It all comes out in the wash…Washington State

By Celia Strong

More precisely, it all comes out in Washington State. Meaning the flavors and textures in their wines. We all know, really well, that wines we have spilled on carpets and new furniture and special sweaters do not come out in the wash! But, forward we go. To learn study and taste.

The state of Washington is the source for many excellent wines. Although, different stylistically from the warmer climate wines that come from California. Washington is second behind California for total wine production in the United States. The first grapes in Washington were planted in 1825 at Fort Vancouver. German and Italian immigrants, though, were the first to produce wines in Washington. Starting in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1917, Washington was one of the first states to begin Prohibition. This, basically, stopped their wine industry and most of their commercial wineries went out of business.

In the middle of the 20th century, some University of Washington professors turned their home winemaking into a commercial operation. They became Columbia Winery. In 1988, five Washington wineries had wines in the “Wine Spectator’s” top 100 list. Then, in 1991, a report on “60 Minutes” talked about the “French Paradox.” Seems Frenchmen, despite all the butter and rich sauces and cheeses and foie gras that they ate, were extremely healthy. Red wine was given the credit. Americans immediately started drinking more red wine. And Washington State Merlots flew of store shelves and restaurant wine racks. Of course, Merlots were popular at that point in time because they were not as heavy and intense as so many of the Cabernets. Especially from Napa. Washington was known for great Merlots, and their place in the United States wine industry was solidified.

Today, Washington red wine production is lead by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. In that order. Slowly, the focus is moving Syrah up the ranks. The success for Syrah in Washington State comes from the growing conditions. Seems we’ve heard before that the growing conditions make a big difference. They have warm, hot summers. With the nights being as much as 40 degrees cooler. The soil is a mix of volcanic pumice and dense, loamy soil. Climate and soil particulars that make for intensely complex flavors and textures. And good fruit acidity. Syrah is one of the few varieties that can survive temperatures up to and over 100 degrees and also survive the brutally cold winters of the northwest. Washington climate also helps Syrah because it has very long daylight hours, with the best vineyards facing south. Currently, there are only about 3,100 acres of Syrah planted in Washington. Compared to California’s 19,000 acres, that’s not much at all.

In the world of Washington Syrah’s, there are two styles. Some have more savory notes, with tobacco and olive flavors, and these tend to be higher priced. This style is more like the Syrah wines of the northern Rhone Valley in southern France. The other style is more juicy, jam-like fruity wines. And a bit higher in alcohol levels. Two different styles that are both good. If, by any chance, one were interested in aging some of these wines, the former style will fare better. Either way, there are experts who are predicting that Syrah wines will soon be out ranking both Cabernets and Merlots from Washington.

So, what do Washington Syrah’s taste like? Again, the two styles. But, the flavors in both are extensive. Blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry, olives, pepper, clove, vanilla, mint, licorice, chocolate and cocoa powder, allspice, rosemary, cured meats, smoked meats, bacon, tobacco, herbs, smoke. Phew. Quite a list. Usually, and this is good because all these flavors at once could be overpowering, a taste of Syrah starts with the black and blue fruits, wanders a bit in your mouth, fades and finishes, finally, with pepper and smoke. Besides all these layered flavors, Syrah can make some of the darkest colored, most full bodied wines. So, I’m wondering why we don’t drink more Syrah’s.

Now, we come to our wine for this week. Lujon Syrah from the Walla Walla AVA in Washington. A winery we have visited before. Remember? Lewis and John Derthick are father and son who started working together in 2005. At Lujon Wine Cellars. (“Lujon” is a combination of their two first names.) Lewis had been a wine lover for years. And John had worked in the wine industry for twenty years. As John says, “I think Oregon is in a unique position. We not only grow some of the best cool climate grapes in the world, but we are also blessed with some of the most diverse warm climatic regions as well. This is exciting from my perspective because I’m able to make great wines from a huge variety of grapes from all over the Northwest.” Yes, they are in Oregon, but make a Washington Syrah.

The grapes for Lujon Syrah are two thirds from Walla Walla, one third from the Columbia Valley. It is a fruit forward style with berry, plum, vanilla and licorice flavors. As you sip you way through a glass, though, more herbal and earthy notes start to show. And the dimensions continue to increase with each sip. A wine that actually grows with you? How perfect is that! It can all come out in the wash. Oops, glass. For $18.99. Enjoy.

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