Stand-Alone Varietal or Blend: Washington Syrah Finds its Niche

February 4th, 2014

Last February I wrote about the virtues of Washington syrah, a somewhat underappreciated varietal that still takes a back seat to cabernet sauvignon and merlot as a distant third in the state’s red wine production.

That isn’t to say the grape hasn’t continued to grow in popularity and earn its share of recognition. There’s been a slow but steady increase in production over the past five years and I think it’s safe to say that syrah has found its niche among Washington winemakers.

You may not always find the grape as a stand-alone varietal, but syrah has increasingly become a staple for blending purposes, particularly as an enhancement to a cabernet base.

nullSyrah is generally characterized as medium to full-bodied with low to medium acidity and medium to high tannins. Compared to other red wine grapes, its ultra-dark color and flavor intensity level often set it apart.

Syrah frequently carries a nice smoky, spicy quality in addition to a number of dark, berry-like fruit flavors. That makes it an excellent choice to pair up with lamb, burgers, or just about anything barbequed.

Here are a few Washington syrahs and red blends with syrah that I think you’ll enjoy:

Gingko Forest Winery 2010 Gingko Red (about $15) – Sourced from estate vineyards in the Wahluke Slope, winemaker Mike Thiede hits all the right notes with this combination of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot.

Darker cherry and black plum flavors lead off and then transition into brighter notes of red currant and raspberry. What impressed me most about this wine, other than its incredibly reasonable price, was the seamless balance of fruit, acidity, soft tannins and trace of minerality it displayed. An extremely fine effort, this wine is a must-buy.

Lost River Winery 2010 Côte Wall Syrah (about $26) – Winemaker John Morgan continues to impress with this seductive, inky interpretation of Washington Syrah. Black currant, espresso, and bittersweet chocolate glide into a lengthy finish, capped with a whisper of black pepper. Co-fermentation with eight-percent viognier provides a lovely fragrance of stone fruit on the bouquet.

Mackey Vineyards 2009 Syrah (about $32) and 2009 Concordia (about $38) – The Walla Walla area has earned its reputation as a notable producer of Washington syrah. Brothers Philip and Roger Mackey currently offer a couple of choices sourced primarily from their own vineyards.

The 100-percent syrah shows understated flavors of blackberry, vanilla and a pleasant note of oatmeal stout on the extreme finish. The Concordia is comprised of 77-percent syrah along with some grenache and mourvèdre. Its smoky blueberry base is supported within a framework of dark chocolate and pleasant notes of caramel, vanilla, and spice throughout. Tasty, complex, and completely over-the-top.

Great Grapes, Great Wines at Soos Creek Wine Cellars

October 1st, 2013

There’s a tried and true saying in the wine industry that states, “Great wine is made in the vineyard.”

I’m going to nitpick at this as an oversimplification on a couple of counts, both of which I think do a disservice to winemakers.

First, not all vintages are perfect. In fact, some, such as Washington’s 2011 harvest, can be downright challenging. In these cases, we have to rely on a winemaker’s talents to coax flavors from grapes, achieve balance and keep their wines as consistent as possible with years past.

Second, great grapes in the vineyard don’t automatically assure great wines…although they should. There are plenty of variables and room for errors during the fermentation and aging processes. Winemakers can never afford to be careless, even when they’re given a superior product with which to work.

nullThat said, let me offer up a Washington winery, Soos Creek Wine Cellars that scores on both counts: great grapes and great red wines.

Based in Kent, winemaker David Larson started his winery nearly 25 years ago while still working at Boeing. Today he’s running the winery full-time, but his focus on acquiring grapes from the best vineyards has always been unwavering.

Noting some of his fruit sources, Bellingham’s Margarita Jones of Elliott Bay Distributing sums it up nicely, “David Larson pulls from a list of who’s who (vineyards) in Washington: Champoux, Ciel du Cheval, Slide Mountain, Elephant Mountain, DuBrul, Dineen, Lewis, Sagemoor, Klipsun and The Benches (pictured above, photo from” Wow.

Here are my thoughts on some of Larson’s finished products you’ll find locally at venues such as the Community Food Co-op and Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants:

null2010 Artist Series #10 Red Wine (about $30) – Cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot comprise this very Eurocentric blend that begs for a pairing with something beefy. It features plenty of dark berries up front, a spritz of acidity at the mid-palate and then a crush of dried herbs on the finish.

2010 Ciel du Cheval Red Wine (about $35) – Red currant, pekoe tea, hints of chocolate and that unmistakable Red Mountain minerality round out this stunning effort. There’s also some beautiful, understated blueberry fruit throughout to make this wine a pure pleasure to taste.

2010 Champoux Vineyard Red Wine (about $40) – At 84-percent cabernet sauvignon this could, and should, be labeled as such because this is quintessential Washington cabernet. Luscious blackberry fruit, a touch of herbaceousness, and a hint dried cherry on the extreme finish all add up to a truly remarkable wine. This is a sensory delight that’s absolutely worth every penny.

Horse Heaven Hills Red Wines: In a Word…Outstanding!

July 23rd, 2013

This week I continue my look at Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills Appellation with an emphasis on the red wines that are grown in and produced from the area.

Located on the north side of the Columbia River on the Oregon/Washington border in the south central part of our state, this wine region produces a wide and varied range of red varietals.

Some of the biggest and best wineries in the state are quick to point out that a number of their red wines are sourced from the Horse Heaven Hills Appellation. Chateau Ste. Michelle? They’re there. Columbia Crest? Of course. Quilceda Creek Vintners’ four 100-point Cabernet Sauvignons? Each one was sourced in part from Horse Heaven Hills. Need I say more?

I’ve enjoyed several wines as of late that carry the Horse Heaven Hills designation. Here are a few recommendations along with a personal note on the higher-priced wines: they’re absolutely worth every penny.

Columbia Crest Winery H3 2010 Merlot (about $15) – Here’s a great “everyday” merlot at an affordable price. Fresh raspberry aromas, chocolate cherry flavors, a touch of cocoa powder and a fairly big dollop of vanilla on the finish make this a crowd pleaser.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (about $30) – Admittedly, I wasn’t initially bowled over by this wine. But give it some time to aerate and it opens up nicely, displaying understated flavors of black cherry and espresso and a slightly chewy finish with hints of dried herb.

H/H Estates 2009 Michael Andrews Red Reserve (about $35) – I wasn’t familiar with this label from Coyote Canyon Winery when I tried it, but I can guarantee I’ll be coming back to it. Gorgeous dark fruits predominate, with trailing notes of coffee, chocolate and caramel on a lengthy finish. The blend consists of graciano, tempranillo, and grenache.

Alexandria Nicole Cellars 2010 Petit Verdot (about $42) – This is a stunning effort from winemaker Jarrod Boyle, who tames this sometimes brash varietal and turns it into an instantly enjoyable wine. Sweet cedar and berry aromas lead off, while gobs of black cherry and ultra-dark fruit melt into a plush, velvety finish.

nullJanuik Winery Champoux Vineyard 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (about $45) – Winemaker Mike Januik hits one out of the park yet again with this beautifully balanced, near-perfect cab. Incredible dark purple color, warm vanilla bean on the nose and opening flavors of blueberry and blackberry explode on the palate. Even darker black currant comes through on the finish along with a gentle, tannic lift. Outstanding!

First Release Syrah

June 30th, 2013

nullJ&J Vintners First Release Syrah (about $22) – Sourced from Yakima Valley grapes, the inagural release from this Milton Freewater, Oregon winery offers plenty of dark plum and cherry fruits up front, a dash of black pepper and an underlying touch of smokiness on the finish.

This doesn’t carry the brighter notes of acidity some wine enthusiasts might desire, but if you like a Syrah with more of a soft, light finish, this is the wine for you. There’s also a “bright-side” corollary worth noting: it doesn’t carry the hefty price tag you’re likely to find on other Syrahs produced in the Walla Walla Valley.

The J&J behind J&J Vintners are Walla Walla born and bred owners/winemakers Jeremy Petty and Jody Middleton. For additional wines and ordering visit

Fire Up the Barbeque and Pour Yourself a Glass of Cabernet Sauvignon

June 11th, 2013

Summer officially arrives next week and if you still haven’t fired up your outdoor barbeque, you’re probably among the minority of Bellinghamsters.

nullIf you’re barbequing grilled meats, especially anything beef, and you’d like to consider a wine pairing, look no further than a Washington cabernet sauvignon.

Cabernet makes a great barbeque wine because it’s full-bodied with sturdy tannins that will stand up to sauces and that wonderful charbroiled flavor that comes from the outdoor grill.

So can you pair cabernet with chicken and a splash of barbeque sauce? Absolutely. Brats and grilled sausages? No problem! Beef, lamb or bison burgers? Of course! A big, juicy steak? Puh-lease! Cabernet has got you covered on these and many other meats you might consider for your barbeque.

Also remember that when cabernet is blended with other red varietals, it becomes even more functional by picking up additional flavor components such as fruit and spice that add to its character and versatility.

Here is a cabernet and three cabernet-based blends from Washington that can be served at your next summer barbeque, or any other time your food calls for a full-bodied red wine:

Two Mountain Winery Non-Vintage Red Blend No. 9 (about $15) – This combination of cabernet, merlot and cabernet franc displays more savory characteristics of cherry tomato without the acidity and hints of dried herb. The finish has a trace of minerality and dusty strawberry that seems to showcase the terroir from its Yakima Valley vineyard.

nullJ. Bookwalter Winery 2010 Subplot No. 26 (about $20) – In a word: yummy. You’ll experience a mouthful of juicy red fruits with this blend of 54-percent cabernet plus six other red varietals from Richland. Berries, cherries and currants lead off with a soft, round finish capped with touches of vanilla, cedar and brown sugar.

Seven Hills Winery 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley (about $45) – This super dark, 100-percent cabernet has gorgeous aromatics of violets and red raspberry, with generous flavors of plum, black cherry and fig. Supple tannins lie in the background, along with a sprinkling of white pepper on the finish.

Tamarack Cellars 2008 DuBrul Vineyard Reserve (pictured at left, about $50) – Sourced from the Rattlesnake Hills Appellation, this cab-based blend from the Walla Walla winery displays considerable depth and character. There’s a splash of lean red currant to start, followed by a melt-in-your-mouth layer of chocolate-covered cherry and black plum. Slightly chewy tannins dissipate with ample aeration and also suggest additional cellaring time for a future barbeque.

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