Is Syrah the wine variety to set Washington apart?

The Associated Press
SEATTLE — It was very much a long shot.
When vintner David Lake suggested planting a new variety of red wine grapes on a steep hillside at central Washington's Red Willow Vineyard in the late 1980s, it seemed like a risky move.
White wines had dominated the state's wine industry for years, and while the sturdy Rhone variety with hints of blackberries, black currants and roasted coffee seemed like a perfect match for the state's diverse soils and climate, grape growers were unsure it could survive a harsh winter.
After the deep freeze of 1996, growers knew they had struck wine gold with syrah.
Nearly a decade later, the number of acres planted tops 3,000 — about 10 percent of the state's more than 30,000 acres devoted to wine grapes, and syrah ranks among the top three reds in the state, behind cabernet sauvignon and merlot.
"Syrah is one of the great grapes of the world, it's one of the great three — cabernet, syrah and pinot noir," said Lake, the director of winemaking for Columbia Winery who recently marked 25 years in Washington state winemaking. "A lot of great European varieties haven't necessarily found a home in the New World, such as sangiovese. But some have really been rediscovered in the last 30 years or so."
Those include syrah, a grape that ripens fairly early, is hardier than merlot and tends to produce wines that develop more quickly in the fermenting process — a point that is especially favorable for a region where new wineries are opening their doors almost monthly.
Washington is the nation's No. 2 wine producer behind California, with an industry valued at $2.4 billion, according to the Washington Wine Commission, a promotional state agency financed with fees on member wineries and growers. The state is home to more than 300 wineries and 300 wine grape growers who harvested 100,500 tons of grapes last year.
The harvest was down from the record crop of 111,700 tons a year earlier, but 2004 could have been far worse because of a severe winter freeze. New vineyard acres coming into production helped balance out the losses.
At Lake Chelan's Tsillan Cellars, one-third of the roughly 40 acres planted are syrah. The acreage may not change, but the wine itself will evolve as vintners experiment, winemaker Katy Perry said.
Syrah grapes are more susceptible to cultural practices, such as water management, trellising of vines and methods to alleviate sunburn, she said. Those techniques, along with cool evening temperatures and the micro-climates of individual vineyards, create subtle nuances.
After years as a vintner for other wineries, Perry has decided to strike out on her own. Tildio Winery opens April 16, and one of its primary varieties will be syrah.
"A lot of different varieties are being planted and I think everybody is throwing their hand in at trying syrah, at least a little," Perry said. "It's going to be fantastic."
Syrah currently makes up about 25 percent of the production for Columbia Winery, one of the state's larger wineries. That could increase to as much as 40 percent in the future, said Lake, who has dreamed of experimenting with the variety since a visit to France's Rhone wine region.
Consumers first want to know a winery can make a four-square, substantial wine, Lake told an audience Saturday at a Taste Washington wine event in Seattle. Then vintners can perhaps back off a bit to create a wine with more finesse.
Growers and vintners in Idaho and British Columbia also are taking note and beginning to produce great syrah.
"Now, with the climate going through a warming phase, syrah seems very well able to thrive," Lake said. "It all really depends on the style you want to make. It's a very versatile variety for us, and although it hasn't yet won the acclaim of our cabernet, I believe it has a bright future."

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