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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Syrah Doctrine: Tenet Wines

Washington state has long been a hotbed for Syrah. A wine that the industry will tell you they have a tough time selling. It is perhaps a blessing and a curse then that Washington seems to make the best Syrah in the New World and perhaps outside of certain special pockets in the Rhone Valley, the whole world.



It has been Syrah that while not putting Washington on the map, has raised its profile as a world class wine producer. The grape is still fairly young here with its first plantings in 1986 in the Yakima Valley, at the state's iconic Red Willow Vineyard. The collaboration between wine grower Mike Sauer and wine genius David Lake launched what has become Washington's most important wine grape.

The wines of Cayuse, Betz and L'Ecole have come to be known for their Syrah, and new labels launched in recent years like Avennia, Kevin White and Rotie Cellars have shown their brilliance with Syrah. It makes sense then that the people at Washington's founding winery, Chateau Ste Michelle would look to take Washington's signature grape to the next level with their Tenet Wines project.

In a partnership with some of the most revered names in France's Rhone Valley, Chateau Ste Michelle looked to make the purest expression of Washington Syrah, (along with other Rhone varietals) that it could. Working alongside renowned Rhone winemakers Michel Gassier and Phillipe Cambie, CSM's Bob Berthau wanted to look at making the best Syrah from Washington possible.

The collaboration, rather than starting in the winery began with Gassier in the vineyards. To begin with, cooler vineyard sites were selected. Looking at canopy, crop load, irrigation and other manipulable factors allowed the team at Tenet to end up with fruit that came in smaller clusters, with concentrated, but perhaps less opulent flavors, along with ample acidity.

In the winery, the team looked at adding whole clusters, along with stems and rachis that give the wine more nuanced elements. This was certainly a diversion from the fruit focused wines typically produced by CSM. The whole clusters, along with extended maceration and only neutral oak created some very elegant, albeit powerful wines. The wines, each unique give a glimpse at the contrasts and similarities of Washington and the Rhone Valley.

2013 Pundit Syrah
A blend of Syrah (94%), with only the faintest bits of Grenache, Mourvedre and co-fermented Viognier. This is a wine with bits of whole cluster and a mixture of French and American oak barrels. It's absolutely gorgeous. Aromas of subdued elegance with notes of violet, blackberry and smoke. The palate is fruit focused with elegance and complexity from notes of crushed stone and smoke that mingle with a classically Washington fruit core. The price point on this wine has to rank it among some of the best values in all of Washington. (2014 is the current release) $20-25

2013 Le Fervent Syrah 
As a bit of a study in contrast, in terms of location the Le Fervent comes not from Washington but rather from Gassier's home vineyards in the Costières de Nîmes. The southernmost AOC within the Rhone Valley theCostières de Nîmes have soils similar to the most famous southern Rhone AOC, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The very close proximity of the Mediterranean Sea however cools this site substantially. The wine is less opulent than its stateside counterpart, though the blend is nearly identical. More elements of minerality show up in the aromatics of fennel and turned earth. Rather than seeing any American oak this week is fermented in both steel and older French barrels. The wine offers a fresher palate, with sweet blueberry, turned earth and sage. $20-25

The flagship wine of the Tenet experiment is not Syrah but rather a really well made, higher end Grenache(40%), Syrah (35%) and Mourvedre (25%) blend. This wine is a great demonstration of the quality that CSM efforts can attain. They largely make very good wine, when they want to it is downright outstanding. This is one of those times. Power and elegance interplay with aromas of dried rose petals and violets, garrigue and white pepper. The palate is an interplay of refined structure and opulent richness. Blackberry and cherry flavors with notes of spicy pepper. This is a mouth coating wine that unveils layers of complexity and flavor, and a long, long finish.$65-70 

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