The annual SommCon® conference provides sommelier-level education and training of wine professionals and serious enthusiasts. The recent three-day conference in San Diego featured some 50 sessions, workshops and educational programs led by recognized experts in their fields. A key theme: the pursuit of creating and enjoying wines that have a sense of place, with personalities and distinctive characteristics, versus high-alcohol, one-dimensional fruit bombs that could be from anywhere.

To help in the quest for distinctive characteristics, the sessions often contrasted wines from different appellations, hemispheres and continents. The “Syrah Smackdown” featured five wines from Washington State and one each from France, California and Australia. Thomas Price, master sommelier and national director of education for Jackson Family Wines, was moderator. The panel: Molly Brooks, advanced sommelier, with Epic Wine and Spirits; Chris Peterson, winemaker and partner at Avennia; and Derrek Vipond, head winemaker, Walla Wall Vineyards.

Syrah Smackdown

The panelists talked about the senses of place found in each of the wines, including nuances from different parts of Washington’s Columbia Valley. They outlined how winemakers pursued individual approaches to create wines with character, based on the nature of the land, weather, vines, biodynamic practices, pruning, harvesting, winemaking and aging, to name a few of the elements involved. The approaches resulted in different styles from France, California and Australia, which the experts helped identify.

The French entry from Guigal was a Côte-Rôtie, in the northern Rhône, and made from Syrah. Appellation regulations allow vignerons to use up to 20 percent of Viognier. This can add more elegance and floral characteristics to what are otherwise big, concentrated wines with layers of pepper, ripe grapes (prunes and plums) and leather in the nose.

The Barossa Valley wine region is in South Australia, about 35 miles northeast of Adelaide. The wine industry was founded by German settlers, hence the early interest in Riesling. Over time, winemakers found new varieties more suitable to the warm continental climate, such as Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Barossa wines are typically bigger in style and with higher alcohols.

For the California entry, the Peay website said its grapes are grown on a “cold, windy and foggy 51-acre hilltop vineyard located above a river in the far northwestern corner of the West Sonoma Coast, 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean at Sea Ranch.” It produces wines from one of the coldest vineyards in California for growing Syrah, with harvest in October, with lower alcohol (13.0) and higher acidity (0.65) than most Syrah wines.

Washington is the 2nd largest premium wine producer in the United States, with some 1,000 wineries, 70 varieties produced in 14 AVA (viticultural areas), and 17.5 million cases a year, split between 59 percent red and 41 percent red.

Columbia Valley is the state’s largest viticultural region and contains 99% of wine grapes grown in Washington State, according to the Wines of Washington website. The most planted varietals: Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Columbia Valley contains the American Viticultural Regions of Red Mountain, Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, Lake Chelan, Naches Heights and Ancient Lakes within its borders.

We tasted wines from the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla and Yakima Valley. Walla Walla, is a cross-border AVA with 220,799 acres in Washington, 1,741 under vine, and 98,628 acres are in Oregon. It has the highest concentration of wineries in Washington. According to the website: “Syrahs from Walla Walla Valley, particularly the southern section of the valley, are notable for their distinctive savory profiles, full of earth, black olives, iodine, and smoked meat.”

Seven Hills Vineyard, Walla Walla

Yakima Valley was the first federally recognized wine-growing region in the Pacific Northwest. It is the largest sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley. It has three distinctive sub-appellations: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, and Rattlesnake Hills. The website says Yakima Valley is Washington’s most diverse growing region, with more than 40 different white and red grape varieties planted. Cooler areas are home to almost half of the Chardonnay and Riesling grown in the state. The Yakima Valley’s warmer sites are known for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.

The moderator, panel and experts in the audience tasted the wines, then discussed the differences and similarities. Here are my notes:

  • 2016 Avennia Arnaut Syrah, Boushey Vineyard, Yakima Valley, Wash. ($60). Dark purple; sweet fruit, vanilla, floral; big body; chewy; long hot finish (15.1 alc.). 16 UC Davis scale, 90 other scales
  • 2016 Guigal Cote Rotie, Rhone Valley, France ($65). Mid-dark garnet; red fruit, wood, cocoa, iron nose; mid body to big; tight to hard; hot berry finish. 16-16.5, 90-91
  • 2016 Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Syrah, Red Willow Vineyard, Yakima Valley ($65). Mid-garnet; bright red fruit nose, earthy; hints of wood, vanilla, pepper; balanced; nice style; long semi-elegant finish (13.1 alc.). 17, 92
  • 2017 Walla Walla Vintners Cut Bank Estate Syrah, Walla Walla Valley ($50). Mid-dark garnet; bright red fruit nose; hyacinth, peppery; balanced, mid body; wood, vanilla, smooth finish. 17-17.5, 92-93
  • 2016 Balboa Pandemonium Syrah, Walla Walla Valley ($60). Mid-dark garnet; ripe grape, black fruit nose; jam, cocoa, slightly weedy; mid body; balanced; nice style; long fruity finish (14.4 alc.). 17, 92
  • 2016 Peay Les Titans Estate Syrah, Sonoma Valley, Calif. ($55). Dark garnet; earthy, meaty, French-like nose (brett?); slightly metallic; big body; fat grapey structure; tart flavor and finish; needs time. 16-16.5, 90-91
  • 2016 Glaetzer Amon-Ra Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia ($90). Darkest wine of the eight; prune, ripe grape, redwood, musty, jammy nose; mid to big body; good fruit in style; long hot finish (15.5 alc.); improves with air. The Glaetzer website says the grapes came from vines from 50 to 130 years old. 17-17.5, 92-93
  • 2013 CMS (Chateau Ste. Michelle) Ethos Reserve Syrah, Columbia Valley ($45). Dark; ripe grape, prune, aldehyde, wood nose; mid to big body; opens with time; become more balanced; long rich fruity finish, semi hot (14.8 alc.). 17-17.5, 92-93