Wine fads come and go. A few years ago it was chardonnay. Now it's "ABC"—anything but chardonnay—if you want to be in fashion. For a while all you heard was "Merlot? I love merlot!" Forget that; now it's "Syrah? I looove syrah!"
When I hear that in a restaurant, I want to get up, go over to the table, and shake the speaker. When people mooed about merlot, at least you knew what they were talking about. But syrah's another animal entirely. Which syrah? Australian: a big wobbly water balloon full of fruit flavor? French: dry, wry, with a sardonic profile and an elegant stance? California: No, don't get me started on California syrah. . . . Couldn't they have been satisfied with ruining chardonnay?
The confusion becomes a babel when you come to Washington syrah. Every site, every slope, every winemaker gets different results—the amazing thing is how many are successful. More than 10 years ago, when merlot was still the red-wine grape to beat in these parts, Doug McCrea showed that Washington syrah could emulate the combination of fullness and elegance that makes the great wines of France's Rhône valley so memorable. But now it seems everybody's growing and vinifying syrah, and the grape's chameleon character is becoming apparent.
A trade tasting last week at Salty's on Alki offered embarrassments of evidence. Thirty winemakers, 40 wines, and damn near as many different experiences. Chandler Reach offered three syrah vintages: same vineyards, same winemaker, three different wines—the '00, a woody, restrained "food wine" as austere as a fine Bordeaux cabernet (around $25); the '01, ample, almost sweet, asking to be quaffed ($26); the '02 (not yet released), with an herbal impact and a finish that hints at a paradoxical affinity for hearty fish dishes like bouillabaisse.
Of the dozen wines I sampled before my nonprofessional palate overloaded, only one was remotely in the I-love-syrah style—Forgeron Cellars' lovely, fruity '01 Columbia Valley bottling (about $30), with tannins so laid-back they almost slip over the tongue unobserved. Portteus' '02 estate syrah ($22) was quite different: perky nose, blackberry bite, like zinfandel cleaned up and wearing a tie. Syncline achieves a striking balance with its '01 "Milbrandt" syrah ($20) by blending from two quite different sites half a mile apart, one hot, one cool, harvested a month apart. The result is sound and supple, with tannins all through evolving into a cigar-leaf tang on the finish.
How the winemaker imagines syrah has a huge impact on results. Paul Beveridge admires the lean, dry style of France's noble Hermitage wines, and that's what he gets in his '01 Elephant Mountainsyrah ($30). In '01, veteran winemaker Gordy Rawson got rich Rhône-y concentration from the Wahluke Slope's Jack Jones vineyard. His Lonesome Spring syrah offers a touch of wild honey in the nose and sweet candied cherry on the palate. Just two of the four Chatter Creek syrahs being poured, they were the day's bargains at around $16 retail.
There were more wines on offer, many more. I would have loved to have learned why Austin Robaire thinks its '01 Elerding reserve is worth $80, and look forward to sampling the '01 Bridgman syrah on my own nickel (at $13, it was the least pricey of all.) But one nose and palate can only do so much in one afternoon.