Rustic. Leathery. Peppery. Dark-fruited. Bottles of Syrah come with many expectations - whether you’re drinking a Cornas from the Rhône Valley or a Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, it is a distinctly expressive grape, whose profile is largely contingent on the climate it is grown in. Indigenous to Southeastern France, it now thrives around the world, where its versatility has a chance to exhibit itself. Capable of producing robust, full-bodied wines with ripe, sweet blackberry notes in warmer climates, it can also craft medium-bodied wines with gentler tannins that showcase more prominent black peppery qualities when coming from cooler vineyards. This week’s unique bottle, Joe Swick’s modestly named “Syrah”, falls in that latter category, with its grapes sourced from Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Though a winemaker based in Newburg, Oregon, Joe Swick works with growers from both the Willamette Valley and the Colombia Valley, making wine with a minimal interventionist philosophy to showcase the wide variety of grapes growing in the cool-climate vineyards across the Pacific Northwest. Before returning to his home state to vinify wine, Joe traveled the world over, working harvests in France, New Zealand, Italy, and other countries. His experiences left him with a deep respect for natural wine, with his stated aim being to make wine “as naked and raw as we possibly can”, adding SO2 to stabilize wines only when deemed absolutely necessary. This is an approach to natural winemaking I respect - when you through an AVA or two to find the best growers and the best grapes, you owe it to them to allow the grapes to express themselves well.
Joe sourced the grapes for this Syrah just north of Yakima, Washington. Though a small section of the Columbia Valley AVA lies in Oregon, the vast majority rests in Washington State, where grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Syrah, all grow widely. It is a very dry region, and the unique, varied soil composition leads to poor drainage, resulting in lower vine yields yet greater concentration of flavor within grape clusters. Conley Vineyard, where Joe sourced this Syrah, is one of the higher elevation vineyards in the AVA, permitting a longer and balanced growing season, often resulting with grapes with higher acidity.
Joe Swick with some grapes.
There is no doubt this reveals itself in Swick’s “Syrah”. I’ve had a few Swick wines before, and they’ve all been dynamic and lively, usually driven by acidity and freshness. But this “Syrah” was the first single-varietal red I’ve had of his, and I was a bit surprised at how emblematic it was of the grape. From the nose, an array of dark fruits arose from the glass, along with a classic black peppercorn quality. On the palate, a crunchy medium-body was rounded-out by a vibrant acidity, making the fruit slightly brighter than they appeared on the nose while still being balanced out by the Syrah-esque pepperiness. There was no mistaking it - this wine was Syrah through and through, albeit an acid-driven one that made it all the more crushable.
For some unknowable reason, I had expected this wine to be more enigmatic than it was. In no way do I write that as a slight - I’m just used to unique blends and divergent amber wines from Swick that reset the boundaries of what grapes can do together. But this “Syrah” was yummy and straight to the point, proving its critics wrong and showing that natural wine too can have a profound sense of place.