Clusters of syrah ripen in Oregon’s Columbia Valley. (Photo by Richard Duval Images)

Clusters of syrah ripen in Oregon’s Columbia Valley. (Photo by Richard Duval Images)

Oregon wine country is embracing the challenges of syrah

Oregonian winemakers like the warm-climate grape because it’s more robust than pinot noir.

When we think about Oregon wine country, we often think of the Willamette Valley, a cooler region on the west side of the Cascades that often has gray skies, often a bit of rain. A climate perfect for pinot noir, the red grape of France’s Burgundy region.

What we don’t immediately think of is syrah, a warm-climate grape that is better suited in the Columbia Valley, Australia and California’s Central Coast. Yet about 20 years ago, we began to see Oregon wineries work with syrah. Part of this was to produce a wine more robust than pinot noir, a wine to appeal to a broader base of consumers.

Winemakers also seem to enjoy a challenge — and making syrah can provide challenges and offers stylistic interpretations.

The 2016 Oregon Vineyard and Winery Census Report showed that syrah is the No. 2 red grape grown in the state, just ahead of cabernet sauvignon but far behind pinot noir. Not much of it is grown in the Willamette Valley, a climate largely unsuitable for growing syrah, so winemakers turn to warmer and drier regions such as southern Oregon and the Walla Walla Valley. Or they crossed the Columbia River to Washington, where syrah grapes have become abundant in recent vintages.

This dedication to the red grape of France’s Rhône Valley paid off in 2015, when a reserve syrah from Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards in the Umpqua Valley near Roseburg was deemed the best New World Syrah at the prestigious Six Nations Wine Challenge in Australia.

Here are five syrahs made by Oregon wineries that we have tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the wineries directly.

Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards 2014 Winemaker’s Reserve Syrah, Umpqua Valley, $29: In 2015, Stephen Reustle received the Six Nations Wine Challenge award in Australia for best syrah and he remains on the mark with this reserve bottling, one of the four expressions of this Rhône variety that he grows near Roseburg, Oregon. (The invite-only judging Down Under gave Best of Class to his 2012 Masada Bloc Syrah, yet his 2012 Reserve earned a double gold, too.) This vintage of the Reserve casts aromas of black raspberry and dark chocolate with undertones of rose petal, chalkboard dust, forest floor and tar.

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars 2015 Syrah, Oregon, $40: Lynn Penner-Ash blazed the trail in Oregon for female winemakers, and while she earned fame for her work with pinot noir, there’s also an obvious passion for Rhône varieties, too. Six vineyards throughout the state factored into this blend dominated by Rogue Valley sites Lakeside, RoxyAnn and Crater View. It offers seemingly something for everyone, starting with hints of brownie mix and blackberry, backed by whiffs of gaminess, moist earth and funk.

William Marie Wines 2016 Syrah, Columbia Valley, $25: Hospitality professionals Edward William Leffers and Monique Marie Lefferts moved from the Valley of the Sun in 2010 to become a part of the Northwest wine industry. They work and make their wine in the Rose City while residing across the Columbia River in Camas. However, their passion seems focused on polished reds from Washington’s Columbia Valley. These three barrels of neutral French oak were pulled off Double Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. The results from are fruit-filled, gathering up aromas of cherry pie filling and plums with mulling spices and fresh leather.

Spangler Vineyards 2012 Syrah, Southern Oregon, $27: When Ohio native Pat Spangler purchased the La Garza property in Oregon’s southern Umpqua Valley, it came with some of the region’s oldest plantings of cab. On the eastern slopes of his property is Sage Hill, and he dotes on the wind-blown syrah near the top of his estate. That allowed Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2018 Oregon Winery of the Year to chase a Côte-Rôtie style, bringing a theme of black pepper, anise, coconut and toast with bright purple fruit, pleasing frontal tannins.

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2014 Moody Vineyard Reserve Syrah, Columbia Valley, $48: Hood River vintner Robb Bell continues to expand his vineyard-designate program, and Moody Vineyard east of The Dalles, Oregon, is featured for his distinctive bottlings of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and this syrah. Moody’s northern aspect slopes toward the confluence of the Columbia and Deschutes rivers, and Bell’s winemaking team conjures up aromas of Hawaiian Fruit Punch and grenadine with nutmeg and bay rum.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwest

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