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Stephen Tanzer: Seattle Tasting

“Intensely flavored and thick, showing superb intensity and a lightly grilled quality to its savory dark berry, spice and licorice flavors. Really remarkably concentrated for a wine made from extremely young vines (in their fourth leaf). 92 points”
—Stephen Tanzer

Delmas 2010 Syrah SJR Vineyard Walla Walla Valley: Dark ruby-red. Wild aromas of black raspberry, black olive, brown spices and garrigue. Intensely flavored and thick, showing superb intensity and a lightly grilled quality to its savory dark berry, spice and licorice flavors. Really remarkably concentrated for a wine made from extremely young vines (in their fourth leaf).

92 points.

 

"As a follow-up to Josh Raynolds’ article on good inexpensive shiraz bottlings from Australia, I thought you might be interested to see the results of a tasting of high-end Washington State syrahs I conducted in Seattle in late July for a mostly-Microsoft group of wine lovers.  [This short report was published a couple weeks ago on the International Wine Cellar site.]  Most of the dozen wines we tried were from the outstanding, cooler 2010 vintage, which yielded fresh, rich, structured wines with all the elements for greatness, with the rest from the considerably warmer growing season of 2009.

The point of the exercise was to show the many styles of syrah being made in Washington today.  The event organizer divided the wines into four categories:  traditional, modern, hot vineyards and “rocks” vineyards.  Hot vineyards in this case meant syrahs from the Red Mountain appellation, while “rocks” refers to the alluvial fan of the Blue Mountains east of the town of Walla Walla, where rounded pebbles and cobblestones store the heat of the day and release it to the vines during the evening hours.  (Christophe Baron of Cayuse was the trailblazer here.)

Although there is obviously considerable overlap among these categories, the winemakers seemed satisfied with having their wines so classified, and the categories made sense over the course of the evening.  Incidentally, we had five of the winemakers in attendance:  Greg Harrington (Gramercy Cellars), Jon Meuret (Maison Bleue), Peter Devison (Efesté Wines), Bob Betz (Betz Family Cellars), and Steve Robertson (Delmas), and they joined in an active discussion about such variables as use of whole clusters in fermentation, new oak, length of elevage, single-site wines vs. blends, recent vintages, and so on.

Of course, I tried to further complicate the exercise by introducing another way of categorizing syrah, one that is probably more familiar to IWC readers:  New World vs. Old World.  To me, Old World syrahs are generally smoky and gamey; they usually lead with non-fruit qualities like bacon fat, flowers, olive, dried herbs and spices.  They have firmer tannins, more obvious structure and at least the impression of more acidity.  The wines often show saline and earthy qualities.  The shorthand descriptor I would use for this type of syrah is savory.  These wines are about much more than just sweet fruit.

The New World style is more about fruit, black fruits more often than red, and often with a very ripe, jammy character.  When syrah is labeled as shiraz, as it is with most Australian wines and some from South Africa, it’s more likely to be dominated by black and even blue fruits and to be more immediately approachable.  To me, shiraz on a label suggests lower acidity, a plush texture, high alcohol and round tannins.  And it’s much more likely to be aged in American oak.  New World syrah is less likely to feature savory elements like earthiness, tobacco and olive.

But, as you’ll see in my brief notes below, even where the Washington wines showed dramatically complex aromatics with a nod toward the northern Rhone, they normally had too much ripe, sweet berry fruit to be mistaken for Old World wines.   One possible exception was the three highly distinctive wines from the “rocks,” which certainly make the case that this area of Walla Walla Valley deserves its own appellation.  (It’s in the works, by the way.)  If my notes get a bit skimpy toward the end, that was a function of being the MC of a 3+-hour event along with a certain failure to spit.

The wines were uncorked an hour or three before they were poured but were not decanted.

Incidentally, while producers in California, Australia and elsewhere still struggle to sell their syrahs once retail prices exceed about $25, the top syrahs of Washington State still enjoy solid demand, particularly in the local market.  The wines we tasted in July all sold for $40 to $80 on release–in other words, they’re far from cheap."