Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt
Syrah grape is finally catching on in Washington with growers and consumers
Wine competes for consumers' discretionary dollars against other lifestyle and entertainment products, which means it is subject to the same sort of quirky trends and fads that impact popular music, film or fashion. The more people get interested in wine, the more inclined they are to experiment. The fickle fancy of the wine-drinking public rarely lands on one grape for very long.
In the early years of the Washington wine industry, chenin blanc and lemberger were two pretty popular choices. Pinot noir came and went; semillon never did catch on; riesling was in, then out, now it's back in again.
Casey McClellan, who has been growing grapes and making wine in Walla Walla for two decades, thinks that some growers will be ripping out merlot this spring, looking to replace it with more winter-hardy, trendier varietals. What's hot right now? Rhone grapes, Bordeaux blending grapes, pinot gris, riesling and even tempranillo. McClellan has just released his first tempranillo, a 2002 from a new vineyard he planted in 1999, and it is a beauty.
But no grape has captured consumer interest in recent years as has syrah.
Syrah was barely a statistical blip in Washington a decade ago. Columbia's David Lake and grower Mike Sauer cultivated the first syrah vines here in the mid-1980s, and Columbia made its first syrah in 1988. Along with Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, they took syrah from an unknown, experimental fringe grape to superstar status in roughly a decade.
"I think people expect to see syrah in your tasting room," says winemaker Holly Turner of Three Rivers winery. "They prefer syrah over cabernet or other Bordeaux varietals."
Despite its growing popularity, says Seven Hills' McClellan, "out in the hinterlands they still don't know if it's a grape. But people are definitely less afraid of it." Though the total syrah tonnage in Washington has increased eight-fold in the past five years, it is still just a third that of cabernet and merlot, the two leaders. Most of the more than 50 wineries offering at least one syrah in their portfolio make it in very small quantities, which tends to drive up the price and add cachet. We all want what is difficult to have, don't we?
It's easy to see the appeal of Washington syrahs. Most are vividly fruity wines that seem to capture the essence of ripe summer berries. They are saturated, beautiful wines to look at, purple-blue in color and sweetly scented. In many instances they fit the popular fondness for jammy, rich, alcoholic wines that offer big, forward, fruit-driven flavors. By and large you will want to drink them young.
So far, I find relatively few Washington syrahs that suggest much of the complexity of wines from the northern Rhone. Nor do they offer the unctuous, impossibly ripe, meaty flavors of the top Aussie bottlings. But they are great spring and summertime red wines, not as serious as the big cabs and merlots, and ready to enjoy from the minute they are bottled.
Two great wines from Walla Walla
It's a trite but true statement in the wine biz that great wines are made in the vineyard, not the winery. Therefore, a winery based upon a vineyard, with a grower/owner who has a track record of excellence in vineyard management, is likely to have a significant advantage over its peers.
Beresan Winery (the name refers to a region in the Ukraine) is owned by Tom Waliser, a Walla Walla native, apple grower and vineyard manager. For the past decade or more, Waliser has managed Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills, the two biggest vineyards in the valley, and consulted to several other local growers. Given that Walla Walla has only about 1,000 acres of grapes under cultivation, it's fair to say he is the Big Dog.
In 1998 he planted his own Waliser and Yellow Jacket vineyards, 18 acres in all. The first small crop was harvested in 2001, and along with grapes purchased from Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills, made into a few hundred cases of Beresan Cabernet Sauvignon and Beresan Stone River Red.
These are great wines. They immediately suggest that Beresan, if Waliser and winemaker Thomas Glase do not stumble, will quickly join the top ranks of Washington wineries. These first wines are already there; all that is missing is a track record.
Given their limited production and brilliant flavors, the $25 price tag on these wines seems like a gift to consumers. Too many Washington newbies introduce their first or second vintages at prices double, triple or quadruple Beresan's, for wines nowhere near as good. It is a true act of respect for those who have pioneered this industry that Waliser has elected to keep his wines affordable.
The 2001 Beresan Stone River Red Wine is a deep, dark, mouth-filling wine powered by ripe black cherry and blackberry fruit. The 2001 Beresan Cabernet Sauvignon is less about raw power, yet still balanced and supple, with flavors of red berries and currants, pepper and herb, and a pleasing finish of moderate oak.
Sold direct from the winery (509-522-9912) and also showing up in a few specialty shops and on select lists around town, these are wines to chase down in a hurry before the word is out.
Paul Gregutt's column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com
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