This week of Washington Wine Month features the rich, red Syrah grape.
Syrah, especially from St Joseph in northern Rhône, has always been a favorite of mine. This love affair began many, many years ago on Seattle’s north side. Some friends and I bought a bottle of French wine and then imbibed in the back of a van while waiting for the movie theater to open.
I vividly remember when the cork was popped, an olfactory sensation of white pepper and raspberries filled the van. I was hooked. Exploring the wines of northern Rhône became my mission. I wanted more of that white pepper and raspberry. More St Joseph, Cornas and Hermitage.
Northern Rhône wines are mostly Syrah sometimes co-fermented with a dollop of Viognier. Southern Rhône wines are also made with Syrah, but here it is blended. Up to 13 varieties of grapes — both red and white — are allowed in the red wines from Châteauneuf du Pape, Cote du Rhône and Gigondas.
In the 1980s, only a few California winemakers worked with Syrah. These original Rhône Rangers, as they called themselves, included Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, Joseph Phelps of Joseph Phelps Winery, John MacCready of Sierra Vista Winery, Bill Crawford of McDowell Valley Vineyards, Fred Cline of Cline Cellars Winery, Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John and Bob Lindquist of Qupé Wine Cellars,
Around 1990, a second Rhône Rangers movement began when Chateau Beaucastel, of the southern Rhône appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape, founded Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles. Thirteen of the allowed Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties were imported and made available to other vineyards.
Today, the Rhône Rangers includes 100-plus wineries throughout the United States dedicated to making wines from grape varieties originally from France’s Rhône Valley.
In Washington, Syrah was first planted in the mid-’80s by Mike Sauer and David Lake, Master of Wine, winemaker for Columbia Winery. Lake’s love of northern Rhône wine is what drew him to persuading Sauer to plant an experimental plot of Syrah.
He obtained some Syrah cuttings from Joseph Phelps and they planted them in Mike Sauer’s Red Willow Vineyard. Legend has it that several bottles of Rhône wines were buried in the vineyard so the vines would know what their mission was.
A survey in 1993 showed no Syrah vineyards in Washington state. Sauer’s experimental plot was too small to be counted, but by 1999, there were 1,500 acres of Syrah. Today, there are over 5,000 acres planted to Syrah according to the USDA.
Inspired by the menus of Taste Washington restaurants and wineries, a multiple-course menu was plotted with dishes selected to pair with various versions of Washington Syrah. A wonderful learning experience ensued.
First on the menu was grilled duck breast on a bed of lettuce, watercress, shaved fennel and red onion, dried cherries, oranges and a citrus dressing. The second dish was grilled pork chops with my homemade plum and ginger chutney, and rice with red pepper and almonds. Last were lamb chops dry-rubbed with merguez (sweet paprika, fennel seeds, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne, salt and pepper) with lentils (a squeeze of lime is my go-to) and roasted carrots with cumin and sherry.
The range of food that complements Syrah is vast. Syrah does well hearty or spicy dishes when adorned with fruit, be it chutney, dried fruits or an orange sauce to balance the spiciness of the dish.
Many Syrahs, because of the hot climate they favor, tend to be higher up on the alcohol range. And high alcohol does fight with hot spicy where lower-alcohol wines do not.
Weight is another factor to contemplate: heavier-bodied wine would complement a dish such as lamb with lentils, whereas the lighter-styled Syrah would pair well with a lighter dish such as duck breasts on a bed of greens.
Wine candidates from several cellars included Snoqualmie 2016 Columbia Valley Syrah, Force Majeure 2012 Ciel du Cheval Red Mountain Red, Owen Roe 2017 Ex Umbris Columbia Valley Syrah, Eleven 2016 Elephant Mountain Syrah and Cairdeas Winery 2016 Consonance.
And then the real fun began! Trying each wine with each dish.
The Snoqualmie Syrah was a delight wine to start with. It has just enough raspberry and spice flavors to pair very well with the duck salad and pork chop and plum chutney but faded into the woodwork with the lamb.
Force Majeure 2012 Ciel du Cheval Red Mountain Syrah was a monster of a wine, even with eight years of cellaring. Dark, dark red, dark fruit, earthiness and a nose of black fruits and umami. At almost 15% alcohol, the better match was the pork chop and plum chutney.
Owen Roe 2017 Ex Umbris Columbia Valley Syrah’s minerality and subtle pepper blended nicely with the cranberry, blueberry flavors in this smooth, velvety wine that paired well with the duck, pork chop and lamb.
Another Owen Roe Syrah called the Chapel is from the Red Willow Vineyard. An icon of Red Willow Vineyard is the Monsignor Chapel built by the Sauer family on a hill planted to Syrah. The Sauer family built the chapel from stones saved when the vineyard was planted. In Hermitage, there are many stone chapels overlooking vineyards. Perhaps another inspiration for the vines?
Eleven Winery’s 2016 Elephant Mountain Syrah was magic! With grapes sourced from vines located high on the southern slopes of the Rattlesnake Hills, this elegant wine was bursting with ripe plum, raspberries and peppercorns with a round, vibrant finish. For me, the duck and the lamb were the match.
Cairdeas Winery has been crafting Rhône-inspired wines, both red and white, in the Lake Chelan AVA. They have many of the more unusual varieties in their vineyards. Its 2016 Consonance is more southern Rhône in style with half Petite Sirah (not a Rhône grape but it tastes like one) and with 5% Viognier. This wine was perfect with all three of our creations.
For more inspiration on Washington Syrahs and what to grill with them, visit tastewashington.org. Cheers!
Mary Earl has been educating Kitsap wine lovers for a couple of decades, is a longtime member of the West Sound Brew Club and can pair a beer or wine dinner in a flash. She volunteers for the Clear Creek Trail, is a member of the Central Kitsap Community Council and a longtime supporter of Silverdale.
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