Washington State Wine Country – Syrah is delicious

Columbia Tower, Seattle WA

Washington State Wine Country – Where are you and how do you get there?  Located in the great Pacific Northwest – From Seattle, cross the Cascade Mountain Range, heading east, inland to one of the finest grape growing areas in the USA and second largest next to California.

Unlike many wine regions, Washington cannot be defined by a single grape or even a group of grapes. While Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling and Chardonnay are the most common in terms of production and plantings, nearly 70 varieties are planted and experimentation continues.

Chateau Ste Michelle Wine Estates (Columbia Crest)

Wine Tip – Washington State Syrah – this variety continues to thrive here and show its diversity.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the top red and white grapes planted and there are plenty of great examples across the region to show why.  Washington State is a warm, dry climate and many of these wines have a similar level of fruit ripeness, concentration and oaky style that once in the bottle, tend to look all the same.  This is a positive in many respects, the quality is always consistent and customers feel confident about their style preference from vintage to vintage with very little change.  This may also be why Syrah gets noticed, while stylistically these wines tend to be deeply coloured and fuller bodied, there is a broader range of alcohol levels, acidity and flavours, especially more savoury notes that differentiate the wines from each other.

Horse Heaven Hills AVA in the distance (photo taken in Red Mountain AVA).

Washington State is a distinctive and diverse growing region, with a range of soil types.  There is a large diurnal shift which preserves natural acidity great for balance.  The grapevines here are own rooted, which make this another unique feature of the region.  Like many wine regions, there are some big players, but also a legion of small, family producers to discover.

Snake River in the Columbia Valley

Key areas where Syrah performs best are Columbia Valley AVA, Naches Heights AVA, Red Mountain AVA, Wahluke Slope AVA, Walla Walla Valley AVA, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Yakima Valley AVA.

Hedges Family Wine Estate in Red Mountian AVA

Winegrowing – How is Syrah made here – Syrah continues to impress and makes a strong case for the best value for money Syrah on the planet in my mind.  21,300 tons were crushed in 2016.  8% of total crush.  So plenty of potential for growth.

Syrah is Washington’s third most planted red grape after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  7% of all vineyard land planted in the region.  There is a diversity of styles from dark fruit, such as blackberries, to blueberries and cranberries as well as savoury, espresso notes.

Viognier is occasionally co-fermented, giving these wines a distinct floral uplift.

Alcohol levels can range anywhere from under 13.5% to 16% based on the warmth of the growing region and the style the winemaker is looking to achieve. Winemakers in Washington follow traditional methods with Syrah, ageing the wine in small French, and sometimes American, oak barrels for often 14 months or longer. Many producers frequently limit their use of new oak compared to other varieties, with some recently using concrete fermenters and ageing the wines in neutral oak barrels and puncheons.  Here are some of the standout Syrah Producers from this trip:

Columbia Crest – based out of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA – especially their Grand Estates range. For the money these wines are fantastic value and regularly receive strong accolades for their work.  A most impressive winemaking facility – a must visit.

K Vintners – run by the man himself, Charles Smith, who is based in the famous Walla Walla AVA – regularly listed at the top of many critics list of Syrah producers in the region. These wines are deep coloured, picked very ripe and made with low intervention, often without destemming.

Hedges Family Wine Estates – also a highly regarded Syrah and Bordeaux Blend producer, making old world, classically structured styles based in Red Mountain.  A really lovely family who farm using organic and biodynamic principles.

a’Maurice – are making elegant, savoury Syrah showing reductive, smoked meat and olive tapenade-like flavours with perfume and floral characters that I love in Syrah.  Delicious.

Efeste – out of Yakima Valley, hit the blueberry, juicy fruit and mineral edge of Syrah, sleek and terroir driven.

L’Ecole – in the Columbia Valley are a renowned Syrah producer, very reliable showing spicy, rich and complex styles.

Charles Smith of K Vintners at his tasting room in Walla Walla


Introducing EXOPTO – Bordeaux meets Rioja

Exopto = Tom Puyaubert

When thinking of Rioja, Bordeaux isn’t usually the first connection you make. In the case of EXOPTO you can’t separate the two and that is down to one fact; Tom Puyaubert…

Tom is an enigma when it comes to wine makers in Rioja. In 2000 this Frenchman moved from Bordeaux to Rioja. Initially, his focus wasn’t on wine but barrels. Working for Saury (a top barrel producer from Bordeaux), he was exposed to the highest levels of wine from the region and he fell in love. With a background making wine in both France and USA particularly focused on working in smaller wineries rather than working on a commercial scale.

In a region known for traditional wine making Exopto is pushing boundaries. This acceptance and integration of new technology, winemaking techniques and ideology are the hallmarks of these wines. From hanging the Graciano longer until it’s almost raisin-like to extended ageing in oak of Rioja’s dominant white grape Viura.

2014 Exopto –  Containing 60% Graciano, Rioja’s rarest red grape, this wine is a power house of fruits of the forest, baking spice and dark chocolate.  [READ MORE]

2015 Horizonte de Exopto – Following a more traditional line this Tempranillo matches blackberry and smoke with silky tannins and a mineral lift. [READ MORE]

2015 Bozeto de Exopto –  50% Garnacha, 40% Tempranillo, and 10% Graciano. Punchy currants, cedar and tobacco. [READ MORE]

These are some truly astounding wines.

A New perspective on Australian wine

A New perspective on Australian wine

What follows is Michael’s short retrospective on his intensive 9-day tasting tour through some of  Australia’s greatest wines regions and how looking at all their wines in concert has changed my view of Australian fine wine.


Day 1

Arrive in Sydney 8.30am, the most beautiful clear sunny day you could wish for. Being the first day and excited about what was in store for the next 9 days. I ran through the hotel, dumping the bags, and rushing to the first tasting. All the more enthused to seeing the beautiful Quay restaurant with the harbour shimmering in the background. The tasting begins. This is a free pour style tasting with more than 100 wines arranged on 3 tables, History, Evolution and Revolution. The first table telling a classic story of Australian wine, these are well-known wines with massive pedigree and families dating back decades.

Some examples below,

History (Wynns John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet, Yarra Yering Dry Red No1, Henschke Hill of Grace, Tyrrell’s 4 Acres Shiraz, Grosset Polish Hill, Penfolds RWT)

Evolution ( Cullen Diana Madeline, Jamsheed Syrah, S.C.Pannell Tempranillo Touriga, Bindi Block 5 PN, Mac Forbes Woori Yallock PN, Brash Higgins Zibibbo, Jim Barry Assyrtiko)

Revolution ( Ruggabellus Sallio, Chevre by Jordy Kay, Brian, Sami-Odi ‘Little Wine’ #6 Syrah, Latta Tranquil)

Of course also some classic stickies

(Penfolds Great Grandfather, Chambers Rare Muscat, Seppeltsfield dry flor solero)

Day 2

Riesling Masterclass Hosted by Jeff Grosset

Here we have the master of Grosset Wines telling a story of the development of Riesling in the Australian market from its introduction in 1838 in Penrith NSW and being the most planted grape by ha until 1990! When it was usurped by the almighty Chardonnay. As well as the wines development and movement from warmer climes and richer wines through to the more common Clare Valley and Eden Valley examples we see today with their impressive clarity and purity. Progressing even further with fun fruity and orange Riesling of Mac Forbes EB10 Ginger Rizz.

Day 3

The perfect start to the day, Shiraz.

A sensory study focussed on sensory properties of Shiraz, Australian or otherwise, and the perception of chemical profiles and climatic regions. 24 wines all Shiraz to be judged blind, not against each other by us, but by creating markers of more or less of ‘desirable characters’ vs the control wine. The control (which turned out to be a $15 supermarket wine!) was up against wines worth up to 15x the price. An interesting exercise which we will probably not know the results of for a few years to come, but highly informative to see such wines put together.

The day concluded equally well with Australian First Families (a group of leading multi-generational winemaking families) present the history, heritage and provenance. Starting the journey with the most classic of whites the Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon at 10.5% abv and 0% RS! Chardonnay from Howard Park and Tyrrell’s. Famous Cabernets from Brown Brothers, Tahbilk, Taylors, Yalumba, Shiraz from d’Arenberg, Jim Barry and Henschke all being round up with De Bortoli’s Noble One and the infinitely deep and dark Rare Muscat from Campbells. A showcase of both the diversity of Australia’s climates and the shared history that carries with them through producing fine wine.


Day 4

1 short hour on the bus out to Geelong greeted by yet another hot and sunny morning, we dive into one of Australia’s lesser known regions. This is where the fun begins with young energetic and experimental winemakers who choose to make great wines from exciting grapes varieties. These winemakers have been using anything from Lagrein to Sagrantino to produce their own unique take on the terroir and the variety. Lethbridge made a particular point of showing the plethora of possibilities for the region with some beautiful back vintage examples of 100% whole-bunch, 100% new oak Chardonnay and Pinot Noir each showing incredible balance for such heavily oaked wines.

Day 5

Heathcote and Macedon Ranges are on the list today, again a stone’s throw from Melbourne just a couple of hours by bus. Starting with the hot and eucalyptus surrounded vineyards of Tellurian wines, where Tobias Ansted (winemaker) noted the unique character of some vineyards getting their eucalypt(minty) flavour from the trees surrounding the vineyard expelling gases if temperatures rise above 35C. This is also the temperature at which vines will tend to go dormant so hopefully not too often. A touch of light rain started as we made our way over to the Curly Flat Vineyard and Cellar door in the Macedon Ranges. Moving a little higher in elevation and onto the side of a small hill (a mountain for Australians) gives a much cooler climate a touch extra rainfall and the unexpected ability to make some delectable PN/Ch methode traditionelle sparkling wines. Though truly at this stage they are making more of the still wines, their terroir will surely rise up in the near future for some great bubbly.

Day 6

All feeling a little worse for wear we head off to one of Melbourne’s classic new wave beard wearing urban collaborative wineries called Noisy Ritual. They provided Bloody Mary’s for the soul and great American style low and slow smoked brisket for the stomach as well as an interesting insight into how the wine enthusiast can bring a little more wine knowledge next time they sit down with their friends (or even a bottle of their wine!). Flights to Adelaide ensued for me as the groups split up across Australia from Tasmania to Perth. Of course, the first stop for any Adelaide goer has to be Penfolds, with their gargantuan collection of Grange (every vintage ever made, even the secret ones) and frankly slightly too opulent crystal Imperial (6L) pourer and decanter. Though you can be guaranteed a great show and maybe a tour of the biggest barrels I have ever laid eyes on, with their Helen Keller at a whopping 48,979L. While we were there we had to look at some of their wines showing young and old vintages of the same wine demonstrating just how well the wines can stand up to time. Long discussions were had over the pros and cons of screwcap vs diam vs natural cork, no answer was found.

Day 7

Maclaren is the flavour of the day, boasting some of the warmest climates and biggest wines we were likely to see on the tour, this region has become famous for its’ epic Shiraz and more recently the outstanding Grenache. First stop is Bekkers wine a boutique winery from horticulture enthusiast Toby Bekker and his wife. Of course, they straight away made me throw my preconception about what Mclaren Vale could be by presenting 3 elegant and complex wines based on Grenache and the provocatively named Syrah. All wines showing a clear sense of place and purity of fruit, with a relative mere hint of new oak (puncheons used) these wines had real beauty and length. No sooner having had my mind blown we headed off to Chapel Hill slightly further down the road where I was brought back to the real world by the hilariously late harvesting of some of Mollydookers’ vines well after most others had finished, no doubt another epically concentrated wine for them. With such short time, Chapel Hill was occupied with many great producers all showing their wares in harmony helping to build their region profile with their expressions of Mclaren Vale in a glass. (much closer to what I remembered)

Day 8

We land in a smaller funkier and more adventurous part of Australia, Adelaide Hills’ Basket Range Festival. Many a barefoot, scruffy face and long hair to be seen here, though this was to be expected given this was a natural wine festival. Welcome to the world of no sulphur, no additions and some, epically good expressive and varietal wines. Though to be fair there was also a bit of faulty wine where the terroir or varietal character was clouded by the producers’ complete refusal to clean up the wines before release. I take my hat off to those who are able to produce great wines with such self-imposed restrictions. Particular favourites, BK Wines Chardonnay(s), Charlotte Dalton Semillons and the CRFT Gruner-Veltliners all of spectacular texture and intrigue. All this followed by a tour of Shaw + Smith and more tasting this time of more traditional but equally delicious tasting of great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced by Shaw + Smith and some of the other original Adelaide Hills producers. The bus leaves with all aboard for the adventure to Barossa Valley where we were treated to Barossa Valley Port-style wine from the 1929 vintage while standing on the mountain (hill) between Eden Valley and Barossa Valley surveying all the old Shiraz vines we could see, an amazing spot to overview the entire region.

Day 9

Henschke, this is the first stop of the day. For anyone not familiar with the now 151-year-old winemaking family from the Eden Valley, they are making some of the greatest expressions of Australian Shiraz to make it into a bottle (think Grange pricing). A short tour passed some vigorously bubbling Shiraz in a concrete open top fermenter and passed the mysterious Octaves(46L) of Madeira and into the tasting room for a quick run through some of their favourite wines from bottle and some still fermenting from linear Riesling to densely spiced Shiraz these really are wines to be sought after. Yalumba was next in line, this time taking us down into one of the old 250,000L concrete holding tanks for a comparative tasting of the greater Barossa sub-regions. These guys break them down to Barossa (holding within it Northern Grounds, Central Grounds and Southern Grounds moving down the valley) and Eden Valley (holding within it High Eden). By my reckoning on basic terms of course, northern grounds produced Rich Fruits, Central Grounds produced wines of savoury and menthol notes, southern grounds ripe black stone fruit (plum) while Eden Valley produced fresher examples with more pure fruit. My pick is Eden Valley. Seppeltsfield is the last and final stop of the tour, one last winemakers’ dinner to be had, in this case however the highlight was fortified with their unbelievable unbroken vertical of Port Style wines dating back to 1878 each of us tasting our birth year (1991 in my case). It has to be said that there was some comparison of the vintages going everybody claiming their vintage to be the best

Day 10

Flights home ☹

And on these long flights, I had time to think back on what I had learnt and what I had seen. What was I to make of the massive array of fine wine presented during those 9 days? All I can say is Australian wine has a strong identity, hidden behind the mask of homogenous large volume Shiraz. Don’t be afraid to explore every little region you come across, there are gems in every single one.

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