Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #30 - Strong Syrah Rootstocks in Walla Walla

WBW's assignment no. 30 is New World Syrah. Since the majority of wines I write are from the Walla Walla Valley in Washington State, I decided to go back to Syrah's beginning in the Walla Walla Valley.

Syrah didn’t arrive in Washington until the mid-1980s, and the first bottled Syrah in the state, made by Columbia Winery from the Red Willow vineyard planted by winemaker David Lake, wasn’t released until 1988. Syrah's story in Walla Walla begins more recently than that -- in 1995, in fact, when Berle "Rusty" Figgins opened Glen Fiona Winery. Does the Figgins name sound familar? It might. Rusty's brother, Gary, is owner and winemaker of one of Washington State's famous cult wines, Leonetti Cellar. Leonetti is known for their world famous Merlots and Cabernets, but Rusty chose another route to make his mark in Washington wine history. From Walla Walla to Wagga Wagga, Australia, he studied winemaking and viticulture, and along the way he learned to work with the grape called Shiraz in Australia and Syrah in its ancestral home, France's Rhone Valley. Rusty was just the third winemaker in Washington to work with this classic red. Indeed, soon Rusty was called the "Shah of Syrah."

Like a rolling stone, Rusty has moved on from Glen Fiona, but the winery still makes fine Rhone-style wines. The 2000 Glen Fiona Walla Walla Valley Syrah was co-fermented with Viognier, a white-wine grape, in the traditional style of Côte-Rôtie. It's a very aromatic wine, with a blueish-blackish color, smoky undertones, and a hint of licorice and black pepper. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to do a little lab work on some Glen Fiona Syrahs that were still in the barrel: they were inky, almost black, and provided a big mouthful of berries and licorice. From the barrel to bottle, they are still as complex.

What is it that makes eastern Washington, especially the Walla Walla Valley, ideal for Syrah? The Rhône Valley has a similar climate, especially in the hot summer, and a similar amount of sunlight. Christophe Paubert, the Bordeaux-born winemaker at Canoe Ridge Vineyard in Walla Walla, has remarked that quality in red wine begins in the skin, which is profoundly affected by sunlight. “Syrah in France can be floral and spicy, here it is concentrated with nice tannins. I think the best Syrah from here can compete with the best French Syrah,” he told my significant-wine-other Steve, who wrote about Syrah for the Mid-Columbian, an Eastern Washington magazine.

But when grapes ripen too fast from too much sun, the sugar rises without an accompanying increase in the critical flavor components called phenolics, so control of sunlight and heat is critical in a Walla Walla Valley Syrah vineyard. Syrah ripens in cooler temperatures than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but the cold, like sunlight, needs to be watched and controlled as well. Christophe Baron at Cayuse Vineyards, who I've written about previously, likes the rocky terrain south of Walla Walla; the rocks there retain heat in the chilly autumn nights, helping to finish the ripening of his Syrah in the crucial days just prior to harvest and crush. The result is a signature style for Cayuse vineyard-designated Syrahs: huge, rich and powerful.

Another winemaker from abroad attracted to the possibilities of Syrah in Washington is John Duval, who is known for putting Penfold’s "The Grange" Shiraz on the wine map -- this Australian wine is one of the finest red wines in the world. Now Duval has joined with Walla Walla-based Long Shadows Vintners, a team of high-profile winemakers from all over the world who make high-end speciality wines under the leadership of Allen Shoup, former CEO of St. Michelle, and with local winemaking advice from Gilles Nicault. John says he's attracted to the elegance and spicy character of the Washington Syrah grapes, as these qualities remind him of the best Syrah in France. The elegant Syrah he makes for Long Shadows is named "Sequel."

But Long Shadows, Cayuse and Glen Fiona aren't the only Walla Walla wineries making great Syrah these days. I think quite a few of our local winemakers make delicious wine from Syrah -- and it's in a distinctive Washington style, too, which is lush and complex, yet refined at the same time. You won't go wrong with Syrah from any of these Walla Walla wineries: Buty, Forgeron Cellars, Isenhower, L’Ecole, Morrison Lane, Reininger, Rulo or Spring Valley, among others.


winecast said...

Very interesting history and a great tasting note.

Tim Elliott

Jennifer said...

I always learn so much from you!

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