Luxuriously rich, infused with flavors of spice, black pepper and berry, Syrah is poised to become America's next big red. Sometimes called "the next Merlot," it has seized the collective imagination of winemakers across the countrynowhere more powerfully than in Washington State. The numbers alone are proof enough: In 1990 a mere 40 acres in Washington were planted to the grape; by 2001 there were 3,000 acres of Syrah in the ground.
OLD WORLD VS. NEW WORLD Great Syrah-based wines like Hermitage and Côte Rôtie (from France's Rhône Valley, the home of Syrah) can be tannic and hard while young. Washington State Syrahs, in contrast, are typically luscious and ready to drink upon release, although the best may require a few years' aging to reveal their full character.
WHY WASHINGTON? The Syrah grape ripens exceptionally well in eastern Washington's long, hot growing season, and the vines thrive in its gravelly soils, which are reminiscent of the rock-strewn vineyards of the Rhône.
WHAT'S NEXT? Syrah is still so new to the state, the best vineyards are yet to be discovered; however, a few star vineyards have already been identified, like Boushey in Yakima Valley, the source for great wines from several producers.
TOP TEN BOTTLES
1999 HOGUE VINEYARD SELECTION ($16) This wine, made from the grapes of several vineyards, includes 10 percent Lemberger (a peppery grape, not a cheese). It's a fruity, easy-sipping Syrah.
1999 COLUMBIA CREST RESERVE ($28) Washington's largest winery has turned out a soft, medium-rich wine that mingles flavors of pepper, black cherry and raspberry with a mildly smoky vanilla scent.
1999 THREE RIVERS BOUSHEY VINEYARD ($35) Look beyond the cheesy label and you'll find a classic, aristocratic Syrah. This dark, seductive wine is the first vintage from a venture headed by Chateau Ste. Michelle alumnus Charles Hoppes.
1999 DELILLE DOYENNE ($38) This upscale suburban Seattle winery has a cult following for its wines, which include this ultrarich, velvety Syrah.
1999 MCCREA YAKIMA VALLEY ($38) McCrea, the state's first producer to dedicate itself to Rhône varietals, shows a sure hand with Syrah by turning out dense, silky wines like this.
1999 CAYUSE CAILLOUX VINEYARD ($40) From a stony piece of ground (cailloux means pebbles), dynamic young Frenchman Christophe Baron makes what may be the state's most suave, nuanced Syrah.
1999 BETZ FAMILY LA SERENNE ($28) Bob Betz, Master of Wine and consultant to Chateau Ste. Michelle, turns out a gorgeous, opulent, very ripe Syrah that carries its hefty 14.7 percent alcohol with surprising grace.
1999 SEVEN HILLS ($20) This wine from a small Walla Walla producer has true Syrah appeal at a very good price. It's supple and juicy, with ripe, bright berry flavors.
1998 CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE RESERVE ($29) Columbia Crest's more ambitious sister offers a wine with oak-polished elegance. Its 20 percent Cabernet gives an extra firmness.
1998 GLEN FIONA BASKET PRESS RESERVE ($60) This Syrah-only producer turns out a dense, full-bodied, French-style Syrah-Cinsaut blend that's made to cellar five to 10 years.