When Yakima Valley grape grower Mike Sauer teamed with the late David Lake of Columbia Winery in 1986 to plant Washington state’s first Syrah vines at Red Willow Vineyard, they probably had high hopes for a new varietal, a chance to diversify their grape crop and make a little money.
Three decades later, it’s clear they were right in their belief that the Northwest could grow great grapes from Syrah vines. What they likely didn’t foresee is that their experiment would spawn a Rhône wine revolution that would spill out of Washington, south to Oregon, east to Idaho and even north of the border into British Columbia.
That first Syrah planting sparked a rapid rise in the grape’s popularity to the No. 3 spot among red wines in acres planted. In a bit of an ironic twist, that Yakima Valley planting also would help inspire Walla Walla-area grape growers and winemakers to try the varietal that eventually would fortify the Walla Walla Valley’s reputation as a great place both to grow grapes and make wine.
The Washington State Wine Commission’s 2018 grape acreage report tallied 4,572 acres of Syrah in the state. That’s about half the amount for Merlot (9,071 acres) and about a quarter of the 18,608 acres planted in Cabernet Sauvignon. But from 2011 to 2017, Syrah acreage grew by 47%, keeping it firmly entrenched among the state’s top reds.
So it wasn’t too surprising that, when Wine Press Northwest called for entries for its Syrah judging for the magazine’s Spring issue, wineries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho responded by submitting 174 examples. What was surprising was the array of vintages, spanning 2009 to 2019, certainly one of the largest evaluations of Syrah ever conducted in the Northwest.
The bulk of the wines that rated “Outstanding!” — the top rating category and the equivalent of a gold medal — were from two years of Syrah that are clearly in their prime, 2016 and 2017. Interestingly, one of the top-rated wines came from Red Willow Vineyard’s famed Chapel Block, just north of the original planting.
The entries came from an array of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) across the three states, ranging from the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon to Lake Chelan in Northcentral Washington from north to south and from the Washington’s Cascade foothills in the Yakima Valley to the Snake River Valley in Idaho. (It’s noteworthy that award-winning Syrahs also are produced even farther north in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys of British Columbia.)
Although most of us in the Northwest tend to think of the earthy, spicy, high-alcohol, black and blue fruit-laden versions that come from such top AVAs as Walla Walla and Red Mountain, our region’s vineyards also produce cool-climate examples from areas such as Lake Chelan.
Besides making great red wines, Northwest Syrah has proved it also can be turned into an elegant, light-on-its-feet rosé that won’t break the bank. In 2018, winemaker Victor Palencia crafted a Rosé of Syrah for Jones of Washington that sells for a mere $14 from Ancient Lakes fruit and won a Platinum award in Wine Press’s annual fall competition in 2019 for the region’s gold medal wines.
Northwest Syrah has become a favorite blending grape as well. A flood of Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM) blends emerge from every vintage nowadays to the delight of our region’s wine buffs and appear to trail only Bordeaux-style blends in popularity.
These blends have also helped give some lesser-known Rhône grapes a turn in the spotlight, including Grenache, Mourvèdre and Counoise, which now are regularly made in single-varietal versions.
In addition, Syrah helped introduce the Northwest to the Rhône’s white wine varieties, especially Viognier, which in France regularly is blended into that region’s red wines. And as Viognier showed promise across the Northwest, especially in cooler climate areas, it also helped spike interest in other Rhône whites, including Marsanne, Roussanne, Picpoul and Grenache Blanc.
A few of the region’s winemakers also have turned Syrah into sparkling wine, including Treveri Cellars in Wapato in the Yakima Valley at an affordable $20-$24.
We hope our judging will encourage you to try the array of fine Northwest wines that Sauer and Lake’s experiment has inspired. We doubt you’ll be disappointed. No matter what kind of wine you prefer, Northwest Syrah offers stunning versatility.
Wine words: Amphora aging
In the wine world, aging in amphora is among the oldest of the category of “everything old is new again.” In the past decade or so, a few winemakers have readopted one of the oldest ways of storing wine, the large, two-handled ancient pottery vessels known as amphorae in Latin, from the Greek word amphoreus.
Starting perhaps as early as 6,000 B.C., once potters began turning out clay vessels, somebody decided to put liquids such as water, wine and olive oil into them. For wine, two-handled jugs emerged, typically able to hold about 50 liters or less, which means a weight of about 110 pounds. They have never totally gone out of use, but were mostly supplanted with glass once the technology developed.
But, like concrete eggs, they have become a bit trendy for wine aging. Among the claims made are they impart no flavors, allow a bit of oxygenation, so the wine inside ages a bit, and they are rather temperature stable, adopting the indoor (usually cellar) temperature and are largely unaffected by brief temperature changes.
In the Northwest, winemaker and grape grower Andrew Beckham in Sherwood, Ore., is among the proponents of amphora aging, which is no surprise: He’s a longtime ceramics instructor at Beaverton High School. Scholars of ancient pottery would likely call his vessels pithoi, from the ancient Greek name for larger containers. His versions require up to 900 pounds of clay and retail for $2,900, according to a recent Wine Press Northwest article. And the resulting A.D. Beckham wines produced with his terra cotta amphorae are among the most distinctive on the West Coast.
KEN ROBERTSON, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.
This story was originally published March 26, 2020 4:57 PM.