The salvation to lagging wine sales of Syrah may be in Washington State owning the variety as it now does Riesling, says Bob Betz, who describes himself as an “unapologetic, unabashed supporter and lover of Syrah.”
Betz, of Betz Family Winery in Woodinville, first tasted Syrah in France’s Côte Rotie region in 1973. Since then, he has come to believe it stands shoulder to shoulder with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other northern Rhone varietals. “Syrah delivers a whole lot of pleasure, and pleasure is what American consumers ultimately want in their red wine,” he said.
Most consumers purchasing wine don’t use the 100-point wine critic score, he said. Instead, they use the two-point score of “yum or yuck.” Syrah rates high on the two-point score, he said, adding that it is full-bodied, complex, and while it doesn’t have to be aged, it is age worthy and improves with age.
Betz makes three Syrah wines: one from Boushey Vineyards in Yakima Valley, the second from Red Mountain’s Kiona Vineyards and Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, and the third from Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley. All three are distinct and show their site differences.
Syrah is grown in 22 countries. With 350,000 acres planted globally, it is the seventh most-planted variety in the world. Betz noted that the variety is distributed widely across the globe and has critical mass. “It packs its bags well. It travels well in that you can pull it up and plant it in California and Australia’s Barossa Valley and it seems to do well.” He added that it always seems to express its “Syrahness,” yet with each site, takes on its own character.
Betz believes that heat accumulation is the greatest cause for changes in Syrah’s character. “With our slightly cooler conditions, I do think we have something special here,” he said, adding that it’s not just longer day length that makes Washington’s climate unique.
While the average mean temperature during the growing season (April 1 to October 30) is within 2.3°F in the four major Syrah regions of Columbia Valley (Washington), Hermitage (France), Napa Valley (California), and Barossa Valley (Australia), temperatures in the Columbia Valley are much cooler than the other three regions during ripening in August, September, and October. For example, in October, the Columbia Valley average temperature is 52.2°F, compared with 61.3°F in Napa and 58.5°F in Barossa.
Lack of rainfall (less than one inch) during ripening is another advantage that Washington has over the other three regions, which receive an average of two to eight inches during ripening.
New or Old World?
Marty Clubb established L’Ecole No. 41 Winery in 1983, and it has since grown to be the third-largest winery in Walla Walla. Clubb began making Syrah wines 12 years ago and today, produces two Syrah wines that total 3,500 cases annually. His Columbia Valley Syrah is fruitier and comes from three primary vineyards (Bacchus, Stone Tree, and Candy Mountain), and he produces a more dense, estate Syrah from Seven Hills Vineyard.
Though many try to simplify wine styles between New World and Old World, he believes that Washington’s style is a blend of both. Clubb said that he often explains that “Washington wines have New World fruit but Old World structure, Old World balance, Old World acidity, and Old World elegance.”
He notes that Washington is similar to France’s northern Rhone region because of its latitude, glacial soils and young geology, and the inland protection from coastal storms. “In talking to other winemakers in the state, I believe there’s a growing consensus that Washington’s best Syrah style leans toward northern Rhone, yet with a twist of the New World’s fruitiness.”
Syrah is very adaptable and responsive to vineyard and canopy management as well as winemaking techniques, Clubb said. Wine styles can be dramatically influenced by grape maturity, whole cluster versus partial stem pressing, skin time, fermentation temperatures, oak and aging, and blending. And while he sees clonal differences within a site, he believes that site trumps clonal choice.
“American consumers are either confused or disappointed with Syrah,” said Betz. They’re confused because of the proliferation of styles that come out of California or they’re disappointed with the black coffee, syrupy wines that have been stripped of their Syrah identity, he explained.
Because California has such a large presence in the domestic wine market, most American consumers think of all wines as “California,” Betz said. When winemakers there do a poor job, Washington Syrahs are also tainted.
“On the one end, you have structurally detailed, expressive Syrahs from France whose sales are doing well,” he said, but on the other end of the spectrum are the monoliths from Australia, with sales not doing so well. California Syrah wines skew toward Aussie styles, while Washington Syrahs are more in the center, but skewing toward French styles, he said.
Betz believes that Syrah wines can make a comeback, just as Riesling wines have, but it will take cooperation of Washington growers and winemakers to convince the American consumer that Washington is the definition of Syrah. Until Washington Riesling became the standard for Riesling wines, he noted that Riesling wines struggled and lost their way.
“We need to do the same with Washington Syrah and define excellence, quality, character,” Betz said. “We can reduce the confusion and disappointment by exposing more people to the exceptionalism of Washington Syrah. We need to own that variety.”
Betz and Clubb spoke during a panel discussion of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual meeting in February.