When Mike Sauer planted Washington’s first syrah vines in 1986, he likely had no idea Red Willow Vineyard was launching a revolution that would alter the landscape for winemakers and growers throughout the state.
His winemaking friend at Columbia Winery, the late David Lake, made arrangements to get plant material from California in 1984. Sauer tended to them in his nursery in 1985, then established 3 acres of syrah at Red Willow.
“I paid $1 a cutting, which was a pretty good price for just sticks,” Sauer said. “That was a big purchase for us.”
Lake, a master of wine who was born in London to Canadian parents, proved prescient. He died at 66 in 2009, but thanks to the spark created by that historic winemaker/grower collaboration, the most famous variety from France’s Rhone Valley is the Evergreen State’s No. 3 red grape — behind cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
Syrah shows up not only by itself as a standalone variety but also as a key component in some of the state’s most delicious blends. Tamarack Cellars in Walla Walla was among the first with its Firehouse Red, which used syrah to make a more supple blend in 2000.
Today, Washington winemakers have branched out, making wines from many of the red Rhone grapes planted in the Columbia Valley. Here are five delicious syrahs from Washington — as well as one from Idaho — that we have tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or order directly from the winery.
Dusted Valley Vintners 2017 Stained Tooth Syrah, Columbia Valley, $36: Legend has it that winemaker Chad Johnson’s father, a dentist, subscribes to the notion that “Life is too short to stain your teeth on cheap wine.” Well, there are many syrahs that are more expensive that the Stained Tooth, but few are its equal. And it starts with two prized sites — StoneTree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope and the Stoney Vine Vineyard, which the Johnson and Braunel families established in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in Oregon. It is reminiscent of a Belgian waffle with raspberry sauce, as well as dried currant, crushed dried herbs and elegant minerality.
Ste. Chapelle 2016 Panoramic Idaho Syrah, Snake River Valley, $25: Boise native Meredith Smith took over the winemaking duties at Idaho’s largest winery ahead of veraison in 2016, and her love of syrah shows with this expression from her first vintage at Ste. Chapelle. Pulled during September from Sawtooth and Skyline vineyards, she poured it into all French oak barrels, 30% new, for 20 months. Yet, it opens with whiffs of game meat and blackberry, spice and celery leaf, following with plum, blackberry and blueberry flavors. There’s a pleasing job of tannin management that allows for a long and rewarding finish.
Sol Stone Winery 2016 Syrah, Columbia Valley, $32: For their syrah program, the Buckinghams work with viticulturist Lacey Lybeck, who manages two of Washington’s oldest vineyards in Sagemoor and Weinbau. They invested in Quintessence domestic oak barrels, and that shows in the toasty introduction to the dark purple fruit expression that’s enjoyable with blackberry, black cherry and plum, backed by cured meat.
Elephant Seven Wine 2016 Yellow Bird Vineyard Block 3 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $45: Rising talent Joshua West has made Yellow Bird Vineyard a focus of his syrah program, and the bottling of clone 174 represents a single-block, two-barrel expression from a cooler site within a renowned neighborhood along Mill Creek Road. He co-fermented with viognier (8%) and did so with whole clusters during a three-day cold soak. It’s undeniably syrah with the gamy nose that also offers blueberry, tapenade and toast from the 21 months in 50% new French oak. Inside, there are spoonfuls of purple fruit akin to marionberry and blueberry.
Maison Bleue Winery 2016 Voyageur Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $50: At one point, Jon Meuret had no plans to produce wines from the 2016 vintage for his Maison Bleue brand with Willamette Valley Vineyards. Fortunately, the triathlete changed his mind, and his melange from Les Collines, Stone Valley and Yellow Jacket vineyards ranks among the best of his final efforts before leaving the Northwest after a decade of acclaimed winemaking and moving to Kansas to become a fitness coach. The 2016 Voyageur remains quite youthful as a cool-climate example of syrah with prominent pomegranate, blueberry and fleshy plum notes. Classic touches of smoked meat and black pepper add to its firm approach and seductive dash of cinnamon at the finish.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.