Washington’s Signature Varietals: Syrah and Riesling

By John ~ February 19th, 2010.

The State of Washington has a unique position in the world of wine. It makes world-class wines of so many varietals that it dilutes its focus from just one “signature” varietal that has made so many wine regions almost legendary, such as Napa Cab and Oregon Pinot Noir. A good case can be made in Washington for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux-type blends, Syrah, and Riesling, just to name a few. Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Semillon have also done very well.

However, after tasting thousands of Washington wines over many vintages, talking to numerous growers and winemakers, and walking the rows of most of the major vineyards in Washington, I have concluded that Washington’s signature red wine is Syrah and its signature white wine is Riesling. Now if the realities of marketing would just reflect that lofty status.

Two Washington Syrahs, the 2005 Fielding Hills and the 2006 O*S Dineen Vineyard, have garnered the only 5 stars (out of 5) Quality rating we’ve ever given to Washington wines. And at the Washington Syrah seminar at Vintage Walla Walla last year, noted Washington wine writer and reviewer Paul Gregutt said:

“As I look over my tasting notes for the past few years, it is the syrahs that garner the highest scores as a group. It is a syrah that finally toppled my resistance to the 100-point barrier [2006 Charles Smith Royal City Syrah]. It is syrah that winemakers in this state almost universally love.”

That same Royal City Syrah also garnered the highest rating ever bestowed on a Washington red wine by Wine Spectator.

Washington Syrahs generally fall somewhere in between the jammy Shiraz of Australia and the more austere Syrah of the northern Rhone. They generally have good acidity and tannins. The common denominators of our favorites have been deep, dark purple color and luscious black fruits, with hints of black olives, green bell peppers, black pepper, and spice. The bottom line: Washington Syrah compares favorably with the best in the world.

On the white wine side, the number one grape in acres planted in Washington is Chardonnay, most of it fairly unremarkable; and there is very good Semillon, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc. But I believe that the undisputed leader when you combine quality and quantity is Riesling. Washington is the largest Riesling producing state in the United States. And, Washington State’s own Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest Riesling producer in the world.

While Washington Riesling has been around for many years, the big leap forward came in the late 1990s when Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr. Ernst Loosen of Germany began collaborating on an effort to produce truly great Riesling in Washington’s Columbia Valley. Out of that joint venture has come Eroica, an internationally known and respected Riesling, while raising the bar for the entire Riesling category in Washington. While we have tasted and enjoyed Eroica on several occasions, the proof in the pudding for us was when it came out on top in one of our blind tastings of Washington Riesling, all of which were very good.

Today, Washington Riesling is mostly dry to off-dry, a great accompaniment with food. They generally have great acidity and flavorful fruit. You usually get citrus flavors such as lemon and lime, as well as apricot, peach, pear and, sometimes, tropical fruits too. The bottom line: Washington Riesling will stand up with the best you can find anywhere.

If you want to learn more about Washington Riesling, you might want to attend the Riesling Rendezvous July 11-13 in Woodinville, Washington, hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Ernst Loosen.

What do you think are Washington’s signature varietals?

Filed under: American Wine, Red Wine, Riesling, Shiraz/Syrah, Washington State Wine, White Wine

Reader's Comments

  1. Paul Zitarelli | February 19th, 2010 at 9:09 am

    John – I think you nailed it. For me, Riesling and Syrah are our two most terroir-expressive grapes and make wines that most clearly state: I am from Washington.

  2. Craig Mitrakul | February 21st, 2010 at 7:52 am

    I second that! And why wouldn’t I, these are the only 2 wines I produce. But, these varietals really do differentiate WA outside of the state. The diversity of styles that WA is able to produce is even more interesting.

  3. John | February 23rd, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Paul and Craig, Thanks for your comments. Both of you hit the nail on the head from my point of view.