Syrah grown at Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills above the Yakima Valley routinely helps winemakers earn top scores from critics. (Richard Duval Images)

Syrah grown at Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills above the Yakima Valley routinely helps winemakers earn top scores from critics. (Richard Duval Images)

Tasting of 169 Northwest syrahs showcases delicious styles

Judges identified some of the Northwest’s outstanding work with the red grape native to the Rhone Valley.

As much as wine lovers relish toasting the success of cabernet sauvignon, particularly in Washington, syrah continues to thrive throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Recently, our team staged a tasting of syrah for Wine Press Northwest magazine, a panel that featured several of the Walla Walla Valley’s top winemakers as judges. They helped identify some of the Northwest’s most delicious work with this red grape that’s native to the Rhone Valley in France.

Because the variety does well in our corner of the world, many wineries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho produce at least one example of syrah. And in the 2019 vintage, it remained the fifth-most harvested grape in Washington state at nearly 22,000 tons. At this stage, syrah’s ranking as the No. 3 red variety seems unlikely to be challenged, although it did close the gap on merlot just a bit.

That investment and interest in syrah helps explain why there were 169 entries for the tasting conducted in January ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the event overlooking the Columbia River at the Clover Island Inn in Kennewick ranks among the largest judgings of Northwest syrah ever conducted. Lending their knowledge to the judging were winemakers Chris Loeliger of TruthTeller Winery, Ryan Raber of Tertulia Cellars and Tanya Woodley of SuLei Cellars.

Among the reasons for this spotlight on syrah was that it would serve as a primer of sorts for the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance’s eighth annual Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine, which focuses on syrah this year. That weekend-long event remains scheduled for July 16-18, and tickets are available at www.celebratewallawalla.com.

Ironically, the top scoring wine of the tasting was the Kontos Cellars 2016 Les Collines Vineyard Tate Syrah, a small lot from one of the Walla Walla Valley’s top sites by second-generation Walla Walla winemaker Cameron Baker Kontos.

Below are a few of the top examples that received an unanimous vote for “Outstanding!” — the equivalent to a double gold medal — from the Wine Press Northwest panel. For the complete list of winners, visit www.winepressnw.com or pick up a copy of the Spring 2020 issue.

And look for these bottles via your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly. Syrah is ideal to serve alongside almost anything grilled in the back yard, especially during this time of quarantine.

DeLille Cellars 2016 Grand Ciel Syrah, Red Mountain, $75: While cab is king on Red Mountain, Jason Gorski shows that syrah also shines there, using DeLille’s Grand Ciel Estate Vineyard to state his case. Enticing barrel toast doesn’t get in the way of the black pepper, blackberry and lavender aromas. There’s a fistful of raspberry and blackberry flavors that lead into a sturdy framework akin to black olive skins, which transitions into a long finish of Red Vines licorice and juniper berry. This was the No. 2 wine in the tasting.

Plaisance Ranch 2017 Papa Joe’s Private Stash Syrah, Applegate Valley, $35: Pioneering viticulturist Joe Ginet in southern Oregon broke ground in the U.S. for his work with French red variety mondeuse. Since that grape is related to syrah, it makes sense that Ginet would excel in this judging. He co-fermented the syrah with viognier (3%), and there’s no new oak involved, so the focus is on purple fruit from start to finish, picking up baking spices, cured meat and tobacco along the way. Blackberry acidity and excellent tannin management create the tremendous mouthfeel and structure.

The Bunnell Family Cellar 2014 Red Heaven Vineyard Syrah, Red Mountain, $44: For two decades, Ron Bunnell has been one of the Northwest’s top magicians with syrah. Here is his snapshot of Red Heaven Vineyard, a coveted parcel high on the west slope of Red Mountain. It’s a complex and juicy delivery of boysenberry and Craisins backed by a sandy structure, allowing for long and lingering layers of eucalyptus and mocha.

Barrister Winery 2016 Sagemoor Syrah, Columbia Valley, $35: This Spokane landmark continues to rely on historic Sagemoor Vineyards for much of its program. Bacchus and Weinbau vineyards are blended with petit verdot (5%) from Dionysus, which combine for a classic theme of cured meat, black currant, blueberry and blackberry with touches of Earl Grey tea and cracked pepper. Complex and balanced, it’s a full package.

Telaya Wine Co. 2017 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Syrah, Washington State, $40: Earl and Carrie Sullivan of Wine Press Northwest’s 2016 Idaho Winery of the Year drive all the way from Boise to buy these grapes in their effort to simply make the best wine they can. Aromas of black plum, cured meat and pomegranate transition to a deep and lovely fruit expression with flavors of more plum, blackberry and blueberry. There’s great weight to the structure, capped by a long and smooth finish.

Harbinger Winery 2015 Sagemoor & Elephant Mountain Vineyards Vintner’s Pick Syrah, Washington State, $32: Sagemoor, one of Washington’s most venerable sites, is blended here with fruit from Joe Hattrup’s rising star Elephant Mountain Vineyard above the Yakima Valley, and the results by Olympic Peninsula winemaker Sara Gagnon are exceptional. It’s rather floral with hints of vanilla and violet, fruity with flavors of blackberry and black cherry, and enjoyable with milk chocolaty tannins and boysenberry acidity. It offers great maturity and delicious density.

Jones of Washington 2015 Estate Vineyards Syrah, Wahluke Slope, $15: Best buy! Victor Palencia’s reign as the winemaker for the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year has ended, but the hits will keep coming, as evidenced by this stellar effort on behalf of the Jones family. The 2012 Washington Winery of the Year should have no problem blowing through the rest of this bottling, particularly at its young tasting room inside the Quincy Public Market. The nose of black licorice, leather and plum lead to an elegant profile of red plum and strawberry, and the medium body allows for a long and supple finish.

Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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