Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard was the first to plant Syrah wine grapes in Washington State.
Syrah wine grapes are ideally suited to Washington State’s soils and climate, and several of the state’s wineries have won top awards for their Syrah wines. But the red variety is often confusing to consumers and can be a hard sell in wine tasting rooms. Pacific Northwest vintners and growers recently followed Syrah from “berry to bottle” to learn how to produce sought-after grapes and wines during a summer grape tour sponsored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
Grape Association members spent a day in mid-August visiting vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Red Mountain appellations to learn growing and winemaking tips and techniques from a few of the state’s Syrah pioneers. The focus on Syrah was in follow-up to a session during the grape association’s winter meeting that discussed the marketing challenges of Syrah wines.
Red Willow Vineyard
Mike Sauer, owner and operator of Red Willow Vineyard located at the western edge of Yakima Valley near the foothills of Mount Adams, planted the first Syrah grapes in the state. Sauer, at the urging of David Lake, master of wine and head winemaker for Columbia Winery, planted Syrah in 1986. Lake, who died in 2009, believed that Syrah was one of the greatest wine grape varieties in the world and that it would be well suited for Washington, Sauer recalled. “How prophetic that was.
“Syrah gets a disproportional number of the highest wine scores compared to other varieties,” Sauer said, adding that Syrah reveals its terroir more than any other variety. “We have nine different blocks of Syrah planted at Red Willow, with a different flavor profile to each of them.”
Sauer, who farms with sons Jonathan and Daniel, and son-in-law Rick Willsey, said Syrah presents a learning curve for growers. Managing canopy and crop load are important. Shoot thinning, leaf removal, and cluster thinning are routinely done at Red Willow to ensure fruit ripens fully. Additionally, irrigation after veraison is key, he said, noting that Syrah clusters dehydrate naturally as harvest approaches.
Syrah has proven to be cold hardy at Red Willow, surviving the 1996 winter freeze well. However, Sauer found some injury from last year’s November freeze, and likens Syrah cold hardiness to that of Merlot.
“Syrah is just like a teenager,” he summarized, explaining that the variety grows long shoots to protect its fruit and is sensitive to heat stress. “It’s emotional like a teenager, going up and down until the vine matures and settles down, which seems to be after about ten years or so.”
Sauer planted a small clonal trial in 2005 to compare cold hardiness and yield attributes of several Syrah clones. His original Syrah vines came from cuttings from California’s Napa Valley Joseph Phelps Vineyard. Clones in his trial include the French clones 100, 300, and 877 (Syrah 07); Shiraz 03; Durell (Syrah 08) that originated from Hopland, California; and Syrah 10 (known as the Pont de la Maye clone).
Thus far, Shiraz 03 has shown the most cold hardiness, surviving the winters the best of all clones in his trial. Durell has also survived the winters. Syrah 10 has been lower yielding than the others.
Dick Boushey planted his first Syrah vineyard 18 years ago, obtaining cuttings from Sauer and planting them on a steep, east-facing, rocky slope. Since then, he’s added seven more Syrah blocks and sells Syrah grapes to a dozen wineries. The highest elevation of his vineyards is 1,350 feet above sea level, the lowest around 800 feet.. He recommends elevations of around 1,100 feet for Syrah.
“Age is an important thing with Syrah,” Boushey said, explaining that when the mature roots get down deep, they can withstand heat waves and cold spells better.
His Grandview location, part of the Yakima Valley appellation, is considered a cool site for grapes. His Syrah grapes are harvested at the end of October, later than most other Yakima Valley locations. “Red Mountain is five degrees warmer than here, and they’ll pick Syrah three weeks ahead of me,” he said, noting that his sugars accumulate at a very slow pace, but eventually reach 24° to 25° Brix.
With such a late harvest, he makes sure the vines have adequate water between veraison and harvest. “I don’t like shrivel, so I meter out water carefully after veraison.”
He describes Syrah as a “grower-friendly” variety, but notes that winemakers demand that fruit quality is good. In normal years, he thins the crop about three times and uses vineyard row orientation to help mitigate sunburn problems. Crop load is usually around 3.5 tons per acre.
Boushey has planted several Tablas Creek and French Syrah clones (Syrah 07-France 877) to give winemakers more blending options. Of the handful of clones he has planted, Phelps is still his favorite. Some of the Tablas Creek clones make elegant, more complex wines, he said, but Phelps is a “workhorse,” has a loose cluster structure, and is cold hardy. However, more time is needed to further evaluate production and wine characteristics of the newer-planted clones.
Ciel du Cheval Vineyards
Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyards on Red Mountain planted his first Syrah grapes in 1994. The Red Mountain appellation, one of the warmest grape-growing regions in Washington, is known for its high pH soils, wind, and ability to produce full-bodied red wine grapes. The pH of Holmes’s soil is 8.4.
Irrigation is a main focus of his viticultural practices; he uses hundreds of soil moisture sensors to help guide his irrigation scheduling, monitor vine stress levels, soil moisture depth, and vine water use. Holmes grows four Syrah clones: Syrah 05 (France 174), ENTAV 383, Syrah 12 (France 99), and Shiraz. He sees differences between the clones, but seasonal differences are also strong.