lady rosa

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A week ago I had the pleasure of moderating a seminar on Washington syrah, with four winemakers who know their way around a grape. The question I intended to pose was “how do these Washington syrahs age?”, and each winemaker was kind enough to bring a bottle of their most recent as well as an older syrah. Eric Dunham brought his 2002 and 2005 Frenchtown Vineyard Syrahs; Caleb Foster brought the Buty 2002 Rediviva of the Stones and the 2006 Buty Peter Canlis Syrah; Chuck Reininger brought a 2003 Syrah and a 2006 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Syrah; and Ron Coleman brought the 2002 Columbia Valley and the 2006 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard bottlings from Tamarack.

The wines all showed very well; but it soon became apparent that the real topic of the day was not how will they age – none of them showed any signs of wearing out anytime soon – but why don’t consumers flock to these wines?

With only the rarest exceptions – Charles Smith wines, Cayuse, Betz come to mind – syrah has become a really tough sell. And yet, as I look over my tasting notes for the past few years, it is the syrahs that garner the highest scores as a group. It is a syrah that finally toppled my resistance to the 100 point barrier. It is syrah that winemakers in this state almost universally love. In recent discussions with many people inside and outside the industry, I have come to the following conclusions as to why it’s such a tough sell.

First there is the price issue. Washington does not offer many syrah options in the $15 and under category. Given that there are only a couple thousand acres of it planted, mostly in the past few years, there simply is not the supply available to make cheap syrah viable. The same situation applies to such comers as malbec and sangiovese; they are a lot cheaper elsewhere in the world, and consumers would generally prefer to buy a Cotes-du-Rhone, an Argentine malbec or a Chianti than to spend double or triple the money on something from Washington. There are no easy solutions to this, other than to prove that Washington versions of these grapes have something distinctive to offer, flavors that justify the extra cost.

Second there is another familiar concern – what is Washington syrah supposed to taste like? Truth is, the grape thrives here. Yakima valley syrah is different from Wahluke Slope syrah is different from Walla Walla syrah is different from Horse Heaven Hills syrah… you get the idea. And yet, they are all good, just in different ways. So it will take some time for consumers to understand what they are tasting, and to decide which producers and vineyards and regions best suit their individual tastes.

Third, there is the fact that great syrahs from other countries are usually from old vines. There are vines in the Barossa that are well over 100 years old. In the Rhone and most of France a wine labeled vieilles vignes (old vines) must be at least 30 years of age – by tradition, not by law – and most are older. These older vines have more complexity. The wines have more subtlety and nuance.

Quite honestly, I am thrilled at how good many Washington syrahs already are. As really talented winemakers get hold of the best grapes, astonishing wines are the result. The Royal City syrah from Charles Smith comes from a vineyard that no one had really done much with until he stumbled upon it and realized that there was great potential there. I just tasted the Owen Roe 2007 Lady Rosa Syrah ($45) – a 95 point wine that is mostly from the Chapel Block at Red Willow. David O’Reilly is so excited about this fruit that he is making it a vineyard designate in 2008.

This is a great leap forward for Red Willow syrah; the wine is dark, aromatic, totally ripe, saturated, yet retains the delicate, floral aromatics, the streaks of citrus, the stunning array of harmonic scents and flavors. The flavors waft along, both powerful and refined, plush and muscular, a seeming contradiction but all in harmony. It seems to gather force and length as it extends into a finish of licorice, smoke and coffee. Does such a wine age well? I doubt that anyone fortunate enough to grab a bottle will be able to keep their hands off it long enough to find out.


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