Say “Oregon” and Pinot Noir comes to mind. Argentina? Malbec. And who can say “Shiraz” without thinking of Australia? But what grape will Washington wine country claim as it’s own as it expands in production and popularity? There are so many red treasures in this state, sometimes it is hard to say. But after my luscious Saturday tasting, I’m thinking Syrah and Merlot may duke it out for the prize.

I recently got to sample some amazing Syrahs, Cabs and Merlots on a tasting trip to Woodinville. Discovering hidden gems is a special treat when wine tasting and I found one in Chatter Creek Winery. Winemaker and owner Gordon Rawson’s small operation (two winemakers and an intern) proves that size doesn’t matter when it comes to classic winemaking. Their 2005 Clifton Hill Syrah just scored an impressive 92 points with Wine Spectator. Lovely in the glass with a dark red vibrancy, this bouquet conjures up wood, berries, plums and a hint of orange. Nicely balanced, it continues to open up with spices that remind you of freshly baked cookies. The smooth finish was apparent and would overall pair well with a steak or lamb dish. Part of this smoothness comes from the blend of Viognier in the mix

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Other Chatter Creek treasures include a 2006 Grenache and their Blend 105: a meritage of sorts with Merlot, Cab Sav, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. All of their wines pulled together well and were balanced on the palate, which I’ve noticed many of the younger Washington wines do not always have going for them. And the final gem was their Orange Muscat. I’m not a fan of super sweet dessert wines, but the tart of the orange tamed it just enough to not pucker up and make that sweet wine fish face. Even my husband, who loathes dessert wines, found a winner in this one.

An exquisite Merlot can be found at family-run JM Cellars. They were having a release party on Saturday and their tree-shaded hideaway couldn’t have been a more perfect Northwest wine tasting spot. The building was gorgeous and the woodsy atmosphere felt like we were having a party in the treetops.

Owner and winemaker John Bigelow was pouring extra treats in the barrel room and I got to sample their amazing 2002, 2003 and 2004 Syrah vertical. If you ever get the chance to sample a vertical, take it. It’s the best way to see how time and year of harvest impacts taste in oh so subtle ways. But the highlight was indeed their 2005 Merlot. Now I know Merlot gets a bad (undeserved) rap from movies like “Sideways” but this is the first red most of us fell in love with before moving on up to Cab Sav.

JM’s 2005 Merlot was bold and beautiful. Last year, Wine and Spirits Magazine named the 2003 vintage one of the top twelve Merlots in America and it seems it has only gotten better. At 100% Merlot with most of the grapes coming from Klipsun vineyards in Washington state and the rest from Ciel du Cheval (also in Washington), this smooth but powerful elixir is full of cherry goodness and paired well with the steaks we cooked that night.

Bigelow agrees that the top spots for Washington grape of fame could go to either Syrah or Merlot. While the Washington terroir is diverse enough to handle many types of grapes very well, depending on where you are in the state, I have to agree I think most of the state’s winemakers really get it right with these two varietals. Lucky for me I adore them both.

Any Washington state wine lovers out there? What do you think the state’s trophy varietal should be? Let me know at [email protected].