Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wowed By Walla Walla Syrah

In the past decade, Walla Walla syrah has skyrocketed in fame and cost. And when you taste syrah from this appellation, you can understand why. Syrah grown in this area (which encompasses the southeastern part of Washington State and part of northern Oregon) shows incredible purity and density of fruit flavors, and the wines frequently display classic syrah themes of bacon, olive, charcoal and rich earth.

But, like every great wine region, the producer is key. At a friend’s birthday wine tasting earlier this month, I tried three Walla Walla syrahs from some of my favorite producers: Gramercy Cellars, Reynvaan and Cayuse. While all could be considering “cult” wineries in one way or another, it’s fair to credit Cayuse with much of the hype and fanfare surrounding Walla Walla syrah. Focused on dense, complex, long-lived syrahs from single vineyards, Cayuse has raked up all sorts of massive scores from the big critics. But Gramercy and Reynvaan are masters of syrah in their own right, and both produced stellar wine in the 2010 vintage. 

Here are my notes…

2010 Gramercy Cellars Syrah “John Lewis Reserve” - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley ($55)
This is a beautiful Walla Walla syrah, but it needs a long decant or a good five years in the cellar because it’s so young and compact. With swirling, the smoke, earth and black olive aromas started emerging from the depths of the blackberry jam. Full and velvety on the palate, with grippy tannins and enough acid to hold up against the density of the blackberry and fig fruit. The coffee bean, iron, corned beef and pepper flavors are just lovely.
This syrah is just so young, though, and it needs a lot of time to develop. The syrah grapes (which make up 100% of the blend) are grown in the Les Collines Vineyard. They are fermented with their stems and aged in neutral oak. Only 13.9% alcohol. (93 points)

2010 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah “In the Rocks” - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley ($55)
Another great example of Reynvaan Family kicking ass with syrah. This smells of rich, dark, Walla Walla fruit (sweet black cherries, fig, hints of red plum), but also some lavender and cinnamon. On the palate, this is so juicy and rich, with pure black and blue fruits that last. The tannins have serious structure, and the acid is lively enough to balance out against the richness of the fruit. Secondary flavors of smoke, loam and dark chocolate, and I’m loving them. Another great bottle, but of course all of this producer’s wines, from all vintages, are sold out. Damn! If you’re lucky enough to have some of this, put it sideways for a few years, because it’s got a lot of stuffing for the ages. Some viognier is co-fermented with this single-vineyard syrah. (92 points)

2001 Cayuse Syrah “Bionic Frog” - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley
A simply sublime syrah. Complex and profound aromas of black plum, dried blueberry, campfire smoke, rhubarb, grilled steak and charred earth. Brisk acid on the palate, with fine-grained tannins, very elegant at 12 years of age. The blackberry and plum fruit is still rich and opulent, but the non-fruit flavors steal the show: bacon, charcoal, grilled herbs, olive brine. Always expressive, but never overbearing, and a lot of this is credit to the wonderful acid. This wine is incredibly complex and has a near endless finish. It’s such an expensive and hyped wine, but like many Cayuse syrahs, I love it despite myself. I think this bottle lives up to its reputation, and it’s one of the best Washington syrahs I’ve tasted. Thanks a ton to my friend Brett for opening this gem! The cheapest I can find this wine is $275 at auction, which is half the cost of my first car. But I’d take two bottles of this over a used Geo Metro any day. (96 points)

While these wines are pricey and hard to find, they’re incredible interpretations of the syrah grape. If you’ve recently had some Walla Walla syrah, I’d love to hear about it. Cheers!


  1. Just a bit of information clarification: The Walla Walla Valley AVA (and Columbia Valley AVA) are actually in both Oregon and Washington. Only the Gramercy has fruit from Washington (the vineyard is actually right on the OR/WA border), the Reynvaan and Cayuse utilize fruit from Oregon. Reynvaan makes their wine in Washington (in Walla Walla), and Cayuse actually makes their wine in Oregon, and so is technically an Oregon wine (though they don't make that distinction easily known).

    All three of these wines come from fruit grown within 10-20 miles of each other in the Walla Walla Valley, whereas the Columbia Valley is a HUGE AVA covering most of Washington and parts of Oregon.

  2. John,
    Thanks for the information. I'm aware that the Walla Walla AVA consists of land in both Washington State and Oregon, but I was unaware that the Cayuse and Reynvaan vineyard sources for these wines are located in Oregon. I've tried to search more information about the In the Rocks vineyard and the Cocinelle vineyard, but, you're right, it's not easy to find information about where specifically these spots are located. I assumed they were from the Washington State side, but now that you mention it, I can't find that information explicitly stated. Thanks for the head's up. Cheers!