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Syrah, Unleashed

By Karen MacNeil
December 15, 2017

Like the kind of guy who wears cowboy boots with a tuxedo, syrah has a certain manly-yet-classy appeal.  In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, the British scholar and wine writer George Saintsbury described the famous Rhône wine Hermitage (made exclusively from syrah) as the “manliest wine” he’d ever drunk.

It’s easy to understand why. Syrah’s flavors are potent and powerful—an explosive concatenation of worn leather, woodland smoke, roasted game, meat juices, coffee, tar, iron, minerals, blood, and a fistful of pepper–white and black. Some of those ideas might not sound like anything you want in a wine glass (blood? tar?), but trust me, you do. Once these flavors start to detonate on your palate like sensory grenades, chances are, you’ll be hooked. Especially if there’s some lamb or duck on a plate in front you. And the perfect time for those, is now.

Until about a year ago, I would have said that the most dramatic syrahs in the world come from the northern Rhône Valley of France. There, in exclusive, small wine enclaves such as Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas, the only red grape allowed is syrah. The wines—expensive and highly sought after—are wild and primordial, no question about it.

But then I tasted a slew of syrahs that were so deliciously unleashed and unhinged, it was, frankly unnerving. They weren’t French; indeed, weren’t European. Amazingly they were from a remote geologic phenomenon that straddles eastern Washington and Oregon. It’s called The Rocks.

The Rocks District of Milton Freewater (the official U.S. government-decreed name) is a 6 square mile area south of the town of Walla Walla (until recently best known for its onions). The vineyards are on the Oregon side of the border, but most of the wineries are in Washington, and therefore list Walla Walla on their wine labels.

The soil (if it can be called that) is composed of softball-sized cobblestones of cooled lava hundreds of feet deep. The cauldron of rock was deposited some 15,000 to 12,000 years ago by The Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic floods that resulted from collapsing glacial ice dams thousands of feet high. So powerful was the force of the water as it raced to the Pacific Ocean that more than 50 cubic miles of earth and rock were moved, scouring out the entire Columbia River Valley and reshaping the Pacific Northwest.

The first vineyard in The Rocks was planted in 1997 by a Frenchman named Christophe Baron who decided to forego the family Champagne business and strike out on his own in America. Baron’s wine—Cayuse—is still consider the godfather of Rock’s syrahs. It’s hard to get, but rewarding when you can. The wine is a howling primal scream of gameyness and minerality. Baron inspired a slew of other winemakers—most of them strong individualists who decided against a career in better–known Napa or Sonoma, to grow vines in stone beds in a place most wine lovers have still never heard of.

No matter. Word is getting out. Especially among people who love meat, for the marriage of a Rocks syrah and a roast has to be one of the great American food and wine experiences of our time.

I recently tasted nearly 100 top Washington State wines. Here are the syrahs from The Rocks that I think are the most powerful, sensual, and tempestuous.

  • CAYUSE “Cailloux Vineyard” Syrah 2013 (Walla Walla, Washington) $80
  • TWO VINTNERS “Some Days Are Stones” Syrah 2014 (Walla Walla, Washington) $50
  • DELMAS Syrah 2014 (Walla Walla, Washington) $65
  • SLEIGHT OF HAND “Psychedelic” 2014 (Walla Walla, Washington) $60
  • REYNVAAN “In the Rocks” Syrah 2014 (Walla Walla, Washington) $70
  • DUSTED VALLEY “Tall Tales” Stoney Vine Vineyard Syrah 2014 (Walla Walla, Washington) $60
  • GRAMERCY CELLARS “Forgotten Hills” Syrah 2014 (Walla Walla, Washington) $60 This final fantastic wine is from a vineyard on a lava bed nearby, but not in, The Rocks.