Washington Syrah; A Tasting of Terroir (Part 1 of a 2 Part series)

Washington grows wine that can stand up to wine from anywhere else, and our Syrah is no exception. We all have particular expectations of what we'll get from a glass of Syrah. Though Syrah grown in France will be quite different from a Syrah grown in Washington, the Syrahs grown in Washington have elements in common. Within those commonalities, however, are subtle differences that come from the growing regions spread across the state.

I wanted to invite some friends over to explore the subtleties that exist in four different Washington Syrahs, all from 2006. The Syrahs came from of Walla Walla valley, the Wahluke Slope, and two examples of Yakima Valley: Red Mountain and the Boushey Vineyard. A friend, Craig Nickel, happens to be Cellarmaster for DeLille Cellars, and agreed to lead us through the tastings and give us the dirt on Washington's terroir. (Oh, that's a good one.)

We were lucky enough to have the cooperation of four wineries for this event; the wines were provided by Delille Cellars, K Vintners, Laurelhurst Cellars and Fielding Hills. Today's post will cover the Walla Walla Valley and Wahluke slope Syrahs; tomorrow we'll talk about the Yakima Valley Syrahs.

We started out in the Wahluke Slope. Wahluke is the Native term for "watering place," and it is Washington's 8th AVA. Originally dominated by Riesling and Chardonnay, the Wahluke Slope trademark sandy and gravelly soil now boast 80% red wine varietals, including some of the best Merlot in the state. The 2006 Fielding Hills Syrah ($40) from the Riverbend Vineyard represented the Wahluke Slope. Fielding Hills is a family owned winery that has been in operation since 2000, making small lot premium wines that are given lots of care and attention. They have developed an excellent reputation as one of Washington's fine winemakers.

The Fielding Hills Syrah was a very nice example of the trademark Wahluke Slope characteristics. The wine had a beautiful ruby color, slightly lighter than the other three Syrahs we'd taste, with smoky berry notes to match. It was as the most peppery of the Syrahs we tasted, which Craig pointed out is a trademark of Syrah that is even more present when the weather is quite hot. (Wahluke Slope is the warmest grape growing region in Washington.) Some guests noticed notes of chocolate and ripe red berries. This wine was well balanced and had an excellent finish that kept us coming back.

We moved from Wahluke Slope to Walla Walla Valley and the K Vintners Morrison Lane Syrah ($45). Walla Walla is known as the "Napa of Washington" and in many ways is the re-birthplace of the Washington Wine industry. The Walla Walla Valley AVA is in the southeastern-most corner of Washington and is marked by a wind blow silt deposited loess soil. K Vintners is one of the original winemakers in Walla Walla and their Syrah is an example of classic Walla Walla, where the fruit typically hangs longer to produce a "shrivel". That level of ripeness produces a concentration of flavor in the fruit. The wine it produces is well-balanced with excellent acidity and well structured tannins.

The first noticeable difference between our first two wines was color. The K Syrah was very dark in glass, nearly black, and had a more fragrant nose with floral notes. On the palate, it was much darker fruit with prunes and dark cherries. While the spice and pepper mingled with the fruit, they weren't as overt. The K Syrah exhibited dark earthen tones on both the nose and the palate. This is a big shouldered rich wine.

Tomorrow we'll talk about the Yakima Valley Syrahs; the Laurelhurst Cellars Boushey Vineyard Syrah, and the Delille Cellars Grand Ciel Syrah.