Unsung Heroes tasting, St Pancreas Renaissance Hotel, London, March 10, 2021. Chief among the unsung heroes on show was Sarah, the Rhone variety that accounts for just over 24,000 tons of Washington’s 261,000-ton output, with Cabernet Sauvignon dominating at 74,000 tons. His comments were echoed by wine writer Dr Jamie Goode, who led the masterclasses at the tasting.
Crunchy redcurrant and raspberry flavors lifted the drippy food-friendly tannins and formed another wine that could also be mistaken for Grenade in a blind tasting. This was serious stuff, with tea, dark chocolate and roast meat notes adding to the complexity of the black fruit on the palate.
Badger Mountain Vineyard Sarah 2018 Badger Mountain carries on the organic practices laid down by Bill Powers when he founded the vineyard in 1982 and gained United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification in 1990. Its palate is warm and spicy, with subtle vanilla, a crunch of red apple and oodles of blackcurrant.
Its warm nose was full of raspberry and blackcurrant, while is dark fruit flavors were balanced by stringy tannins. My favorite from his four Surahs on show was the Lagniappe Red Willow, which was full of violets and warm wood smoke on the nose before launching into full-bodied drippy tannins and fresh acidity on the palate.
The fruit is all grown on Ambassador’s estate in the Red Mountain AVA, which is full of glacial soils. Sweeter blackcurrant jam and more assertive tannins rounded off the package, which tips the scales at an affordable £15 or less.
Prayers of Sinners and Saints Sarah 2017 The third in our trio from St Michelle’s family is another great value £15-and-under Sarah, with warm wood smoke and cedar on the nose leading into redder fruit on the palate, plus raspberry and redcurrant peeking out amongst the blackberry and blackcurrant. The first Washingtonsyrah that made my toes curl : McCrea Brushed Vineyard 2005 Sarah I predict that as the Washington wine region expands Sarah will outrank Merlot and will be the second most coveted wines out of Washington state.
To date, Washington’s most widely grown red varietals are Cabernet, Merlot and Sarah –in that order(1). The secret sauce behind Washingtonsyrah is the growing conditions of Eastern Washington.
The long, hot summer days with massive temperature shifts at night (up to 40 °F differences between highs and lows(3)) and the right mix of volcanic pumice and dense loamy soil make for complex flavors and well maintained fruit acidity. Few varietals can withstand temperatures that get over 100 degrees; Sarah is one of them, and is hardy enough to survive the equally brutal Washington winters.
Sarah benefits from exposure to sunshine, and Washington has very long daylight hours because of its position relative to the equator. The best vineyards live on southward facing slopes where they can drink in the sun’s rays.
If the positive reviews for Washingtonsyrah continue, I suspect that more vineyards will be planted to the varietal. The uptick in positive reviews could be contributed to vintners paying more serious attention to Sarah winemaking techniques.
The majority of the wineries listed above simply do not produce or distribute enough wine to satisfy the thirsty US Market, let alone the increasingly voracious international demand. Many of the boutique Washington winemakers I’ve talked to are happy to just max out their wine club and putt along–because it’s easy.
As a passionate wine drinker I would encourage winemakers to think big… and get Washingtonsyrah in front of more winos. If you plan on aging and collecting Washington surahs, look for wines with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity and overall balance.
Environmental Issues with Washington wine Despite the Northwest’s reputation for heavy rain, most of Washington’s wine comes from east of the Cascade mountains in a region that only receives 6-8 inches of rain a year. As interest in Sarah (and Shiraz, as it’s called in Australia, ) has diminished the past few years, Washingtonsyrah production continues to hold steady and even increase.
In fact, this spring marks the 30th anniversary of the first Sarah being planted in Washington, when it went into the soil at Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley. Sarah is the third-most-popular red wine grape in Washington, after cabernet sauvignon and Merlot.
Here are several superb surahs, all of which earned gold medals at this spring’s Cascadia Wine Competition. This luscious Sarah offers aromas of dark chocolate, ripe plum and black cherry, followed by flavors of dark chocolate, ripe blackberry and crushed dried herbs.
The resulting wine is filled with aromas of toasted oak, smoked ham and plum reduction sauce, followed by flavors of dried salami, maple syrup and boysenberry sauce. Its theme of smoked sausage, dried herbs, ripe Bing cherry and dark chocolate shavings is gorgeous and generous as dark fruit flavors are backed with complex acidity and moderate tannins.
Aromas of blackberry cobbler, lightly toasted oak and a hint of black licorice gives way to flavors of racy dark fruit, dark chocolate and espresso, all backed by just-right tannins that lead to a memorable finish. Its aromas and flavors sport plums, blackberries and blueberries, while the close is earthy, deep and abundantly tannin.
Settle Winery 2012 Leading 6 Prong Vineyard Sarah, Horse Heaven Hills, $32: Northwest Wine Academy grad Josh Stottlemyre of Lacey reached east into the Horse Heaven Hills for his Sarah grapes from the warm 2012 vintage. The finish of dark chocolate, black tea and Kawabata olive pit mixes nicely with abundant tannins.
Hood Winery 2013 Scorched Earth Vineyard Sarah, Columbia Valley, $32: In the hands of homegrown winemaker Rich Cushman, Scorched Earth Sarah grapes result in a luscious wine with distinctive aromas of black licorice, chalkboard dust and black cherry, followed by plush flavors of blackberry compote and maple syrup. Eric German and Andy Purdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company.
They were so remarkable that, like in France, the price points moved beyond the comfort zone of mere mortals. What many people have not appreciated is that another region has quietly been producing high quality Sarah wines and flying under the radar.
The last item is particularly important since, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Sarah has been a hard sell for many wineries and wine shops. A number of those offerings, especially in the value range, contained palpable amounts of sugar even in allegedly ” dry” wines.
Lastly, the French versions from the Northern Rhone region, like Hermitage, Corneas and Cote Rosie, are wonderful, but priced out of the grasp of many people. Now we are fortunate to have a number of wines that should offer the more adventurous aficionado ample reward and also provide a departure from the usual suspects (cab, Merlot, pilot noir) that many of us consume regularly.
This ” match” produced a red grape that is characterized by thick skins that contribute distinct tannins, a peppery flavor signature and a dark berry fruit nuance. Over time, additional elements that may surface include a leathery profile and essence of truffles.
I appreciate the pepper elements and the more restrained versions that offer secondary flavors as well. As we rapidly approach September and get closer to classic red wine territory, perhaps now is the time to explore the unique taste profile of the Sarah grape.
SOURCE: Pace Vineyard, Yakima Valley AVA, WA WINEMAKER NOTES: The 2015 vintage in Washington state was the hottest to date, yet mild conditions near harvest left us with wines that exhibited both power and elegance.
Our Sarah was harvested in mid-September with perfect chemistry and rich, bold, complex flavors. Those grapes dominated the global landscape as our wine industry was growing and helped Washington onto the national stage.
The two key things to realize about Washingtonsyrah in 2017: It is no longer being treated like cabernet sauvignon, and the various places it’s been planted are starting to show their own character. This relatively flat, broad expanse of land is covered in medium-sized river stones that were deposited over millennia by massive floods that swept across much of eastern Washington.
These stones retain heat in the evenings as the valley cools, allowing for greater ripeness in the fruit and a softer, silkier texture in the wine. Sourced from the Horse Heaven Hills and the Rocks, respectively, they’re made exactly the same way yet smell and taste wildly different.
WT Vintners offers four single-vineyard bottles, from both the valley floor and the surrounding slopes in Wall Wall, a vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills, and the famous Brushed Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Cabernet and Merlot aren’t going anywhere, but as Sarah continues to gain stature, I wouldn’t be surprised if it became the red grape Washington is best known for.