Does wine get any better than those from the hermit’s hill?

Richard Jones
Richard Jones

By Richard Jones

PQ Monthly


The greatest red wine I’ve ever tasted in my long and cranky life? No one ever asks, but that won’t stop me from telling you.

A $600 Chateau Lafite Rothschild? An $800 Romanée-Conti? You haven’t looked at my worn and scruffy shoes lately, have you?

How about a Rhône wine from the Hermitage hill in southeastern France? Today it comes in close to $100, but back in 1978 the Paul Jaboulet 1959 Hermitage “La Chapelle” cost about $28 — at a restaurant in central France!

Nora Ephron, quite likely, was at a nearby table listening to the erotic noises my partner and I were making — and writing the restaurant scene for “When Harry Met Sally.”

This liquid jewel had a bouquet suggesting the most elegant perfume you could imagine.
So much for France. What does all this have to do with local wineries? Patience, patience.

The same grape that produced the Hermitage — Syrah, or syrah as the Associated Press dictates that journalists spell it — combined with a touch of Viognier — oops, Mr. AP, I meant viognier — is cropping up in Southern Oregon and south-eastern corners of Washington.

In April 2003, I had the good fortune to sample the Cayuse 2000 Syrah (Coccinelle Vineyard) in Walla Walla. It delivered almost as much excitement as the Hermitage and — given 16 more years to develop who knows what? Alas, Cayuse wines, from any of their vineyards, are extremely difficult to find.

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, one expects the cool vineyards producing with world class pinot noir – and they do. But few wine-hounds would dream of planting syrah roots in northern Oregon. All the more reason to congratulate the Cristom Vineyards team for planting both syrah and viognier in the warmest corner of their vineyards about 8 miles north ofSalem.

1999 Hermitage and AniChe 2010'Atticus web The Cristom 2004 Estate Syrah, purchased in 2005, surrendered its cork about 2010. This bottle, from their second syrah harvest, generated memories of a great Hermitage. (And shame on me for quaffing it many years before its time.)

The grief Cristom pays for making Hermitage-like wines is the lack of adequate heat to ripen their syrah. Both 2010 and 2011 pinot noirs turned out decently. But syrah? Too cool. Thus no syrah from those vintages. The next release will come from the 2012 vintage, which Cristom expects to release in 2015.

At the Washington trade tasting in Portland in 2013, two syrahs showed exceptional quality.

Walter Dacon 2008 “C’est Syrah Belle” (Columbia Valley), $30. AniChe Cellars 2010 “Atticus” Syrah with 3 percent viognier (Elephant Mountain Vineyrds), $34.

Both of these wines had exceptional aromas (aroma is sort of a bouquet for wines too young to vote).

The Walter Dacon had very attractive fruit, but needed a decade or so to reach its peak. Very promising.  Dacon says he aims to produce wines resembling those from the Rhône Valley.  Winemaker Lloyd Anderson has done the job admirably with grapes from the Yakima and Columbia Valleys. The grapes are fermented and aged at their winery near Shelton,WA.

The AniChe Cellars “Atticus” Syrah has spicy fruit and an even closer hint of an Hermitage, if not as tannic. A decade in your cellar should provide something impressive. If you must open yours tonight, decant it 30 minutes before the food hits your table.

In late September, 2013, at the Underwood, WA, winery, the syrah grapes were arriving from a vineyard an hour’s drive from the AniChe Winery. Winemaker Rachael Horn found the 2013 numbers — pH, acidity, sugar level — pretty close to her wishes.

Both the Walter Dacon and AniChe show bolder fruit than an Hermitage, but the flavors are in the family and deserve a decade to develop.

Grovel, folks. Get on your knees. These wines are worth a few appreciative words to Bacchus.

And, if you expect a generous income tax refund, your neighborhood wine shop can special order the current vintage od Paul Jaboulet Hermitage for a hundred bucks and loose change. Then prepare to wait. And wait.