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Pacific Northwest | January 23, 2005Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 23, home Home delivery

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The State of Syrah
Washington’s crop is still searching for a unique identity

While the state’s syrahs have made a big splash with some good wines from more than 60 makers, they’ve yet to make a distinctive name for themselves in the way that rieslings, cabs and especially merlots have.
While the state's syrahs have made a big splash with some good wines from more than 60 makers, they’ve yet to make a distinctive name for themselves in the way that rieslings, cabs and especially merlots have.

NOT LONG AGO you could count the number of Washington wineries making syrah on one hand. Now it's become difficult to find a Washington winery that doesn't make it. The grape, first planted here in the mid-1980s, quickly went from being an experiment to a curiosity to a sought-after rarity; now, it's become a phenomenon.

With more than 60 wineries making syrah, and some of them, such as McCrea Cellars and K Vintners, making five or more each year, it might seem as if consumers are awash in the stuff. But case quantities are small, and the wines sell out quickly, so there is no glut, nor any hint of one.

Try One of These

Yalumba 2001 Barossa Shiraz; $16. Yalumba makes a huge variety of quality shirazes. The Barossa bottling is a significant improvement over the excellent "Y" Series. Licorice, black cherry and plum flavors fill the mouth; a nice peppery bite to the back.

Kangarilla Road 2002 McLaren Vale; $18. High-altitude flavors; tightly defined, racy raspberry fruit; intense, concentrated, squeaky clean and very long.

Marquis Philips 2003 Shiraz; $18. The Roogle (half kangaroo, half eagle) is on the front label. Blockbuster 15.5 percent alcohol, massive concentration, very supple, varietal fruit flavors; finishes with delicious layers of mocha and roasted coffee.

Tintara 2002 "McLaren Vale" Shiraz; $18. A distinctly Bordeaux-like framework, tight and muscular, with a cranberry and cassis core. Cabernet-like flavors of graphite and pencil lead poke through, though it is reported as 100 percent syrah. Good for the cellar.

Mitolo 2002 "The Jester" Shiraz; $20. Ben Glaetzer's entry-level bottling is focused and brambly, with young-vine red fruits and subtle hints of chocolate.

Jim Barry 2000/2001 "McRae Wood" Shiraz; $32. Smooth, tannic, layered with stewed fruits, spice, clove and complex barrel flavors. Both vintages tasted, both recommended.

Bindi 2001 "Bundaleer" Shiraz; $40. An astonishing, complex mix of cooked fruits, baking spices, strawberry preserves and some lightly grassy herbal flavors.

Among Washington's best are the syrahs of Amavi, Beresan, Betz Family, Cayuse, Columbia, Columbia Crest Reserve, DeLille, Dunham, Fidélitas, K, McCrea, Reininger, Rulo, Saviah, Syncline and Three Rivers. For budget bottles, look to Covey Run, Snoqualmie and (again) Columbia Crest.

It's easy to see why Washington syrahs have ignited such consumer interest. These are vividly fruity wines that beautifully capture the essence of ripe summer berries. They are saturated, dense purple/blue in color and sweetly scented. Many of them satisfy the popular fondness for jammy, rich, alcoholic wines with their fat, forward, fruit-driven flavors.

In fact, Washington syrah has been such a success that it has steamrolled right past the who am I/what am I? adolescent angst that Washington cabernet and merlot suffered through.

But being a wine scribe, I like to poke at questions of identity. Washington rieslings, cabernets and especially merlots have made a place for themselves outside the state, establishing, through vintners' hard work and a lot of trial and error, identities unique to this region.

Can syrah do the same?

Washington's other red wines have stylistically defined themselves as straddling the narrow border where Old World (meaning French) grace meets New World (meaning California) power. The syrahs are now striking a similar balance. Only here, the New World region that matters most is not California but Australia.

In fact, it was during two recent dinners featuring syrahs from talented young Australian winemakers that I began seriously to chew on this identity question. I chewed away while tasting wines (called shiraz in Australia) that seemed to break the usual flavor mold, raising the bar for all Australian shiraz.

The dinners were organized by Jon Rimmerman of Garagiste, a Seattle-based retailer of limited-production, terroir-driven wines from around the world. The first one, at El Gaucho, featured a dazzling array of wines from Ben Glaetzer, produced under a variety of labels including Amon Ra, Glaetzer and Mitolo. The second, at Lark, orchestrated chef John Sundstrom's tour-de-force cuisine with equally thrilling wines from Michael Dhillon of Bindi.

What was striking about these was that they were not just good in the way we expect — dense, jammy fruit and lots of smoky tannins. They offered more complex and lingering pleasures.

"My style tends to be generosity and purity of flavor," Glaetzer explained, adding "all of these wines are animated, alive and reflect the personality of the vintage."

Dhillon defined his wines, which also include pinot noir and chardonnay, as emphasizing "fragrance, purity, delicacy and intensity."

Instead of depending on extreme levels of sugar and super-saturation in new oak barrels, both winemakers look to the land to provide markers for their syrahs.

As I tasted through more than 100 wines for this article, I found that this idea of a distinct identity became more and more important. I wanted wines that were not just good but individualistic. I wanted a sense of place. That comes from having the right place to begin with, of course. But it also takes a winemaker who knows how to leave well enough alone, and respect what the vine and the land are putting forth.

It is important for anyone making syrah in Washington to taste the best that Australia has to offer. Put them alongside the great syrahs of France's northern Rhone Valley. Then see if there isn't the opportunity, at many sites throughout Eastern Washington, to grow distinctive syrah that can stand with the world's finest.

Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times. He can be contacted at Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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