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Northwest syrah offers royal flair

If pinot noir is the wine kingdom's fickle queen, syrah might well be the muscular prince, long admired for strength as well as smarts, but given to occasional fits of brooding.

Syrah's ancestral home is the northern Rh™ne valley of France, where it is used to make some of the world's most well-known and age-worthy wines, Hermitage and C™te R™tie. These wines are often described as possessing both power and finesse because they combine deep, rich aromas and tastes ranging from spice, pepper and smoke to perfumed violets, black currant and plum.

While Northwest winemakers have been experimenting with different grape varietals for years, figuring out what grapes flourish best in which climates, it's only in the last 10 years that growers in the area's hotter regions, such as eastern Washington (Yakima, Walla Walla) and southern Oregon (Rogue and Umpqua valleys) have begun to hit their stride with syrah.

Now that it's clear that this grape can produce fabulous wines here, producers are delivering some exciting options, some of which are exceptional, at a range of price points. All of the following wines are widely available and represent good values for a varietal that, much like pinot noir, can get inordinately expensive quite quickly.

Andrew Rich's 2001 Les Vigneaux Syrah ($20) is another winner from a consistently pleasing producer. With a mouthful of chewy, rich berry flavors and aromas of black currant and spice, this wine is not shy. It's got a lot of youthful tannins, which are nicely incorporated into the wine, making it a good candidate to pair with grilled meats or anything crusted in pepper.

Andrew Rich wines are hard to beat for sheer price-to-pleasure ratio.

The Seven Hills 2001 Syrah ($18) is a great example of mouth-filling syrah that easily could sell for more money but for a desire to deliver good wine at reasonable prices, something this Yakima producer has a great reputation for. With its dark ruby color and appealing nose of black cherry and plum, it's a wine that's easy to like Ñ more so when you get to the layers of toast and spice that come through in the body.

While there's enough acid here to keep this wine on target and able to stand up to simple, full-flavored dishes, it's appealing to just throw some in a glass and not think about anything but how tasty it is.

If you want a syrah that's going to wake you up, try a bottle of the Bergstršm 2001 Syrah, Paso Robles ($27). All the grapes came from a vineyard in California that winemaker Josh Bergstršm has a relationship with and were trucked up to Oregon overnight to keep them cool.

If this wine were a boxer, it would fight in the light-heavyweight class. It's a big, spicy, high-alcohol powerhouse of a wine that still manages not to become awkward because of its muscle. Inky dark in color, it's got aromas of white and black pepper, spice and toast that you can smell before the glass is all the way to your nose. Once in your mouth, it's a bundle of fine tannins and powerful black fruit, with a lingering, complex finish.

Best to give this wine a little time in the glass, or even dump (yes, dump) it into a decanter to get some air in it.

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