Spirit Guide—Washington State
WA's Up—Syrah takes centre stage in Washington state.
Washington wine is a conundrum. It’s our closest American wine region, but for every bottle of WA wine we see up here, there are 10 from California. Its marquee cabernet, the legendary Quilceda Creek, gets scores that would be the envy of cult California cabs that cost four times as much (100 points from Robert Parker four times in the last decade); merlots from Leonetti and the like get respect even from pinot noir snobs. So why doesn’t the average wine drinker shower Washington with love? I suspect part of the problem may be the lack of a signature grape variety (something the Okanagan should take note of). Say Napa, think cabernet. Say Oregon, think pinot. But say Washington and… ’excellent value across a wide variety of grapes’ just doesn’t have that sweet a ring.
But that might change with the superlative syrahs that are being released. It’s probably a great fit because syrah is something of a conundrum too. It’s the signature grape of France’s Rhône region, forming the backbone of such famous wines as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage, but as great as those wines are, they’ve never reached the cultural saturation that the great wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux have. What the grape lacked in prestige it made up for in volume when it underwent a hemispherical name change to shiraz and led the big Aussie red domination of the 1990s and early ’00s that we’re still reeling from.
Which brings us to Washington syrah. It’s tempting to say that it’s the perfect bridge between the finesse of France and the fruit of Oz, but the irony is that the good Aussie wines are getting more disciplined and an alarming number of Rhône wines are becoming high-alcohol monsters, which for my money leaves Washington as the most exciting syrah region in the world right now. If there is a signature style, it’s a savoury glove, like a tobacco leaf-wrapped roast, with the juicy, fruity characteristics taking the passenger seat. They have the lighter touch and higher acidity levels that great Rhône wines have, at a fraction of the price. A good start is the 2010 1. Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah($27) Smith made his name with the high-end K Syrah, which continues to be a standard-bearer for the state, but with the Boom Boom he’s brought the soul of a great syrah to a manageable price point. It’s big and the fruit is right there, but it’s still pleasing without being cloying. Moving up the price ladder is Efeste, a wonderful small producer that makes its wines, like the 2. Jolie Bouche Syrah ($51) , in Woodinville, just north of Seattle. (The grapes are from the famed Boushey vineyard in Yakima.)
But it’s at the top rung where things get really interesting. In addition to K Syrah, there’s the versions from the amazing 3. Gramercy Cellars($75), and French transplant Christophe Baron’s Cayuse and its insanely good offshoot No Girls. These wines are all under $100, hellishly hard to find and well worth the effort for the world’s most exciting syrah.WL