Washington State is not all as rainy as Seattle. It’s hard to imagine growing grapes in Washington until you realize there is a rainshadow effect that stops the rain heading too far east, barely making it past the Cascades Mountains. Nestled between that mountain range and the Rockies is the Columbia Valley where the majority of Washington wines are produced. Shayn Bjornholm, M.S. and educational director for the Washington Wine Commission, said the area is ideal for growing grapes because although the region is techically a semi-continental desert, there is a 40 degree shift at night that allows the grapes to cool. We focused on Syrah, which is quickly becoming Washington’s signature varietal. The area is peppered with old, dormant volcanoes. The evidence is in the soil, which is rich with basalt. It drains well and lends an old-world minerality that is rare on this side of the Atlantic. Technical Alert: Washington does not have to graft their vines to combat Phylloxera. The little pests cannot thrive in Washington because of the intense heat and wind (correction: sandy soil). With very few exceptions, most vines must be grafted from France to Napa. Washington is one of about three or four regions worldwide that can survive without grafting. Of course it could be said that these Syrahs will show a natural expression of the fruit than cannot be achieved even in the Rhone region of France where the grape is indigenous. They’re studying this. I’m sure once they can prove that’s true, we’ll all hear about it. Follow the jump for tasting notes for six outstanding Syrahs.
2006 Waters, Columbia Valley — Made from 100 percent Yakima Valley fruit. It is a cooler climate Syrah, so it shows red and black fruit and subtle pepper and meaty notes.
2005 Columbia Crest Reserve, Horse Heaven Hills — This Syrah has slightly floral notes from the addition of a small amount of Viognier to the blend. Horse Heaven Hills is windy and warm. The wine shows more spice, black pepper, and black fruit.
2006 McCrea, Ciel du Cheval, Red Mountain — The Red Mountain AVA is known for its big reds. Cabernet Sauvignon does wonderfully here, but you’ll also find big tannic Syrahs as well. The 2006 is packed with ripe, jammy fruit flavors. Think structure and elegance.
2006 Milbrandt, Legacy, Columbia Valley — The classic bouquet of a Syrah. It is clean and consistent with a blend of 4 percent Mourvedre.
2005 Va Piano, Walla Walla Valley — It is a blend from many vineyards around Washington including Red Mountain and Yakima Valley. The result is a Syrah with finesse and a solid tannic backbone.
2005 Gramercy, Walla Walla Valley — This is Rhone-esque. It has a dusty nose and is followed by a gorgeous, velvety mouthfeel. It is high in acid, making it a perfect food wine. Pair with wine and other high-fat foods.