Syrah was first planted in Washington by Mike Sauer at Red Willow Vineyard in the western edge of the Yakima Valley near the foothills of Mount Adams. (Richard Duval Images)

Syrah was first planted in Washington by Mike Sauer at Red Willow Vineyard in the western edge of the Yakima Valley near the foothills of Mount Adams. (Richard Duval Images)

The secret sauce behind some of the Northwest’s top red blends

Syrah, which originated in the Rhone Valley of France, helps produce some of the most approachable wines.

By Eric Degerman / Great Northwest Wine

In the past decade, proprietary red blends have grown to play a significant role in the Pacific Northwest wine industry.

There are a dizzying number of these types of wine on store shelves, wine lists and tasting rooms. And for a time, the preponderance of red blends vexed wine competition organizers until they began to create categories determined by the lead grape variety of each wine entered.

Interestingly, the secret sauce for many of the most successful red blends is syrah, the fruity and fleshy grape that is native to the Rhone Valley of France and helped sparked the rise of the Australian wine on our shores.

In the hands of a winemaker, adding syrah to any assemblage helps to bevel tannins and build the midpalate with tones of purple fruit akin to blackberry, blackcurrant or blueberry. Its inclusion helps produce some of the most approachable wines on the market.

And when someone meets one of these syrah-influenced proprietary red blends that they really enjoy, chances are that wine will become a trusted friend, one to rely on year after year because that winemaker can match the mouthfeel of that blend each vintage by tweaking the ratio a bit — thanks to the consistency and reliability of syrah.

Last year, the largest chapter of the 20th annual Platinum Judging by Wine Press Northwest magazine proved to be the “red blend” group. There were 114 entries, which represented 15% of the total tasting, and while the RB-Syrah category was not the biggest, it ranked among the most tasty. In terms of the percentage of top awards, it ranked behind the GSM category — those wines featuring a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre.

Below are some of the red blends from the Platinum Judging that prominently feature syrah. Look for these at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery directly.

Cellardoor Winery 2015 Aurora Red Wine, American, $32: After leaving Maine to learn winemaking at Walla Walla Community College, Aaron Peet returned home with a better appreciation for grapes from Washington. This blend of syrah (52%), cabernet sauvignon (29%) and cab franc comes from Pace Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, Shaw Vineyard on Red Mountain and Six Prong in the Horse Heaven Hills, respectively. A deeply structured red, it boasts an irresistible aroma as layers of black cherry, cassis and black raspberry are accented by vanilla bean, allspice and hints of warm maple bars. Enjoy the long and savory finish. This bottling was the highest-rated syrah-influenced wine of the Platinum, and it ranked among the most decorated red wines produced with Washington grapes during 2019 competitions across the U.S. Owned by famed investment banker Bettina Doulton, this Maine winery ships back to Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Belle Fiore Winery 2015 Estate Icon Souspire, Rogue Valley, $37: Edward Kerwin recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of his stately winery-mansion project in Ashland, Oregon, and now he has Rob Folin, one of Oregon’s most underrated talents, in his cellar. Kerwin’s 31-acre vineyard has a wide variety of grapes planted, and Rhone, Bordeaux and Italy are represented in this stellar blend of syrah (70%), malbec (20%) and barbera. This firmly structured, black-fruited blend is rich while elegant. Lush and smooth with blackberry and black cherry fruit, notes of toast, black licorice drops and hints of earth make it complex and delectable.

Ryan Patrick Wines 2016 Rock Island Red, Columbia Valley, $20: It’s tough to go wrong in Washington when blending cabernet sauvignon with syrah, and the winemaking team at Wahluke Wine Co., created this 47%/47% proprietary red for the father-son tandem of Butch and Buck Milbrandt. There is a variety of entry points to this nicely balanced and approachable delivery of boysenberries and blueberries, joined by herbs and spices hinting at sweet tobacco, black peppercorns and bay leaf. It should also be one of the more easy-to-find bottlings from the 2019 Platinum.

Tsillan Cellars 2016 Estate Bellissima Rossa, Lake Chelan, $38: Ray Sandidge celebrates his 35th vintage as a winemaker in 2020, and he’s spent 15 of those working near the shores of Lake Chelan. His blending here indeed translates to the Italian translation for a “most beautiful red” as syrah (39%), merlot (29%) and cabernet franc (18%) conjure up thoughts of blueberry cobbler, dark cherry, toast and baking spices. It’s rich and concentrated while adding notes of toast and coffee.

Zerba Cellars 2016 GSM, Walla Walla Valley, $45: Cecil Zerba’s vines on Oregon’s portion of the Walla Walla Valley have produced Platinum-winning wines with stand-alone bottlings of grenache (2014), mourvedre (2015) and originally for syrah (2005), and winemaker Brent Roberts is credited with a second Platinum for GSM. The nose of white pepper, black cherry, cocoa powder and cedar transitions to smooth flavors of blackberry and plum jam that come with secondary notes of green tea and vanilla.

Maryhill Winery 2016 Elephant Mountain Marvell GSM, Rattlesnake Hills, $46: Richard Batchelor’s effort with Elephant Mountain fruit topped the GSM category at the 2019 Platinum. It leads with syrah (40%) and follows with grenache (32%) and mourvedre after spending 20 months in a barrel program of 30% new French oak. Alluring aromas of buttercrunch toffee, black fruit and smoked meat transition to a dense, rounded and polished drink of Damson plum, black cherry and cured meat.

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

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