Now that fall is upon us with cooler nights and heartier food, I start thinking about red wines again, and one of my favorites is Syrah from Washington state.
Syrah has one other main name: Shiraz. The name “Shiraz” is thought to come from the ancient capital of Iran, and there is some speculation that the vine originated in Iran.
Today, the names are mainly used to describe the stylistic differences of the wine. Syrah typically is Old World in style: bigger, more powerful, tannic and smoky. The Rhône Valley in France is where this style dominates.
Syrah plays an important role as a blending grape: It lifts the mid-palate and makes a more complete wine. In France, it tends to be blended with Grenache and Mouvedre for Cote du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for which it is one of the 13 allowed varietals.
Shiraz tends to be more New World in style: riper, more fruit-forward and more peppery, with chocolate notes. Shiraz is more closely affiliated with Australia, where James Bugsby planted the first vines in the 1830s. The vines do particularly well in the hot climate, and Shiraz tends to have an affinity for American oak.
Shiraz is also blended in Australia mainly with Grenache and Mouvedre.
Today, about 40 percent of all wine produced in Australia is Shiraz, making it the most popular wine in the country.
In the 1970s, Syrah started its move to other areas — California being one of the main regions.
WA Syrahs are the best of both worlds: the fruit of an Australian Shiraz, along with the earthiness of the Rhône.
Washington state started with an experimental block planted at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley by David Lake from Columbia Winery. Lake brought cuttings up from California and planted them in 1985.
The first wine labeled as a Syrah was released in 1988 from Columbia Winery. I actually remember that wine: It was so different than anything else out there at the time.
Dick Boushey from Boushey Vineyard, also in the Yakima Valley, planted Syrah early on at the request of winemaker Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars.
Syrah from Boushey is among the best in the state. It is known for being closer to the style of Northern Rhône: smoke, meat and roasted earth.
This is my personal favorite style of Syrah from Washington state. Other Yakima Valley vineyards that make amazing Syrahs are Dineen and Sheridan.
Stevens Winery makes a great Yakima Valley Syrah, “Black Tongue.” A good look at the label finds winemaker Tim Steven’s tongue.
Sheridan Winery also makes a delicious Syrah from Yakima Valley.
Red Mountain tends to produce big, over-the-top Syrahs, in keeping with the typical style of Red Mountain wines. There are a few producers who make both a Red Mountain and a Yakima Valley Syrah, showcasing the differences in these AVAs and Vineyards. Efeste makes Jolie Bouche from Boushey Vineyard and Ceidleigh from Red Mountain.
Betz Family Winery actually makes three different Syrahs: one from Red Mountain, La Côte Rousse; one from Boushey Vineyard, La Serenne; and one from Red Willow, using 25 year old vines, La Côte Patriarche (named after David Lake).
A few other great Red Mountain Syrahs come from Gorman, Mark Ryan and Force Majeure (formerly Grand Reve).
Walla Walla Valley also is known for some exceptional Syrah — most notably, Cayuse (good luck getting ahold of any of this), Reynvaan Family Vineyards (named the Best New Winery for 2012 by Seattle Magazine) and Rotie Cellars’ Northern Blend, which is blended with Viognier. Blending Viognier with Syrah stabilizes the color and adds aromatics to the wine.
Today, there are more than 3,000 acres of Syrah planted in Washington state, making it the No. 3 planted red-grape varietal behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. At least one-third of Washington producers make one or more versions of this grape.
Here, the grape is also blended with other Rhône varietals, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon (where it is nicknamed “Washington Bordeaux”).
A few of my favorite Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon blends are Efeste’s Final Final, Doyenne’s AIX and Gorman’s Zachary’s Ladder. A few other Washington producers whose Syrahs I love are Cuillin Hills’ The Dungeon, Alexandria Nicole Cellars’ Jet Black, Page Cellars and Novelty Hill.
Enjoy a Syrah from Washington state with lamb, a beef stew, cassoulet and other hearty fall fare!
JEFFREY DORGAN, the Washington Wine Commission’s 2009 Sommelier of the Year, is the wine director at Sullivan’s in Downtown Seattle. He previously worked at Willow’s Lodge/Barking Frog in Woodinville and at the Space Needle. To comment on this column, write to