Good local syrah goes unsung

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Even as Washington wines are gaining national recognition, my frequent-flyer friends in the business assure me, the industry continues its growing pains.

The decades-long exploration of new (to this state) varietals has been turbocharged by the dozens and dozens of mini-wineries making their debuts, all seeking to carve out a niche.

They want to offer consumers something other than the usual red wines, so they turn to barbera, primitivo, sangiovese, tempranillo and zinfandel in search of distinction.

By and large, distinction eludes them. Rare among them is the bottle that displays any semblance of varietal character.

Worse yet, so many of these $25-to-$30 bottles are popping up that they don't even separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

This is a many-faceted problem.

Inexperienced winemakers are a big part of it.

They often try to make a statement with a new (to them) grape, a lot of new (expensive) oak barrels and a fancy package. It all costs money, hence the high prices for so-so wines.

Not many vineyards are growing these unusual grapes, and they are almost all recent plantings.

So these boutique wineries are sourcing grapes from the same places, and with rare exceptions they are not in a position to manage their rows (if they even have designated rows) aggressively.

So they are getting young, perhaps overcropped fruit to begin with -- and you can't make great wine from so-so grapes.

Will Washington ever produce versions of the grapes named above that can stand with this state's best reds? I certainly wouldn't rule it out. But it's going to be a long, hard slog.

Meanwhile, a relatively new grape that could be a bona fide superstar is languishing on retail shelves.

Washington syrahs have been disproportionately represented on my annual Seattle Times Top 100 lists for the past few years.

As I go through each year's worth of tasting notes, it surprises me to see how many syrahs stand out.

A decade ago fewer than 20 Washington wineries were making syrah.

Today I would guesstimate that roughly half of our 660-plus wineries are making syrah, and most produce multiple bottlings.

And yet with few exceptions -- Cayuse, K Vintners, Betz and one or two others -- syrah has become a really tough sell.

There are many theories as to why: a lack of good examples priced less than $15; uncertainty as to what Washington syrah is supposed to taste like; and the easy availability of tasty, inexpensive, syrah-based wines from southern France.

I do not see a clear future for syrah in Washington, but I am quite certain that the grape thrives here.

It is exceptionally expressive of place. Yakima Valley syrah, Wahluke/Royal Slope syrah, Walla Walla Valley syrah, Red Mountain syrah, Horse Heaven Hills syrah -- even Lake Chelan syrah -- are all different and distinctive. More than any other grape in Washington, syrah lends itself to multiple, single-vineyard offerings for exactly this reason.

The grape has a chameleon-like ability to reflect specific growing conditions without becoming too green or too jammy.

Syrah does not need to be soaked in oak to perform well. Some sites produce citrus flavors, a streak of lemon/lime zest that adds lift and life.

From other sites, smoky, meaty, tannic and peppery flavors emerge.

Here's a chance to taste a wide variety of syrahs and other Rh?ne varietals.

The Rh?ne Rangers and FareStart are sponsoring "Guest Chef on the Waterfront'' at Pier 66 on July 14.

Tickets are $75. More information at www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/seattletrade.php.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries.'' Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

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