Spotlight on Washington Syrah: Betz Family Winery “La Cote Rousse” 2004 Syrah

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Washington was once considered a state with great promise and on the doorstep of the world’s great wine regions. Recently, however, popular recognition and consumption of Washington wines has dwindled, with many of the state’s best wineries seeing significantly decreased sales despite increased quality.

Wherefore Art Thou, Syrah?

Washington established its reputation mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, the best of which combine lush fruit with brighter and fresher acidity than what you usually find in California. This made sense a decade ago when Cab vines were the oldest vinifera vines in the state, and accordingly the only ones ready to produce wines of quality.

For the past decade or so, however, Syrah plantings have both been on the rise, and the vines that were in place several years ago have now started to reach the beginnings of their maturity. Somehow, however, Washington Syrah continues to be but a speck in the average consumer’s ever decreasing consciousness of Washington wines. This is a decided shame given that I think the state has the potential to produce perhaps the best Syrah outside of France (though New Zealand is still in the running).

For us consumers here in British Columbia, with Seattle a mere two hour drive away, we have greater opportunity than most to taste what is going on in our neighbour state. In this spirit, this spotlight will focus on how far Syrah has come in Washington in the last several years and how the best winemakers are able to get great site-specific expressivity out of the grape in the state’s various AVAs. What I’ve discovered is tremendously promising.

Desert Terroir

Washington’s AVAs are quite new and thus many of them have yet to narrow down into sub-regions, despite the fact that dramatically different terroirs exist within single AVAs. The worst culprit is the Columbia Valley AVA, which pretty much includes every other AVA of note and stretches hundreds of kilometers from central to southern Washington.

Today’s wine found itself into the bottle via grapes grown in the famed Red Mountain AVA, which holds the brunt of the state’s fame and includes famous vineyards like Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval. Red Mountain sits within the Yakima Valley AVA, which is within the Columbia Valley AVA.

Like most of central Washington, Red Mountain sees very little rainfall, which helps the grapes resist disease and rot – not to mention phylloxera (most vines in Washington are own-rooted). With soils derived from ancient glacial floods, the AVA includes a mix of granite boulders layered with rock, clay and mineral. The high winds increase the thickness of the grapes’ skins and the lack of rain helps reduce their weight. In fact, the average grape in Washington is almost half as heavy as one from California.

It is this unique combination of desert conditions, soil and site that make Red Mountain wines so plushly concentrated and yet fresh and balanced.

An Artfully Analytic Approach to Wine

Bob Betz is one of the ‘fathers’ of the Washington Wine world, having started his career in 1976 at Chateau St. Michelle – WA’s biggest producer. He now holds a Masters of Wine (MW) and runs his own estate, holding contracts with the state’s best growers.

A wine maker with a MW designation is a rare thing, and highlights the importance of broad analytical tasting to making great wine. Without the proper analytic tools and comparative methods, it is far too easy to develop a ‘cellar-palate’ and ride off of tasting room visitors and a myopic local press. Much like BC today, Washington wines were once held victim to this parochial ideology. It was men like Bob Betz who helped to change the scene and push the state towards internationally respectable quality, and recognition.

Betz’ dedication to a meticulous and analytic approach to wine is reflected in his wine making practices. He is obsessed with detail and cleanliness – even writing tasting notes on each of his wine barrels. On the other hand, his favourite part of wine making is blending, which for Betz is the most artful step in the process.

Brooding Syrah

This is masculine wine, much like Hermitage. Wafts of smoke, bacon fat, blackberry mark the exceptionally expressive nose. This leads into tremendous density and astute ripeness – pepper, baking spices, bacon, blackberry and raspberry have no trouble delineating themselves as independently unified on the palate.

A wine of exceptional finish and balance, this is a complete experience with all elements in place. The tannins are ripe, though firm enough for aging; however, the wine’s touch of sweetness makes this drink very well young.

An excellent example of brooding Red Mountain fruit and quite an exciting bottle of wine overall. 14.8% ABV.

Excellent
$78 at Taphouse Liquor Store or Everything Wine

Comments

  1. Brad
    September 30, 2010

    Hi Shea,

    Great read. Love hearing about Washington State wines, as I plan to go across the border now that I’ve finally renewed my passport, so looking forward to reading more about their wines (hopefully you’ll do more Wash. wines?)

    Question: you commented that their making some of the best syrah outside of France, except perhaps New Zealand. Is New Zealand really much of a powerhouse for syrah? I think of them for pinot (& of course the whites), but not so much for syrah (though I am aware they make it…just not what I’d expect you to think of as 2nd best country in the world at making it). Did you perhaps mean Australia instead of New Zealand? Just wondering.

    Cheers,
    Brad

  2. Shea
    September 30, 2010

    Brad,

    Thanks for the comment and great question. I will answer it by first looking at Australia and then New Zealand.

    1. Australia

    The Australian wines that get imported into Canada (and North America Generally) tend to focus on a particular style. This style is a higher alcohol fruit forward style with smooth tannins. This style is controversial because some claim that it does not speak of any particular place, instead focusing on style over regional differences. That said, in my personal experience I have found some exceptions of wines made in this style that are yet very good (Two Hands, Kay Brothers and Clarendon Hills).

    However, Australia actually produces many Shiraz (syrah) wines that are not in this style. Unfortunately, they do not reach our shores. The reason I say this second approach is superior is because as a consumer you get greater diversity for your dollar and therefore more unique expressions of the grape and more ability to pair with a wide variety of foods. Even those who like a particular style over another will likely find in time that their palate changes. If a country produces only a single style, then it cannot adapt to that change in most consumer’s palates. So while the more balanced style of Shiraz in Australia has higher acids, better aromatics and greater diversity, it is hard to find on our shores. One example would be Clonakilla, which has occasionally made it here.

    2. New Zealand

    New Zealand on the other hand, has yet to fall into the trap of producing the monolithic style of Shiraz/Syrah. Again, while not many make it to our shores, the ones that do tend to be better balanced and more diverse than their Australian counterparts. New Zealand is, in other words, moving in the right direction and is also making a marketing push in BC that gives us access to more of their wines than many other places in the world.

    If you like Syrah to pair with the food you eat, New Zealand is again offering better diversity than Australia. Their cooler climate allows for better balance and better aromatic complexity. So, while the wines may not seem quite as dense in body, they have much greater potential with food and tend to be less one dimensional.

    All of this should be understood in the context of Washington, which has, at least in my opinion, an optimal balance of ripeness and acidity/freshness for New World syrah. That said, there are WA syrahs that are made in the high octane style as wel. I will certainly be profiling more WA syrahs soon and hope to show the potential and the challenges in the industry.

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