Que Shiraz, Syrah!

Horse plowing through dirt on farmLast June our wine and spirits editor, Julie Pegg, rolled into the town of Walla Walla for Celebration Walla Walla. During the four-day event about 500 folks attended tastings, vintage pours and winemaker dinners. Journalists were treated to a sneak preview of 2014’s honored grape, Syrah. Over a spread of salads, charcuterie and meats and mushroom-y dishes at the handsome Marcus Whitman Hotel the day before the festivities really got underway, it occurred to our French wine lover that she just may have been sipping on the best Syrah outside of the Rhone Valley.

The Walla Walla Valley is a bunch-grassed gorgeous bit of dirt renowned for onions and apples, corn roasts, quilt festivals, and county fairs. This wild-west dirt also produces mighty fine wines. For sometime all the hoopla has been for Cabernet and Merlot for reds, (Riesling and Chardonnay for whites) but Syrah is fast catching up.

Like many of the world’s noble wine grapes, Syrah/Shiraz’s ancestral home is France, in particular the Rhone Valley, which is divided into two distinct wine sub regions. In the Southern Rhone you’ll find Syrah—blended with Grenache. Most of the Rhone wines we pluck from the shelves are easy drinking and affordable Cotes du Rhone or “Villages” wines. The quality goes up from there. If Chateauneuf-du Pape rings a bell, well that’s Southern Rhone at its peak.

But where Syrah reaches real fame–and the fortune you are likely to put out for a bottle–is in France’s Northern Rhone on whose steep and terraced slopes it is the only [red] wine grape cultivated. Here the grape gives rise to long lived sturdy Hermitage and elegant Cote-Rotie (meaning roasted slope). Deep, dark Syrah from Cornas can be among the region’s better-kept secrets. St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage produce complex but reasonably priced bottlings that don’t require years of cellaring before popping the cork. Such complexities come courtesy of grapes that have to struggle down through stony, sandy soil and wind-blown silt (loess) for their nutrients.
More often than not black pepper as well as black olives, mineral, game or smoked meat notes punch through the vigorous fruit and berry flavors of Rhone wines.

The rocky soil in Walla Walla Valley create the perfect grape growing conditions.

The rocky soil and climate in Walla Walla Valley create the perfect grape growing conditions.

Walla Walla wines share an affinity with their Rhone cousins, much of it due to Missoula Floods thousands of years back, which left behind a most rocky legacy and layers of that wine-blown silt, although Walla Walla Syrah tends to be more fruit forward those of the Rhone

Walla Walla Valley Syrah at a Glimpse

By no means the only Syrahs/Shirazes in town the wines mentioned below represent a whirlwind view of Walla Walla styles

Bergevin Lane’s Princess Syrah emerged from the bottle dark, ripe and brooding. So did Amavi Syrah from the slopes of the valley’s coveted Les Collines Vineyard. DaMa’s voluptuous curves were trimmed by a generous dash of Grenache. The bright berry notes in Sleight of Hand Cellars “Levitation”, were buoyed by lots of mineral and zippy acidity. Walla Walla Vintners hit the palate with Syrah’s hallmark peppery spice. aMaurice Fred Estate Syrah was both supple and grippy which makes it enjoyable now but age worthy too. Va Piano’s “Black Label” Syrah recalls the wines of the Northern Rhone with earthy, meaty aromas and mouthful of savory and silky fruit. Seven Hills, too comes off rich and smoky and gamey. Meanwhile Reynvaan 2010 Stonessence Syrah had garnered the #11 spot on Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2013 with its “Polished, plush, exotic spice flavors that mingle effortlessly and seamlessly.”

Cayuse and Horsepower Vineyards (A legend in the making)

The Walla-Walla Valley straddles Washington and Oregon. In Milton-Freewater on the Oregon side lies “The Rocks”. It is here French transplant Christophe Baron, planted Cayuse grapevines in 1997 and quite possibly engineered the region’s success toward Syrah. “The Rocks” Vineyard is, not surprisingly is made up of silt-blanketed “galets” the size of which ranges from large cobbles to near boulders which hold and emit the heat back into the grapes—just as they do in Chateauneuf du Pape. All of Baron’s grapes are bio-dynamically farmed. (Baron also organically raises sheep, cattle and vegetables).

Beautiful horse used for plowing farm land in Walla Walla Valley

Plowing vineyards by horse is kinder to the earth and easier on wine vines.

Most interestingly, two draft horses, Zeppo and Red were introduced in 2008 and 2009 respectively to plow Baron’s more recent Horsepower vineyards. (Tribe, Sur Echalas, and High Contrast). This throwback method of using Horse power (as opposed to horsepower) is kinder to the earth and only horses are able to maneuver their way through the vines whose narrow spacing also hearkens back to a traditional way of cultivating wine grapes.

I would, in a blind tasting, pin Baron’s wines on the Rhone—so densely fruited, meaty, stony, savory and silky are the wines. All of Cayuse Vineyards wines are worth the big bucks you have to fork over for the privilege of owning a hard to access bottle or two. Cayuse Viognier (the Norther Rhone’s white grape) is also a stunner.

Syrah and Food

Cool weather is perfect Syrah sipping weather. Often referred to as a manly grape, a burly Syrah begs admittedly for slow-roasted or grilled meats, especially lamb and game, gutsy braises, soups and stews and strong, crumbly cheeses. Meanwhile more dapper offerings partner well with lentils, herb-flecked sausages, barbecued chicken and pulled pork.

You fellas out there hardwired to your Weber Kettle or Smokey Mountain Smoker take note. Or come in from the cold and make my favorite winter dish to go with Syrah—venison braised in a bottle of the same until the meat nearly collapses and becomes one with the “gravy”. Don’t forget to add the bay leaf and a few juniper berries. Marvelous. — Julie Pegg, Senior Wine & Spirits Editor

Cool fall weather is perfect for sipping Syrah.

Cool fall weather is perfect for sipping Syrah.

Up and coming Walla Walla events:

The valley’s wineries will be pouring special wines, hosting live music and providing delicious bites during Fall Release Weekend, November 7-9. Go on and help celebrate the end of another successful harvest.

The wineries really get into the holiday spirit during Holiday Barrel Tasting Weekend, December 5-7. Taste future releases straight from the barrel, and welcome in the season with new friends and great wine.

Walla Walla Valley brings their wines (including great Syrah) to Seattle and Portland! The dates for the 2015 events:

Walla Walla Wine @ McCaw Hall, Seattle
February 9, 2015
Walla Walla Wine @ Pure Space, Portland
March 2, 2015.

Tickets were on sale as of October 1st @

Julie Pegg, Wine & Spirits Editor, Canada

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop. Julie is RFT’s Senior Wine & Spirits Editor, Canada.