The Buyer
Why Syrah is the unsung hero from Washington State

Why Syrah is the unsung hero from Washington State

While Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling may continue to grab all the headlines, Syrah was Peter Ranscombe’s pick at last week’s ‘Unsung Heroes’ tasting, hosted by Washington State Wine. He finds out that – thanks to its complex mix of soils, warm summers and cooler autumns – the state can produce wines that have the ripe fruit flavours of the new world alongside the structure and the freshness of the old world. Apart from reporting on the two Jamie Goode masterclasses, Ranscombe also picks his Top 10 Syrahs from the tasting.

Peter Ranscombe
18th March 2020by Peter Ranscombe
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

Few winemaking areas can rival Washington state when it comes to diversity, as demonstrated by the breadth of styles among its Syrahs.

Word association can be a dangerous game when it comes to the world of wine – think “Washington state” and you’d be forgiven for your mind immediately making the connection with Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling.

Yet there’s far more to America’s second-largest winemaking state than Bordeaux blends and racy whites, as producers demonstrated at last week’s Washington State Wine annual tasting at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London.

Unsung Heroes tasting, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London, March 10, 2020.

Chief among the unsung heroes on show was Syrah, the Rhône variety that accounts for just over 24,000 tons of Washington’s 261,000-ton output, with Cabernet Sauvignon dominating at 74,000 tons.

Steve Warner, chief executive and president of the Washington State Wine Commission, told The Buyer: “Syrah has almost developed into this wine trade ‘cool kid’ in a sense – it seems that the wine trade and the media get really excited about the Syrah because it’s unique and expressive of terroir.”

He pointed to the differences in Syrah grown in diverse locations such as Walla Walla, Yakima Valley and Red Willow, where the state’s first Syrah was planted.

“It’s so reflective of the terroir and shows how much you can geek-out on Syrah,” he added.

His comments were echoed by wine writer Dr Jamie Goode, who led the masterclasses at the tasting.

One of two masterclasses on the day conducted by Jamie Goode

“The rising star of red grapes is Syrah,” Goode said.

“There are some very exciting Syrahs coming from this state.”

Yet Goode added that one factor holding Syrah back is that the variety can be difficult to sell to mainstream American consumers.

Warner agreed: “Obviously, Cabernet Sauvignon sales are continuing to grow because that seems to appeal to the broader consumer.”

“If you think of Syrah as a highway then the lanes are really wide – you really have to know regions or individual American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) or even producers to know what you’re getting – whereas Cabernet tends to have tighter lanes and if you’re an average consumer and you pick a Cabernet Sauvignon then, chances are, you’re going to get what you think you’re going to get for the most part.”

“Syrah is a whole different animal.”

As well as the diversity of terroir, Washington’s climate also lends itself to producing wines with finesse.

The first of Goode’s two masterclasses explained why Washington’s wines were renowned for having “new world fruit with old world structure and acidity”.

He pointed to the state’s hot summer days and cool nights and that, while Washington’s main Columbia Valley was warmer than areas such as Napa and Bordeaux during the summer, it was cooler in September and October.

“If you want to make interesting wines then you need to be harvesting in the autumn, not when it’s still really hot,” Goode explained.

“The advantage of this drop-off in temperature as harvest approaches is that those final weeks take place in cool temperatures so you manage to retain more of your acidity and your window of picking is expanded, whereas in some regions you only have a few days to pick before you suddenly have too much maturity.

“If you want to pick at the right time in the Columbia Valley then you can do it because of this drop-off of temperatures, which is a massive advantage in making more classically-styled wines.”

Ten of the best Syrahs from Washington state

K Vintners Motor City Kitty Syrah
Made by Charles Smith – best-known for his Kung Fu Girl Riesling – Motor City Kitty had a natural wine-esque nose full of funky red apple notes, thanks to being fermented with natural yeast. Smith’s K Vintners Powerline Syrah, made using grapes from his own estate in the Walla Walla AVA and featured in Goode’s masterclass, had exciting and unusual rose and sandalwood aromas, leading into pomegranate notes on the palate. Goode praised its Grenache-like qualities, while I could see it sitting nicely alongside Middle Eastern cuisine. (Seeking representation – other Wines of Substance brands distributed by Greene King in the on-trade)

Charles Smith Winery Boom Boom! Syrah 2017
The other side of Charles Smith’s winemaking, with a more accessibly-priced Syrah from the Constellation Brands empire – one of five labels the wine giant bought from Smith’s Wines of Substance business in 2016, alongside Kung Fu Girl Riesling. Crunchy redcurrant and raspberry flavours lifted the grippy food-friendly tannins and formed another wine that could also be mistaken for Grenache in a blind tasting. (Imported by Bibendum)

Two Vintners, Some Days Are Diamonds Syrah 2015
My favourite Syrah in the room, with a dark nose full of coal smoke, blackberry and blackcurrant. This was serious stuff, with tea, dark chocolate and roast meat notes adding to the complexity of the black fruit on the palate. The tannins were well-integrated, and the acidity was fresh – this wine has the full package. (Imported by The Wine Treasury)

Badger Mountain Vineyard Syrah 2018
Badger Mountain carries on the organic practices laid down by Bill Powers when he founded the vineyard in 1982 and gained United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification in 1990. The Syrah has the tell-tale brightness that’s the hallmark for me of organic wine, with perfumed violet and blackcurrant. Its palate is warm and spicy, with subtle vanilla, a crunch of red apple and oodles of blackcurrant. (Imported by Amathus)

Reynvaan Family Vineyards In The Rocks Syrah
Jamie Goode compared the “rocks” in question to the pudding stones found in Chateauneuf-du-Pape – and indeed the wine also contained a Cote Rotie-like 5% twist of Viognier too. Its warm nose was full of raspberry and blackcurrant, while is dark fruit flavours were balanced by stringy tannins. (Imported by Esther Wines)

Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Red Willow Syrah 2016
Manhattan-based Master Sommelier Greg Harrington liked Syrah so much that he founded Gramercy Cellars in 2005 with Pam, his wife. My favourite from his four Syrahs on show was the Lagniappe Red Willow, which was full of violets and warm woodsmoke on the nose before launching into full-bodied grippy tannins and fresh acidity on the palate. The textured party was rounded off with chewy redcurrant and blackcurrant notes. (Imported by Flint Wines)

Ambassador Wines of Washington Plenipotentiary Syrah 2016
Only 200 cases were produced of this sweeter and brighter style of Syrah, with lush vanilla mingling with the redcurrant and cranberry flavours. The fruit is all grown on Ambassador’s estate in the Red Mountain AVA, which is full of glacial soils. (Imported by Rarewood London)

Chateau Ste Michelle Syrah 2017
From arguably Washington’s best-known wine brand came a crowd-pleasing Syrah with bright blackcurrant and blackberry aromas that were verging on blueberry in intensity. Its sweet and lush palate was full of sweet vanilla and lush blackcurrant jam. (Imported by Enotria&Coe)

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Syrah 2017
St Michelle’s Columbia Crest brand delivered a Syrah with subtler black fruit and vanilla aromas and more obvious warmth on the palate from the 14.5% alcohol. Sweeter blackcurrant jam and more assertive tannins rounded off the package, which tips the scales at an affordable £15 or less. (Imported by Enotria&Coe)

Prayers of Sinners and Saints Syrah 2017
The third in our trio from St Michelle’s family is another great value £15-and-under Syrah, with warm woodsmoke and cedar on the nose leading into redder fruit on the palate, plus raspberry and redcurrant peeking out amongst the blackberry and blackcurrant. Enough tannins for food too. (Imported by Enotria&Coe)