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Washington's Smokin' Syrahs
By Michael Franz
Oct 25, 2005
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The state of Washington is poised to become America's premier source for Syrah. 

If you doubt the truth of that statement, I've got some wines that will likely turn you into a believer.  And if you question the significance of the statement, you should consider how rare it is for any state to surpass California in vinous achievement with a major grape variety.

My recent tastings of Washington Syrahs have certainly made a believer out of me.  Indeed, I couch my opening proposition in a slightly tentative way only because it is too early to declare an outright winner in the American Syrah Sweepstakes.  The great majority of Syrah vines planted in Washington and California are less than a decade old, and since we've yet to see what the two states can make from vineyards that have really attained maturity, prudence dictates that we reserve final judgment for a few more years.

Nevertheless, the early returns sure look promising for Washington.  The state's Syrahs display a profile that tends toward dark color and deep, robust flavors.  Our friends in California would be quick to note that the same can be said of their Syrahs, and they'd be correct.  But what seems to set Washington's Syrahs apart is that they are a little less overtly fruity and a bit brighter--even when quite ripe.  Stated plainly, Washington's Syrahs generally show a little more character and a few more nuances than California's.

Again, this might change as California's vines get older, but there's good geographic reason to believe that present trends will hold true in the future.  Due to northerly latitude and a thoroughly continental climate (with dramatic temperature swings between day and night), eastern Washington's vineyards usually produce wines that show a little more structure and a little less fruit than California's.  The real issue isn't whether there's a difference in the profile of Washington's wines by comparison to California's, but whether the profile enhances the performance of a particular grape.  In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon, a negative answer is probably warranted, whereas an affirmative one may be appropriate when it comes to Merlot.  And since my experience indicates that many of California's Syrahs could use a little less fruit and a little more structure and character, I regard the different profile of Washington's Syrahs as an advantage.

I've got plenty of Washington wines to recommend so that you can put my opening proposition to the test, but I'd like to close with a few more words about California before turning to reviews.  Even if I'm correct that Washington is getting the edge with Syrah, this shouldn't reflect badly on California.  It is certainly remarkable that there are so few instances in which any state bests California with any grape.  Oregon may have a leg up with Pinot Noir, but that is a debatable point, and New York may be stronger with Riesling, but that is largely a victory by default.  California has quite possibly attained greater heights with a greater number of great grape varieties than any comparably-sized area in the world, and we'd be wise not to emphasize exceptions without remembering the rule.

Top wines from my recent tastings of current-release Washington Syrahs appear below in order of preference, along with approximate retail prices:

DeLille Cellars, Red Mountain (Washington) Syrah "Doyenne" 2003 ($46):  This is a lovely, highly satisfying wine in every respect, from appearance to aroma to flavor and finish.  The fruit is ripe and seemingly sweet, with deep flavors that easily counterbalance a notable but well measured dose of spicy oak.  Beautifully balanced and completely convincing, this is delicious now and sure to become even more complex and interesting over the next 5-8 years.  94

Dunham, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($45):  In terms of sheer succulence and purity of fruit, this is one of the best wines I've tasted in 2005.  Oak notes are very subdued, and thankfully so, as the fruit is so gorgeously ripe and flavorful that it is best left at center stage.  Very rich and deeply flavored, the wine features absolutely delicious flavors of dark berries and black cherries, with very soft texture and a long, lush finish.  93

Forgeron Cellars (Walla Walla Valley (Washington) Syrah 2002 ($30):  This extremely impressive wine packs a real punch, with very deep flavors based on dark fruit notes.  The tannins are very ripe and rounded, and even those who spurn tannic wines will be glad for their presence in this case, as the wine's fleshy fruit really benefits from their structural contribution.  Excellent!  92

Isenhower, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah "Wild Alfalfa" 2003 ($28):  This is one very showy wine, with extremely ripe fruit and a reported alcohol level of 14.5%, and yet it shows no heat or grapiness at all.  What it does show is very soft, very flavorful primary fruit that is deep and intense and persistent on the palate.  It could easily have withstood lots of assertive oak, but thankfully the winemaker let the strikingly impressive fruit show its stuff.  92

Three Rivers Winery, Walla Walla Valley (Washington) Syrah Ahler Vineyard 2002 ($39):  With admirable complexity accenting impressively intense fruit, this is a standout wine.  Black fruit flavors predominate, with toasty, spicy oak notes serving very nicely in a supporting role.  92

Canoe Ridge Vineyard, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($28):  This excellent wine features soft, ripe fruit that is quite expressive aromatically and very flavorful.  The texture is delightfully rounded, and thanks to subtle use of oak, the wine is ready to drink now, but those with a bit of patience will find it even more complex in another couple of years.  91

Three Rivers Winery, Walla Walla Valley (Washington) Syrah Boushey Vineyards 2003 ($50):  It is pretty pricey, but there's plenty of wine in this bottle, as you'll agree after experiencing its interesting combination of red and black fruit notes.  Seriously concentrated and backed with a formidable dose of oak, this will improve over the next five years.  91

Sapolil Cellars, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($32):  The main attraction in this wine is the flavor of ripe, juicy berries, but in critical terms, the most admirable aspect is excellent integration of structural components. Fruit, acidity, tannin and wood all work together harmoniously to produce an outstanding wine.  91

Amavi Cellars, Walla Walla Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($25):  Intense, persistently flavorful black fruit notes are this wine's most prominent feature.  It stands as evidence of impressive prowess in grape growing and winemaking, as the structural elements of acidity, tannin and wood are very nicely tuned to the weight and impact of the fruit notes.  90

Columbia Crest, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah Reserve 2003 ($30):  Those who have been enjoying Columbia Crest's moderately priced wines over the years may reflexively recoil from one that costs $30, but that is a reflex that you should resist.  Ripe and fruity and even juicy, this is not an overly "serious" wine with a lot of oak and tannin requiring cellaring.  However, it is vivid and exceedingly pleasurable, and just perfect for a garlicky grilled lamb chop.  90

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah Reserve 2002 ($29):  In contrast to its corporate stablemate, the Columbia Crest Reserve 2003, this is precisely a "serious" wine, with lots of oak and tannin that will require some cellaring for the wine to reach its optimal state.  Once it gets there, though, this will be the better wine, as the components are exceptionally strong.  The fruit is intense and flavorful if still somewhat taut, and the oak is appealingly spicy if still just a bit prominent.  When more thoroughly integrated in two or three years, this will be a dynamite wine.  90

Syncline, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah Destiny Ridge Vineyard 2003 ($26):  Serious stuff, but also easy to enjoy, this excellent wine shows lovely lifted aromatics of bright blackberries with nice little oak accents.  Flavors are also bright, with excellent underlying acidity, yet also deep, with impressive ripeness and concentration.  Very well made from strong raw materials, this is a winner.  90

Three Rivers Winery, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2002 ($24):  With fine blackberry fruit showing surprisingly bright acidity for a three year-old wine, this really bears a resemblance to a Côte Rôtie, though the fruit is riper and the perfume a bit less prominent.  Wood notes are well integrated, and the wine is coherent and complete and well worth the money.  89

Townshend Cellar, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2002 ($28):  This wine is all about primary fruit notes, with aromas of both red and black fruits accented by just a little whiff of oak.  Nicely mature already, it will gain in complexity over the next five years.  89

Waterbrook, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2004 ($21):  Simple but gorgeous, this wine features supremely pure fruit notes of ripe black cherries and blackberries, along with just a faint whiff of oak to lend a little contrast.  Juicy and soft and rounded, this is all pleasure and no work, with vivid fruit and lush texture.  89

Barnard Griffin, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2004 ($17):  This wine is still a bit too young to show great complexity, but the raw materials really shine at this early age.  Vivid notes of red cherries and blueberries are very appealing, and the wine is sure to become even more interesting as the primary fruit quiets down and lets some secondary nuances have their say.  87

Reininger, Walla Walla Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($32):  One could reasonably ask for a little more complexity at this price point, but the notes that one finds in this wine are undeniably appealing.  Fresh, juicy notes of berries and cherries are fresh and very tasty.  89

Barrelstone, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($10):  This delicious wine is a great overachiever at a price of $10.  It is ripe and quite smooth but isn't lacking in structure, with just enough tannin to accentuate the tasty fruit notes.  86

Bergevin Lane, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah 2003 ($25):  Although this wine shows a bit more oak than is good for it in my view, it is quite dramatic and sure to be a hit with those who love smoky, toasty wood notes.  Smooth texture and highly polished tannins are also quite notable.  86

Preston, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah Preston Vineyard 2002 ($23):  Striking if not subtle, this showy wine displays impressively dark berry fruit that is effectively set off by bright acidity.  Sadly, excessive oak stands in the way of immediate enjoyment, but this may yet integrate and achieve the potential that is clearly latent in the fine raw materials.  86

Snoqualmie, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah Reserve 2003 ($23):  This is a very solid wine, showing lots of flavor and fine balance between wood and fruit notes.  Ripe but also sufficiently restrained to show Washington's particular profile with Syrah, this is relatively widely distributed and a good introduction to the genre.  86

Avery Lane, Columbia Valley (Washington) Shiraz 2003 ($7):  With very good quality and an extremely attractive price, this is an exemplary bottling.  It displays real depth and guts, with nice flavors of dark berries and black cherries.  85

Hogue, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah "Terroir" 2002 ($25):  It is a bit oaky for my taste, but there's no denying the appeal of this wine's bright berry fruit, as well as its penetrating flavors and bright acidity.  85

Preston, Columbia Valley (Washington) Syrah Gamache Vineyard 2001 ($20):  This wine is likely to spark controversy in almost any group of tasters, as it is earthy to the point of being downright gamey.  Those who love funky Rhône Syrahs are likely to defend it, whereas those who shy from barnyard aromas are likely to offer energetic dissents.  85

Questions?  Comments?  Expressions of outrage?  Send them to me at:  mfranz@winereviewonline.com