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Syrah from a Pinot Guy

Josh Bergström explores different styles of the Rhône's grape in Oregon's Willamette Valley
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 10, 2016 10:02am ET

Already at the top of its game for Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and coming on strong for Chardonnay, Oregon's Bergström Wines has been quietly working on a Syrah project. The first wines, under a new label, Gargantua, roll out next month.

Chilly enough to be ideal for Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley does well with Pinot Gris and is gaining fast on Chardonnay, but only a few acres of Syrah even exist in the AVA. Oregon wineries that focus on Syrah look for warmer vineyards in the southern part of the state (closer to California) or eastern (closer to Washington state). Owner and founder Josh Bergström prefers vineyards in Willamette Valley because the results remind him of Northern Rhône reds he encountered when living in Lyon, France, when he was younger.

"Lyon is where you can have both Burgundy and Rhône on the table at the same meal," he says. "I've always adored the prettiness of the best Burgundies. But I also love that savory wild thing that Pinot Noir can't capture but Syrah can, those peppery, animal, garrigue notes."

Exclusive to Wine Spectator, he showed me samples last week of two 2013s in bottle, ready for release next month, two 2014s in bottle and aging in the cellar, and four barrel samples of the components for the 2015s.

In general I find Gargantua Syrahs lighter in structure and less generous than what we get from most of the New World, and truth tell, lighter than most Northern Rhônes. These wines deliberately aim for open textures and spiciness instead of opulence. The first Gargantua wines are priced at $400 for a mixed six-pack of 750ml bottles, and 400 six-packs were made.

"I spent two years tasting across the Northern Rhône looking for reference standards," Bergström says. "I thought the cooler regions in Oregon could make something that I would like, but I found myself also inspired by parts of California and Washington too." What started out as a Willamette Valley Syrah project now embraces several regions.

The 2013 Oregon Syrah blends vineyards in Willamette and Rogue valleys. Cristom winemaker Steve Doerner's home vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills subregion of Willamette Valley makes a distinctly peppery, sleek style of Syrah. This is not Cristom's vineyard but Doerner's own. Folin Vineyard in Rogue Valley, in Oregon's central coast, shows quiet flavors, playing savory notes against pure berry. The 2013 California bottling, made from higher elevations of Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, shows more generosity, with somewhat softer tannins and more red fruits.

The just-bottled 2014s, made from the same sources, show more of the savory and wildflower nuances along with ripe fruit character. Again the Oregon bottling offers more transparency, the California wine more generosity. Both wines show sharp acidity as well, which will need aging to quell.

In 2015 Bergström added one more Willamette Valley vineyard to the Oregon blend—a single acre of Syrah in Adelsheim's home vineyard just a few hundred yards away from Bergström's winery on Calkins Lane in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Also in a crisp style, the flavors add more complexity and earthy notes than the 2013 and 2014 Oregon bottlings showed. The Bien Nacido follows in the same vein as previous vintages.

A new bottling from Washington grapes is the result of a suggestion by Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, who wanted to try his hand at Pinot Noir and agreed to trade some of his Les Collines Syrah fruit for Bergstrom's Le Pre du Col from Ribbon Ridge. Early picking gave the barrel sample of Les Collines a nice tension between savory and ripe.

Though these wines are more challenging than other Syrahs to drink when young, they are clearly aimed at achieving what Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and cool-climate Australian Shiraz can. They should develop extra depth and interest as they age. They stretch the definition of Syrah, definitely aimed at those who prefer a crisp, savory frame of reference.


Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 11, 2016 9:42pm ET
A Willamette Valley Syrah which "stretches the defintion". This is interesting, Harvey, thanks. Like Pinot Noir, Syrah does express its unique terroir as well or better than other grapes, but one is reminded that Syrah is arguably an even tougher nut to crack than Pinot Noir for which it had been said could only excel in Burgundy. Of course, now many great examples of Pinot Noir are made in California, Oregon and New Zealand.

Some may disagree, but it seems to me, Syrah as a single varietal wine, continues to reach its apex only in its first home in Northern Rhone. In Southern Rhone, California, even Australia, many of the best examples are blends (Australia and California blending with Cabernet Sauvignon among others). Heck, even in Northern Rhone, it is sometimes blended with Viognier to soften it up.

Does this mean that Syrah is inferior to other noble varieties since it rarely achieves balance without blending?

Maybe there will be a Pinot Noir-Syrah blend in Mr. Bergstrom's future?

Vincint Sprung
Washington  —  February 12, 2016 5:35pm ET
I've been fortunate enough to live in both Washington and Oregon, and have indulged in many Pinot Noir's from Oregon as well as California in addition to a plethora of Syrahs from Washington state, Northern Rhone and Australia . The trend I see with winemakers whose focus is on Pinot Noirs is that when they try their hand at Syrahs- regardless of where the grapes are from, they tend to be light and not the big bold wine that you traditionally look for in a Syrah. The reverse also holds true for those winemakers who traditionally produce Syrahs- when they attempt to produce a Pinot Noir it tends to be the big bold wines that a Syrah typifies instead of the delicate subtle flavor is that Pinots are known for.
My point being that if you're a Pinot noir drinker and are trying Syrah for the first time, then I think Willamette Valley wine makers are a great choice to start with as I feel like they'll be less intimidating to someone who's palate is used to the more subtle structures of a Syrah, however, if you're used to the bigger Syrahs that you tend to see from Washington state, northern Rhone, California or Australia and are trying to Willamette Valley Syrah for the first time then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.
On the other hand if you're a Syrah fan and are trying Pinot Noirs for the first time and are trying one from a winemaker who traditionally makes Syrahs I think you'll find the wines bigger than what you expect from a typical Pinot Noir.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  February 12, 2016 8:05pm ET
Willamette Valley vineyards are more likely to make a lighter style of Syrah in Oregon than vineyards in eastern or southern Oregon would. But I'm not sure on Vincint's theory about winemakers. I can think of too many Oregon winemakers who make both Syrah and Pinot Noir and keep the styles appropriate for the varietal. For example, there's nothing shy about the Syrahs made by Lynn Penner Ash or Tony Rynders, best known for their Willamette Valley Pinots.

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