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Is Syrah Hitting Bottom or Finding its Niche?
 

I just recently spent a busy week visiting the vineyards and wineries of Washington, and as I hadn’t been there in more than a decade it almost felt as if I was visiting for the first time.

Over the course of my visit I often found myself talking to growers and winemakers about Syrah.

Washington’s wine industry produces a great deal of Syrah. In the 2015 harvest it was one of the state’s top five varieties at 16,000 tons, and according to our winery database, 362 of the state’s 756 wineries make Syrah wine.

But by almost any metric, Syrah sales have been tanking for years. The last time Wines & Vines included it in a Wine Industry Metrics report on off-premise sales was for July 2015 when the varietal’s sales had shrunk by more than 10%.

This isn’t news to most of our readers, but knowing how miserable Syrah has been performing in the market and seeing the commitment Washington’s growers and winemakers have maintained for the variety kept me asking people; why?

During my trip I enjoyed several remarkable Syrah wines including a Red Willow Vineyard designate by Owen Roe and several others. (Red Willow's famed Chapel Block is in the image above.) At a small tasting at the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser, Wash., I enjoyed several of the wines by Ryan Crane who opened Kerloo Cellars in Seattle in 2009 after working in the Walla Walla area for several years.

He doesn’t see making Syrah as a challenge. To him, the challenge is finding the right vineyard and making the wine the right way.

Crane said he takes his inspiration from Côte Rôtie and is aiming to make wines that are more “earthy, meaty and restrained” rather than big and jammy. He said he’d like to actually see more Grenache in Washington and less Syrah. “If Syrah was like Grenache from a planting standpoint, I think Syrah would have the luster that Grenache has,” he said. “Syrah is just everywhere.”

He says he’d like to see Syrah limited to cooler sites at higher elevations and that’s similar to what proponents of the grape in other regions say as well.

According to state crop reports in 2005, California produced nearly 150,000 tons of Syrah and the grape accounted for 3.4% of the state’s total wine grape crop. By 2015, total tonnage had fallen to a little more than 93,000 tons and it accounted for 2.5% of the total harvest.

During the same period in Washington, total Syrah tonnage more than doubled and despite the growth of the state’s acreage overall the variety maintained a 7% share of the entire crop.

Yet I spoke with several Washington growers who said they still enjoy strong demand and good prices for the grape. A few told me they’ve doubled down and expanded their Syrah acreage. Tasting room and sales folks were the most wary when asked about Syrah but said consumers often just need to taste it and they’ll buy it or they love it in Rhône blends.

It’s hard to find many 100% Syrah wines on grocery store shelves these days and most wine shops I visit offer few American Syrah wines.

Perhaps Syrah has hit bottom and the committed producers, like so many I met in Washington, are simply selling a niche product to a small number of consumers who buy it in the tasting room or online. There have been countless articles and blog posts published in recent years about the decline of Syrah as well as recommendations on the wines and winemakers who will reverse that trend but so far that hasn’t happened.

For growers who sell their crop and winemakers like Crane who want to make a certain style of Syrah that may just be fine.

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Posted on 04.12.2016 - 07:54:50 PST
 
We have been doing this for years in California with great success: "make wines that are more earthy, meaty and restrained rather than big and jammy." Greg Harrington at Gramercy Cellars in Washington has followed the same path for years. It works! Syrah is one of the three great red wine grapes in the world for complexity, flavor, and longevity. - Bill Easton (Terre Rouge & Easton Wines
 
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