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Cotes de Ciel Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Syrah 2013
In 1975, Red Mountain was a primitive place. A mixture of grasses, desert wildflowers, and sagebrush dominated the landscape. Most of the year it was brown and dry, with a few weeks of green in the spring. The land was bereft of anything that resembled topsoil. The wheat farmers from the nearby Horse Heaven Hills took one look at the place and turned away. It wasn't worth their effort. Sheepherders had tried to use it as grazing land. They quit. The land didn't bear the kind of fodder that could support a thriving sheep operation. Everything that had been tried had failed. The place was not suited for traditional agriculture.
It was a risk to plant wine grapes on Red Mountain, but there was some evidence that it might work. The soil was well-drained, something wine grapes prefer. The soil also had high calcium carbonate concentrations, a trait that is common in the great wine-growing regions of the world. Common sense held that if vineyards in Washington were going to be successful, they would have to grow white grape varieties from northern Europe. As a result of this thinking, Chardonnay and Riesling dominated the first plantings, with a smattering of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Sunrise over Red Mountain vineyards, WashingtonIt was a risk to plant wine grapes on Red Mountain, but there was some evidence that it might work. The soil was well-drained, something wine grapes prefer. The soil also had high calcium carbonate concentrations, a trait that is common in the great wine-growing regions of the world. Common sense held that if vineyards in Washington were going to be successful, they would have to grow white grape varieties from northern Europe. As a result of this thinking, Chardonnay and Riesling dominated the first plantings, with a smattering of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Over the years, the vineyards thrived. They learned that they grew remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cunoise, Viognier, and Roussanne. While the Riesling and Chardonnay were good, they no longer grow them, as they prefer to grow only those varieties that produce truly exceptional wines.
A coveted source of top quality red grapes among premier Washington producers, the Red Mountain AVA is actually the smallest appellation in the state. As its name might suggest, it is actually neither a mountain nor is it composed of red earth. Instead the appellation is an anticline of the Yakima fold belt, a series of geologic folds that define a number of viticultural regions in the surrounding area. It is on the eastern edge of Yakima Valley with slopes facing southwest towards the Yakima River, ideal for the ripening of grapes. The area’s springtime proliferation of cheatgrass, which has a reddish color, actually gives the area the name, "Red" Mountain.
Red Mountain produces some of the most mineral-driven, tannic and age-worthy red wines of Washington and there are a few reasons for this. It is just about the hottest appellation with normal growing season temperatures commonly reaching above 90F. The soil is particularly poor in nutrients and has a high pH, which results in significantly smaller berry sizes compared to varietal norms. The low juice to skin ratio in smaller berries combined with the strong, dry summer winds, leads to higher tannin levels in Red Mountain grapes.
The reds of the area tend to express dark black and blue fruit, deep concentration, complex textures, high levels of tannins and as previously noted, have good aging capabilities.
Marked by unmistakable aromatics, a savory palate, and an elegant texture, Syrah is capable of producing fascinatingly complex and long-lived wines with a stunning purple hue. Native to the Northern Rhône, Syrah’s best examples are found in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. It is also an important component of the GSM blends of the Southern Rhône and beyond, alongside Grenache and Mourvèdre. Both varietal Syrah and GSM blends are common in Australia and California and are gaining popularity in Washington State. In Australia, Syrah is known by the synonym Shiraz, which tends to indicate a bolder, fruit-driven style of wine, and is occasionally blended with Cabernet Sauvignon for added depth and structure.
In the Glass
At its best, Syrah shows aromas and flavors of purple fruits, fragrant violets, baking spice, white pepper, smoke, and even bacon fat. Many examples from California aim to recreate this savory style, while others focus more on concentrated fruit flavors. In Australia, under the name Shiraz, it shines as that country’s unofficial signature red grape, producing deep, dark, intense, and often jammy reds.
Cool-climate Syrah, with its peppery spices, is a natural match with flavorful Moroccan-spiced lamb dishes, where the spice is more about flavor than heat. With Australian Shiraz, grown in warmer regions, heavy meat dishes with abundant protein and fat are a necessity to match the intensity of the wine.
Due to the success of Australian “Shiraz,” this synonym for Syrah has been adopted by winemakers throughout the world. If the label says “Shiraz,” you can typically expect a plush, fruity, and potent wine made in the Australian style. New World "Syrah" will generally more closely resemble the French style.