions that makes wine age worthy, providing longevity to Washington syrah and making it a great wine to add to your cellar collection. Few varietals can withstand temperatures that get over 100 degrees; syrah is one of them, and is hardy enough to survive the equally brutal Washington winters.
Top vineyard locations for producing Washington syrah
Syrah production in Washington is still quite limited. To date, there are around 3100 acres planted compared to over 19,000 acres planted in California(1,4). However Washington vineyards have quadrupled in acreage since 1993(5).

Syrah benefits from exposure to sunshine, and Washington has very long daylight hours because of it’s position relative to the equator. The best vineyards live on southward facing slopes where they can drink in the sun’s rays. Yakima, Walla Walla, Wahluke Slope(WAH “luke”), Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain contain the best syrah vineyards in Washington state. Value wines can be found in Yakima and Wahluke Slope. Many wineries blend from multiple vineyards, so you won’t always see a single vineyard on the label.

Best Syrah Vineyards in Washington (that are readily available)

  • Boushey Vineyard, Yakima AVA
  • Ciel du Cheval, Red Mountain AVA
  • Clifton Vineyards, Wahluke Slope AVA
  • Dubrul Vineyard, Yakima AVA
  • Fries Vineyard (aka Desert Wind), Wahluke Slope AVA
  • Kiona Vineyard, Red Mountain AVA
  • Klipsun Vineyard, Red Mountain AVA
  • Lawrence Vineyard, Columbia Valley AVA (close to Royal City, WA)
  • Les Collines, Walla Walla AVA
  • Outlook Vineyard, Yakima AVA
  • Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima AVA
  • Terra Blanca, Red Mountain AVA

If the positive reviews for Washington syrah continue, I suspect that more vineyards will be planted to the varietal. The uptick in positive reviews could be contributed to vintners paying more serious attention to syrah winemaking techniques. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of wineries producing this wine in Washington, there are a few leaders who clearly know what they’re doing:

Top Washington Syrah Producers (alphabetical order)

  • Amavi $29 (readily available)
  • Cayuse $65 (culty, hard to get)
  • Darby $30 (hard to get)
  • Doyenne – by Delille Cellars $50 (readily available)
  • Efeste $40 (readily available)
  • Gorman Winery $45 (readily available)
  • Gramercy Cellars $45 (readily available)
  • Mark Ryan Winery $44 (readily available)
  • Matthews Estate (hard to get)
  • McCrea $35 (under the radar)
  • Owen Roe $40 (readily available)
  • Reynvaan $55 (culty, hard to get)
  • Sparkman Cellars $56 (culty, hard to get)
  • Terra Blanca $25 (under the radar)

As the popularity for Washington wines increases there will be a serious supply and demand problem. The majority of the wineries listed above simply do not produce or distribute enough wine to satisfy the thirsty US Market, let alone the increasingly voracious international demand. These small boutique wineries are literally just that: “boutique” (until they start producing over 5000 cases). Many of the boutique Washington winemakers I’ve talked to are happy to just max out their wine club and putt along–because it’s easy. As a passionate wine drinker I would encourage winemakers to think big… and get Washington syrah in front of more winos.

How Washington Syrah Tastes

To my mouth, the higher rated syrahs tend to be understated with more savory notes of tobacco and olive, and the value syrahs are jam-like and juicy, with tooth-staining texture. The wine critics tend to lean towards the syrahs with more subtlety and a greater likeness to syrah grown in the Rhône region of Southern France. But you should drink what you like, and know that the two can taste similar, and they can taste worlds apart (or at least half a world). If you plan on aging and collecting Washington syrahs, look for wines with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity and overall balance. As the wine ages the fruit flavors and tannin will round down a bit and the wine will exhibit subtle tobacco and cocoa characteristics. After tasting McCrea’s 2008 Amerique vs. the 2001 Amerique (grapes sourced from Red Mountain) I was surprised at how much the wine improved over time.

Best Vintages in The Last 10 Years

  • 2004 – overshadowed by the 2005 vintage, these wines are drinking terrific right now!
  • 2005 – fruit forward and opulent vintage it will love you like a punch in the face
  • 2007 – fruit forward with a little more acidity, this wine will outlast the 2005 vintage
  • 2008 – hot vintage, smart winemakers picked early and you can age these wines nicely
  • 2009 – although the initial taste of these wines is high on the acids, the finish is rich and opulent, the grapes were able to reach physiological ripeness. 2009 vintage is my current favorite.

syrah food pairing

Food Pairing with Washington Syrah

Syrahs from Washington can easily be enjoyed on their own. However, if you are looking to pair it with dinner, look for rich roasted foods as a starting point. Farro rissoto with wild mushrooms and roasted delicata squash would be an excellent vegetarian choice. Carnivores should try an herb crusted lamb saddle with mint salsa verde. Select fresh cheeses such as triple cream brie, cream cheese or a softer blue cheese with Washington syrah.

Environmental Issues with Washington wine

Despite the Northwest’s reputation for heavy rain, most of Washington’s wine comes from east of the Cascade mountains in a region that only receives 6-8 inches of rain a year. Agriculture is heavily irrigated, sourcing primarily from the nearbyYakima river. This river is home to seven species of salmon that are dependent on the river for spawning. If you’d like to know more about this, check out salmon safe certification.
1. Wine 101 on Washington Wine Org “Red Wine Varieties” 
2. Wine Spectator Article on 2007 syrahs“11 Outstanding 2007 Syrahs”
3. Wunderground historical temperature data: Walla Walla
4. California Wine Fact Sheets on Wine Institute “California Syrah”
5. Wine 101 on Washington Wine Org “State Facts”

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