Washington's Rise of the Rhônes

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These trailblazing Washington wineries have made the state into America’s top source of Rhône-style wines.

—Paul Gregutt and Sean P. Sullivan


In the past decade, interest in Washington’s Rhône varieties has exploded. 

In addition to Viognier, relatively unknown white wine grapes like Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Picpoul are being commercialized. Red Rhône-style wines, notably Syrahs, but also Grenache, Mourvèdre and numerous blends, have taken the region by storm.

The state’s 2012 statistics put Syrah at No. 3 among red wine grapes (behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Grenache and Mourvèdre, meanwhile, have been broken out of the “Other” category for the first time. 

Although the total annual production of Rhône varieties is just a fraction of the state’s 188,000 tons, the market impact is substantial, amplified by the vast number of boutiques that make numerous small lots of different wines.

Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance, estimates that over 60 wineries in the region—the epicenter of Syrah production—make at least one Syrah.

“Since Cayuse was founded in 1997, Syrah has become the fastest-growing and, in many respects, the most widely recognized and highly rated varietal in the Valley,” Wollmuth says. 

“While the Walla Walla Valley’s reputation was built upon consistently outstanding Cabernets and Merlots in the 1980s and ’90s, Syrah has become the attention-getter over the past decade,” he says.

K Vintners (and its sister label, Charles Smith) has specialized in Syrah and Syrah-based blends since opening in 1999. Up to a dozen small-lot, single-vineyard cuvées are made each year, including the Royal City Syrah, the first Washington wine awarded a perfect 100-point score by Wine Enthusiast.

It might seem that winemaker Charles Smith was taking a leap of faith with Syrah, but he doesn’t see it that way. 

“When I started back in 1999, there were 296 producers of Bordeaux varietals here in Washington, and just three producers of Syrah,” says Smith. “As a consumer, I know how great the Syrah grape is. I thought it would be more interesting to work with Syrah. 

“I saw a lot more possibility for Syrah,” he says. “To me, it seemed like it was going to be the most wide canvas to work with.”

Along with Smith, the efforts of French-born Christophe Baron have put the spotlight on the region’s Syrahs. His Cayuse winery, founded in 1997, built its reputation on estate-grown, biodynamically farmed Syrahs from a half-dozen estate vineyards. 

Baron’s game-changing idea was to plant his vines in the cobblestone-strewn soils west of Milton-Freewater, Oregon, where only apple orchards had grown. The Walla Walla River once ran through there, and baseball-sized cobbles lie just inches below the soil’s surface. 

At first, Baron’s vineyard and one other, belonging to vineyard manager Tom Waliser, were the lone outposts. But now dozens of small plantings are scattered throughout the region, and an application for an American Viticultural Area (AVA)—The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater—is in the works.

“There is no recipe at Cayuse,” says Baron. “You taste every tank, every day. You taste and taste and taste—every year is a different vintage. Every vineyard is different. Authenticity and typicity is important. 

“Finding different flavors from different vineyards from the same area is pretty difficult—there are only a few places in the world that can do that,” says Baron. “That tells you that this area here in Walla Walla is very special. In our lifetime, we’ll see hundreds more acres of vineyards planted in this area.”

That prediction, made just a few years ago, is proving true. 

But Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake (now deceased) and Red Willow Vineyard owner Mike Sauer laid the foundation for Washington Syrah in the mid 1980s. 

In 1985, they put a few acres in the ground, using cuttings obtained from Joseph Phelps. As far as anyone knows, that was the first time Syrah had been planted commercially in Washington.

Columbia began releasing varietal Syrahs with the 1988 vintage. A decade later, however, only a handful of others were being made, notably by Doug Gore (at Columbia Crest), Doug McCrea (at McCrea Cellars) and Rusty Figgins (at Glen Fiona). Both Gore and McCrea made their first varietal Syrahs in 1994. 

McCrea’s came from vines planted along the Columbia Gorge in the spring of 1990. He was also sourcing Grenache from the same region—from vines planted in the early 1960s. His style—ripe, rich and seductive—was a fine counterpoint to the more herbal, earthy Columbia wines.

In the winter of 1996, an Arctic blast dropped temperatures in eastern Washington well below zero for days, killing the Grenache vines. 

Despite the prevailing notion that Washington winters were just too cold, the Syrah survived, proving that Rhône grapes could thrive here. Small Syrah vineyards started going in throughout the Columbia Valley.

The surge was driven by winemakers’ curiosity. Figgins had learned his wine-making in Australia, and set up his Glen -Fiona winery to focus on Syrahs. 

Glen Fiona’s Syrahs were the first to be labeled with a Walla Walla Valley AVA and to be cofermented with Viognier, “in the spirit of Côte-Rôtie,” said Figgins at the time.

Growers cajoled into planting Rhône varieties, like Dick Boushey, owe a debt to the Haas family, founders (with the French owners of Château de Beaucastel) of California’s Tablas Creek winery. Thanks to them, approved, virus-free cuttings of these varieties were available in America.

“We knew the vines we wanted to grow when we began our winery almost 25 years ago—Grenache Blanc, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Viognier and Roussanne,” says Jason Haas.

But almost none were available. 

“Counoise and Grenache Blanc didn’t exist,” Hass says. “Mourvèdre and Grenache had really lousy reputations—suitable for jug wines only. And Roussanne was very suspect—it later turned out that what we thought was California Roussanne was actually Viognier. 

“So, the only way to go was to bite the bullet and bring in new cuttings.”

After more than a decade of intense work, certified cuttings from French clones were finally available. Among Washington’s early buyers were the owners of Alder Ridge, Boushey, Coyote Canyon, Elerding, Lawrence and Morrison Lane vineyards. Since then, many others have been added.

What makes Syrah so popular in Washington is its versatility. High-scoring Syrahs have come from grapes grown in numerous AVAs: Lake Chelan, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain and Walla Walla. 

The grape ripens to interesting, though different, flavors in cool vintages, like 2011, and warm ones, like 2012. 

Sometimes cofermented with small percentages of Viognier (as in the northern Rhône), Washington Syrahs often show a streak of citrus—a zesty lemon-lime acidity that adds lift and life to the wine. 

From certain sites, notably Boushey in the Yakima Valley and the Rocks region in Walla Walla, Syrah takes on intense umami flavors, along with cured meat, liquid rocks, mushroom broth, tightly wound berry fruit, earthy coffee grounds and even darker streaks of espresso, smoke and licorice.

Given the wide range of styles possible with Washington Syrah, it helps to know the producer when matching with food. 

Some fruitier wines from warm locations like the Wahluke Slope will pair much as a rich, ripe Zinfandel from Paso Robles might. Pizza, barbecue, grilled meats and roast fowl are all good options.

More complex, robust Syrahs, especially from single vineyards like Boushey, Lewis or Les Collines, complement the savory flavors of roast pork or lamb.

Value, diversity, complexity and distinctive flavor profiles make Washington Syrahs especially compelling. But the best, says Smith, is yet to come. 

“I wish I had an opportunity to work with old vines,” he says. “When we get to that point, we’re going to see nothing but improvement across the board. And in other places, where the dirt has not been turned over yet, we’re going to find great spots. So, we’re just at the beginning.” 

 

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Washington's Rise of the Rhônes

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