Category Archives: Syrah

Hills, horses and heaven

It's getting hot in here!Few images evoke the romance of the West more strongly than a herd of wild horses roaming grassy hills, steam from their collective breath diffusing the sunrise into a golden mist. This symbol of fierce independence and perseverance descended from horses brought to North America by Spanish conquistadors 400 years ago.

Wine grapes established themselves much more recently but have just as assuredly become a fixture in the western landscape. Washington’s Columbia Crest vineyard unites both bits of regional history in the 2010 Horse Heaven Hills Les Chevaux red wine.

“Les Chevaux,” for those of you whose knowledge of French is limited to fries, toast and whatever you learned in the back seat of first car, means “the horses.” The “hills” refer to the dry-but-fertile ground in eastern Washington where Columbia Crest grows grapes of consistent quality and intensity. The terrain and ever-present winds challenge vintners here, but the result in this case is an interesting, affordable wine.

We picked up a bottle for $11.99 at Fred Meyer on a co-worker’s recommendation. That’s a little more than we usually spend, but there’s value in knowing that someone’s already taken the wine out for a spin and enjoyed it. To be honest, we were so busy enjoying the first bottle that we had to buy a second to review. (This happens more often than we’d like to admit.)

The dark cranberry color and fairly unremarkable nose don’t immediately reveal this wine’s complexity. It brings a combination of berry and earthy oak flavors, with a hint of smokiness. The winemaker also claims notes of licorice, chocolate and mocha. Hmmm. Chocolate, maybe, but this wine doesn’t seem to aspire to those darker regions of the palate. The finish is slightly acidic, with tannins that excite the tongue without lingering.

This vintage is 80% merlot, 13% cabernet sauvignon and 7% syrah. According to Columbia Crest’s website, the 2010 growing season was cooler than previous years, and fruit was generally less plentiful. A consistently warm autumn ripening season resulted in grapes that produced wines of fairly low alcohol content and balanced acidity.

This is no sweet summer sipper, nor is it a heavy red best paired with beef or hearty pasta meals. It’s a delightful middle-of-the road blend that doesn’t skimp on drinkability or flavor.

Overall, this wine pairs nicely with the creamy Finnish summer soup we were enjoying in the dead of winter. There aren’t many things that are better on a cold winter night (it’s down around 0° as this is being written) than a warm bowl of homemade soup — unless it’s a warm bowl of soup and a glass of wine. And a vision of a wild stallion roaming the rolling hills of the upper Columbia River Valley.

Aromatique: The thin, almost watery nose is deceiving. It hints at a much lighter wine.

Sip quips: Intense blueberry and dark cherry backed by a hint of earthiness, oak and distinct tannins.

Kitchen couplings: Mild fish or chicken dishes would do well, as did our version of this creamy Finnish summer soup. Apparently summer in Finland is a lot like winter in Idaho.

This ‘Bodega’ begs for something more

This one earned a half glass.

Even if my eyesight was good enough to read the tiny italic letters on the label of the Bodega Privada 2010 syrah, my Español probably wouldn’t be good enough to translate. I’d like to think it says something like “a dark, mysterious wine that is an interesting departure from traditional reds.”

To be honest, I didn’t fall in love with this Argentinian wine from the first sip. It’s a bit standoffish right out of the bottle, with an initial bite and relatively little fruit to invite exploration.

Captain Jack Sparrow likes him some syrah

The cool piratey bottle may be the best part of this wine.

The aroma betrays every bit of the 13.9% ABV, making this a very heady wine that seems almost unapproachable at first. But a little time in the glass reveals a rounder nose that, quite frankly, offered more than this wine could deliver.

The color is nearly black, with a rim of cranberry. It has long legs, and a dry, peppery finish that only grows slightly more complex as the bottle empties. Currant would be the closest thing to a berry flavor that I would impute to this wine. It carries more of an earthy flavor that may disappoint those accustomed to the more varied notes expected from a syrah.

We picked up this bottle at Grocery Outlet during their 20% wine sale a while back for under $6. The frosted black bottle and scroll-inspired label combined for an interesting presence on the wine rack. It looks like a prop from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and how can that not be cool?

But despite the exclusive sounding name — Private Cellar (hey, my Español isn’t THAT bad) — this is really just your basic table wine, a vino tinto for the masses. It’s made by RPB S.A. of Mendoza, Argentina, a winery started in 1959 by Rufino Baggio. It has become one of the three largest wine producers in the country, but wine is only part of Baggio’s business empire. He’s like the Argentinian love child of Julio Gallo and Joe Albertson. The guy has more products than Paul Newman.

Turns out that mass production of consumer commodities like jugo de naranja and soda pop might not be the best path to making excellent wine. The 2010 Bodega Privada syrah isn’t bad, but the next time I venture out for some Argentinian vino, I might stick with the malbec that country is best known for.

Aromatique: Berry notes, but one-dimensional.

SipQuips: Earthy, with hints of dry currant; sharp at first, but mellows a bit.

Kitchen Couplings: Something hearty — beef, strong cheese perhaps, but nothing overly spicy as the wine is peppery enough. One reviewer recommended serving with lamp. I assume they meant lamb, although it’s a Thai website, so that could be short for lamprey, I suppose. Or maybe they meant you should leave the light on.

Nothing petite about this sirah

Buy enough cheap wine and you’ll occasionally get a discounted bottle that once retailed for a lot more.

There are a few clues that the bottle you are buying for $6.99 at Grocery Outlet is slumming, like this bottle of 2006 Eos Estate Petite Sirah, which must have felt like the debutante who somehow ended up at a seedy bar on the wrong side of town.

First, the primary image on the bottle is actual grapes. Not a race car, or a horse, or comically drawn woman. There’s no abstract art or clever play on words or big black birds. Just grapes.

Second, the winemaker’s own description contains something utterly ridiculous like “rose petals.” I’m here to tell you, red wine does not taste like rose petals. Ever.

Third, the back label will probably wax poetic about how special the wine is and how fortunate you are to have found it. One of the privileged few, for sure. Lucky you.

From the bottle: “This is our private reserve that we made to keep for ourselves and share with only our closest friends. We tenderly nurtured selected fruits from the best vineyard blocks. The barrels were carefully chosen and immeasurable hours were spent to insure that this wine would surpass our highest expectations. After all that, we couldn’t resist sharing it with you.”


Now far be it for me to pass judgment on a wine because the vintner is full of himself. But it’s a little hard not to be critical when someone involved in a process that was taking place when the world was flat takes themselves so damn seriously. Paso Robles is in California’s Central Valley where Spanish missionaries bent on converting the natives were the first to plant grapevines, and commercial wineries have operated here since the 1880s.

But before we get all uppity about the history of grapes here, Petite Sirah is something of a mongrel, being the result of Syrah pollen getting all up in the business of a Peloursin plant. The resulting Durif grapes are popular and widely planted. They usually produce wines with mild, plummy overtones.

You’ll find little of that here.

Eos Estate’s website lists this wine at $25. For that price, it would be a disappointment, but for seven bucks, this is a decent, if unremarkable wine. Both the initial aroma and taste are straightforward and strong, with grape being the dominant flavor, accompanied by plum and blackberry.

The wine started with a sharpness expected of a younger vintage, but aerating and allowing it to breathe smoothed out the flavors and allowed more of the fruit to come forward. It was still a very strong wine, spicy and heady, with lingering tannins. It’s a wine suited to a rich meal, but without the sweet temperament to balance spicy foods like barbecue or Mexican food.

And let’s face it, the bottle looks impressive, with its luscious European-looking grapes behind square latticework. It’s a nice wine to have on the counter if you are looking to impress someone. It also makes a nice gift for the host next time you are invited to a dinner party.

And even better, it’s a wine you won’t mind sharing.

Aromatique: Strong grape aroma, with oak and a bit of plum.

Sip Quips: Grapes dominate, especially on the first sip, but plum and berries come out as it breathes; plenty of tannins on the finish.

Kitchen Couplings: Roasted meats or fish; hearty bread and cheese.