Jul
06

Syrah Part 4–Washington–from my point of view

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I should also mention that Syrah is making great strides up in Washington state.

We did a dinner this past January at our Sansei Restaurant in Seattle with Master Sommelier Greg Harrington & wines from his Gramercy Cellars.  Greg is the type of person that looks to excel at whatever he does & has the kind of mind & determination to pull it off.

Since the dinner was held in January, we started working on the pairings in the Fall, months before using wine samples Greg had sent to us.  We all were very taken with his wines, as they were quite provocative, transparent, seamless, well textured & balanced & definitely some of the VERY best we have had from Washington state so far!

What an event!  (you can view the menu & some pictures of a different post–“A Dinner with Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars”).

During the course of the dinner, Greg talked about all of what he sees, understands & believes in what’s happening in Washington wine country.  His wines then clearly re-enforced what he was talking about.  It really was quite the experience.  I knew that night I needed to go visit.

The trip was planned.  Unfortunately Greg would be out of town at the time.  Long time friend/sommelier at the world renown Seattle based Canlis Restaurant, Elton Nichols, however, thankfully put me in touch with winemaker Morgan Lee of Two Vintners.  What timing!  Morgan was going to make a vineyard trek around the time I planned to be there, so we hooked up.

Up to this point in my observation, the Eroica Riesling project certainly had gained prominence, as had the Cabernet & Merlot based red wines from producers such as Andrew Will, Cadence, Doubleback, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole & Seven Hills.  The media certainly had been going gaga over Quilceda Creek, Mark Ryan & Leonetti AND for quite some time.  I was therefore quite surprised that while Morgan made Cabernet & Merlot, his true passion was Syrah.  This was NOT at all what I had expected.

Up to this point I was fascinated with the Syrah based red wines from Gramercy first & foremost, as well as Force Majeure, Reynvaan & Cayuse, just to name a few.  I was even more thankful then tagging along, knowing Morgan was so Syrah enthused & that we would visiting Syrah vineyards.  AND, so serendipitous.

I always feel I can sleep, eat & taste wines at home, but I can’t see vineyards in Hawaii.  So, I was so eager the first morning.  Typically all of my attention is seeing, walking vineyards, hopefully with the respective winemaker.

Our first visit was to the Ancient Lakes appellation & specifically the Evergreen Vineyard.  Planted in 2001 at 1450 feet elevation, 250 of the roughly 450 acres was planted to own rooted Riesling.  These higher elevations help to mitigate the 80 to 100 degree day temperatures with 50 or so degree nights.  The underlying soils is basalt with top soils of wind blown loess.  Driving & walking around in this large site, however, one could readily see “ribbons” of caliche, a white, marine influenced soil.

I cannot help but ask if you are searching to produce a top quality Syrah, doesn’t this soil & cooler growing climate (cool enough for Riesling) spark an interest to ask more questions, especially in terms of suitability for Syrah?

At least, couldn’t it possibly result in a blending component that would add a whole ‘nother dimension to the resulting wine, aromatically, structurally,  character wise & possibly lowering alcohol.  Couldn’t some one just plant 1 to 2 acres just to check it out?

We also went to see Olsen Vineyard in the eastern part of the Yakima appellation.  The vineyard is roughly 1,100 acres planted between 800 to 1350 feet elevation with a varying 5 to 30 degree slopes.  Eventhough the elevation is high, the vineyard looks pretty flat nonetheless, atop basalt bedrock, 18 inches to 3 feet below the loess top soils.  The vineyard produces wonderful Cabernet & Merlot, but this was also the first vineyard I saw Morgan proudly light up when he started talking about the Syrah plantings. 

While there are other vineyards we visited in the general area worth discussing at length, the next real noteworthy Syrah site was the Boushay Vineyard.  Owner Dick Boushay, one of the state’s most iconic & legendary vineyard-ists started planting Syrah I believe in the early 80’s.  His eyes would sparkle when we spoke about Syrah.  And, later, he spent a lot of time tasting & analyzing the 2 German Rieslings AND the 2 French Syrahs I had brought & opened.  He got lost in the wines.  I couldn’t really tell if he was contemplating something of the past, present or future or whether he was assessing the nuances of the wines & comparing them to what he gets out of Washington state wines.  In either case, he took the wines seriously & very thoughtfully, especially the Syrah.  We all talked for hours.  He is a fascinating man to say the least, who I discovered is really fascinated with the Syrah grape variety, eventhough he grows some of the most heralded Cabernet & Merlot  out of the state.  Thank you for the visit.  Sunset was more like 9pm, as we headed to our hotel.

After my first day, I couldn’t help but think…”boy, the vineyards here are large in size & rather flat“.

While Dick Boushay farms in the Yakima Valley & Rattlesnake Hills, I just found out that he has now also taken over the farming of Klipsun Vineyard in Red Mountain.  His comments on the differences between the appellations, especially with Syrah, was an ideal segue to the next day, as we headed to Horse Heaven Hills.  I had previously had visions of steep HILLS.  As we drove to the top, however, it became again quite flat.  A Plateau?  As we drove further & further, I kept wondering why it was called Horse Heaven HILLS. 

Our first stop, however, was the Discovery Vineyard, a 30 acre hillside site which overlooks the Columbia River.  There is 17 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 acres of Syrah & 1 acre of Petit Verdot.  I am sure we were there to check out his Syrah vines.  One could see that Morgan & his team walked with a different bounce to their step at this vineyard.  He was focused on the newer vineyard manager & this time spent in the vineyard together was totally important, especially with some Syrah parcels & its fruit becoming available next harvest AND the specter of new hillside plantings on the horizon!  Yes, this was a Syrah source Morgan was excited about.  AND, when we later tasted a Syrah from this vineyard side by side with a Syrah from this vineyard that another quite acclaimed winemaker made, Morgan’s superior talent & skill was quite evident.  Even the vineyard manager (who also happened to be owner’s son) could see the blatant difference.  His winemaking fit in well with this vineyard’s grapes & created quite a synergy.  4 1/2 hours later……….time well spent.

Morgan dropped me off in Pasco.  It had been a wonderful couple of days….& countless vineyards.  Thank you Morgan!  

The next morning, I was off to meet up with Paul McBride of Force Majeure to see his new plantings on Red Mountain.   Previously Paul worked with fruit from the highly revered Ciel du Cheval vineyard & a collection of very esteemed Washington winemakers—under what they called “Collaboration Series”.  The Red Mountain appellation has roughly 2000 acres planted, & the 110 acre Ciel du Cheval vineyard was planted in 1974 on the lower elevation, seemingly flatter benchland below.  The Force Majeure estate vineyard is 20 acres located on the slopes above Ciel du Cheval vineyard & even above the Col Solare winery on much steeper hillsides, which they planted in 2007.  The soil is wind blown loess atop volcanic basalt AND has a VERY different aspect than the flatter Ciel du Cheval parcel down below.  Interestingly, this vineyard is planted to roughly 50% Bordeaux varietals & 50% Rhone varietals (6 acres of Syrah), all on their own roots.  As good & highly acclaimed as the Force Majeure wines are today, watch what happens over the next 10 years, starting with the 2014 vintage.  

In addition, former Ciel du Cheval vineyard manager, Ryan Johnson is also planting at higher elevations up on Red Mountain.  Extreme sites like this are quite breathtaking, but whose to say the resulting wines will be good?   Still, I plan to keep an eye on this project nonetheless……who will get the fruit & who will make the wines.

The next 2 days were in Walla Walla wine country, riding around with Brandon Moss, co-winemaker of the highly revered Gramercy Cellars.  Where Greg Harrington provides the vision, Brandon provides the energy.  Yes, he is a bundle of passion & unbridled energy.  Wow!  I am so thankful & grateful for his guidance, time, insight & packing so much into the 2 days. 

We start off in the “Rocks”, which interestingly actually crosses into Milton Freewater Oregon.  Steve Robertson is one of the founding pioneers/champions of the “Rocks” appellation & gave us a wealth of information–history, geology, climatically, geographically & where he sees everything headed to.  Rising above his 10 acre “SBJ vineyard” (planted in 2007) is the Seven Hills estate vineyard into higher elevations.  Wow, Rocks are everywhere.  Round cobblestones.  His vineyard is on the western boundary & much warmer than let’s say the Cayuse planting.  Even so, because the sites are low lying, they differently are vulnerable to the cold.  I therefore saw so many vines affected by the “killing freeze”.

When I later tasted the Syrahs from this area, I found them to be very unique & interesting–wonderfully savory, generous, luscious & very warm–which is quite the contrast to the minerally, meaty, higher toned, lower alcohol versions made from cooler sites.  Again, one style is not better, just different & therefore a preference thing.  

From there, we drove to the Northfolk area, which apparently is currently one of the new “hotpots” for grape growing, especially for the Rhone varieties.  Our first stop was the Elevation Vineyard” to walk the site with vineyard manager Ryan Driver.  The 15 acres (planted in 2013) is located at roughly 1700 feet elevation with basalt soils & gusting winds (which means NO frost issues to date) which literally pounds the vines.  The eastern slopes range from 110 degrees during the day to 70’s at night.  The Terraces are more in the 95 degree–daytime & 70’s at night.  They planted at least 9 different grape varieties, but its seems everyone is clamoring for the Syrah (Phelps vine selection), planted 3 feet by 3 feet vine density.  This is certainly a vineyard we will keep an eye on.

On this trip, I found this VERY dramatic hillside is for the most part an anomaly in comparison to the other sites I had visited.  Most of the other noted, revered vineyards, although located at high elevations, sway instead & therefore look rather flat to the naked eye.  Gramercy Cellars, for instance draws Syrah from their 6 acre estate JB George vineyard (850 feet in elevation), which is located by the Pepper Bridge planting; their 8 acre estate Forgotten Hills (1050 feet elevation at the base of the Blue Mountains); Les Collines (1100 to 1400 feet elevation); Old Field (Boushay farmed, 1315 feet in elevation) in the cooler Yakima Valley; Minick Vineyard (1400 feet elevation) near the town of Prosser; Red Willow (1100 to 1300 feet elevation) & their warmest site–Olsen Vineyard (1150 feet) in the Rattlesnake Hills.

Furthermore, the soils are more about wind blown loess, often with basalt sub-soils.  In addition, because the vines are own rooted (it seemed like all, although I am not sure), it appears to be a slow process to try & bring in any new vine material.  (I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for the caution).

The point being, the Force Majeure estate & Ryan Johnson Syrah plantings on Red Mountain; the “Rocks”; Matt Reynvaan’s planting at 1600 feet elevation in the foothills of the Blue Mountains & the extreme Elevation Vineyard in Northfolk I surmise are the inklings of a new era in Washington for the Syrah grape variety as the vines get older & older & are followed by subsequent plantings.

This will most likely create other challenges, specifically costs for one.  Imagine buying vineyard sites at today’s prices?  Then the cost of planting meter by meter (or even denser) today, AND on these VERY rocky hillsides?  Then imagine the cost of farming (& harvesting) the radical parcels of the Elevation Vineyard versus the costs for the seemingly “flatter” vineyards?  Where I found the costs for grapes in the more western areas (such as Yakima, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills &  Wahluke Slope) to be surprisingly low in comparison to what I hear from California, the looming question is what will happen in the future?

Stay tuned………

Categories : General, Red, Wine, Wine Thoughts

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