Washington's Rise of the Rhônes
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.”
Try these offerings, which range from world-class wines to great values.
94 Gramercy Cellars 2011 Syrah (Walla Walla Valley). In 2011, the alcohol drops a bit (to 13%) and the fruit comes forward, stepping slightly away from the strongly herbal flavors of the 2010. It’s reflective of the vintage, and perhaps more immediately approachable, without sacrificing any of the complexity or structure that typifies Gramercy wines. Strongly aromatic flavors of blackberry, black cherry, cola and licorice are all in play, backed with refreshing minerality. The wine should age beautifully for a decade or more. Cellar Selection. —P.G.
abv: 13% Price: $50
94 K Vintners 2010 The Beautiful Syrah (Walla Walla Valley). Cofermented with 3% Viognier, this Tablas clone Syrah offers red- and purple-berry flavors, deep and pure. Snappy and focused, it layers in smoke, dust, citrus, blood orange, baking spices and a vein of pure mineral. Beautiful indeed. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14% Price: $60
94 Owen Roe 2011 Red Willow Vineyard Chapel Block Syrah (Yakima Valley). Sourced from arguably Red Willow’s finest block of Syrah, this is superbly balanced and remarkably concentrated for this cool site in a cool vintage. Cassis fruit is streaked with licorice and mocha, showing plenty of new oak influence without sacrificing depth or fruit. Drink soon, or tuck it away for a few more years. Either way, it’s a gem. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.1% Price: $55
93 Gordon Estate 2010 Estate Grown Syrah (Columbia Valley). If this wine carried a different winery’s name on the label, it would sell for double or triple the price. So it goes in the wine biz. Cool-climate details of earth and herb join the peppery blue fruit, wrapped in sweet brown spices and toasty tannins. There is lovely concentration and balance, with Rhône-like nuances of meat and pepper. Give this a little extra time and attention, and it will reward you. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 13.9% Price: $21
93 JM Cellars 2011 Syrah (Columbia Valley). In this new vintage, the principal vineyard source is Boushey, with Stillwater filling in the last third of the blend. Ripe, meaty and dense with a concentrated mix of blue and black fruits, this fills out with dark flavors of espresso, cocoa, smoke, licorice and tar. The balance is maintained through a lingering, baking-spiced finish. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.6% Price: $38
92 Amavi Cellars 2011 Les Collines Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley). Sourced from the oldest blocks in the vineyard, this mélange of boysenberry, blueberry and blackberry fruit is dotted with pepper and hints of brine and espresso. Young and compact, but complex and fascinating, this is a wine to tuck away for at least another five years. Cellar Selection. —P.G.
abv: 14.2% Price: $36
92 Dunham 2009 Lewis Vineyard Syrah (Columbia Valley). One of a trio of Lewis vineyard reds, this opens slowly, seeming at first a little thin, with herbal accents outshining the fruit. Stick with it, because it evolves nicely in the glass, filling in the plummy, peppery fruit, and adding barrel notes of clove, licorice and dusty earth. —P.G.
abv: 14.1% Price: $75
91 Coyote Canyon 2011 Coyote Canyon Vineyard Tres Cruces Red Wine (Horse Heaven Hills). A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, it’s an immediately appealing wine with notes of coffee, black olive, blueberry and smoked meat. There’s a pleasing texture and richness running from head to tail, with coffee and chocolate flavors that linger on the finish. Editors’ Choice. —S.S.
abv: 14.3% Price: $25
91 Efestē 2010 Boushey Vineyard Jolie Bouche Syrah (Yakima Valley). The Jolie Bouche is dark and brambly, fully packed with blackberry fruit, baking spices and a dusting of black pepper. The supple tannins carry a streak of graphite and clean earth. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.9% Price: $39
91 Watermill 2009 Praying Mantis Syrah (Walla Walla Valley). The instantly recognizable label, sporting a bright green praying mantis on a plain brown background, is a quirky choice for a fine, estate-grown reserve. The fruit reaches blackberry concentration, with stiff, ripe tannins swathed in dark chocolate. Hints of earth and stem fade out through a lingering finish. It’s drinking well, but could be cellared for another five years. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.9% Price: $30
90 Southard 2010 Syrah (Columbia Valley). Previously, this Syrah was sourced completely from Lawrence Vineyard grapes. But here, they are mixed with fruit from StoneTree. It’s a dark, smoky wine, with highlights of licorice around deep cassis fruit flavors. The chewy tannins finish with a pleasant streak of pretty cherry fruit. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.5% Price: $16
87 Snoqualmie 2011 Syrah (Columbia Valley). Long a strong suit at Snoqualmie, this new vintage does not disappoint. It’s light and lively, with dusky flavors of plum and sweet tomato. Highlights of chocolate and cinnamon are delicately in focus. For the price, it would be hard to find a better Syrah in Washington. Best Buy. —P.G.
abv: 13.5% Price: $10
Try these standout wines made from other Rhône varieties.
Cinsault (sometimes spelled Cinsaut) is generally used as a blending grape in Washington, but varietal bottlings do exist.
“Our first Cinsault from StoneTree Vineyard was one of the most aromatically seductive wines we’ve ever made,” says Chad Johnson of Dusted Valley. “It was so beautiful—like blueberry, floral bubble gum.”
92 Dusted Valley 2011 Stone Tree Vineyard Cinsaut (Wahluke Slope). This rare (72-case) bottling of Cinsault is silky, with dazzling freshness and purity. —S.S.
abv: 14.7% Price: $32
The profile ranges from full-bodied wines with abundant strawberry notes in warmer sites to lighter-bodied offerings with notes of white pepper and truffle in cooler locations.
“Grenache, for me, is a lot like Pinot Noir in terms of how it pulls out its terroir,” says Jon Meuret, winemaker for Maison Bleue.
94 Maison Bleue 2011 La Montagnette Upland Vineyard Grenache (Snipes Mountain). Complex, vivid and focused, with elegance and delicacy that evolves over time. Cellar Selection. —S.S.
abv: 14.3% Price: $40
Plantings are currently limited, but that could be changing.
“I think it’s a sleeper grape for us,” says grower Dick Boushey, who has helped pioneer Rhône varieties in the state. “It’s taken me a while to figure it out—what cropping level and when to pick it—but I think it’s the perfect oyster and seafood wine because it retains its acidity.”
91 Syncline 2012 Boushey Vineyard Grenache Blanc (Yakima Valley). Rich without being thick, fresh through the long and satisfying finish. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 14.1% Price: $24
The amount of Marsanne remains limited, although some attention-grabbing wines exist.
“Marsanne exhibits razor-sharp minerality that masks all fruit until six-plus months after its fermented to dryness,” says Sean Boyd, winemaker for Rôtie Cellars. “Up until bottling, you really don’t know what you’ve got.”
92 Rôtie Cellars 2012 Northern White (Washington). A racy, textural wine, tangy without turning sour, with a generous foundation of wet stone. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 13.5% Price: $28
Plantings of this variety—Washington’s third most common Rhône red grape—have doubled since 2006, although total acreage remains small. White pepper, meat and herb notes mark many examples.
“More and more, I love wines that have a savory aspect, and Mourvèdre definitely has that,” says Mantone.
93 Mark Ryan 2010 Crazy Mary Mourvèdre (Red Mountain). Flint, plum, boysenberry and spice accented by light whiffs of barnyard, earth and rock. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 15.1% Price: $48
Most frequently used in white blends, Roussanne remains an under-the-radar variety in the state.
“The majority of people visiting the tasting room haven’t even heard of the grape,” says Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton Cellars, who says the variety displays notes of tea, pear and lavender.
92 Lauren Ashton Cellars 2012 Roussanne (Columbia Valley). An elegant, precise wine with a refreshing baseline of wet stone. Editors’ Choice. —P.G.
abv: 13.5% Price: $25
Styles of Washington’s most planted Rhône white variety vary from lean, stainless-steel-fermented offerings to full-bodied, oak-aged wines.
In the vineyard, says Mike MacMorran of Mark Ryan Winery, “you have to walk that very fine line between retaining those beautiful floral and citrus aromatics, but not waiting until you start getting into tropical fruit punch.”
90 William Church 2012 Viognier (Yakima Valley). The lemon and lime, peach and apricot fruit really shines. —P.G.
abv: 14.2% Price: $23
Southern Rhône-Style Blends
In terms of reds, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre take the lead. Blueberry and strawberry fruit and peppery spices are common.
Whites tend to be full-bodied, with notes of flowers, stone fruit and pear. Blends of Roussanne and Viognier are most common.
94 Force Majeure 2010 Collaboration Series VI (Red Mountain). A spice rack of aromas, with flavors of boysenberry and raspberry over crushed rocks. —P.G.
abv: 14.8% Price: $50
- 2Sampling Washington Syrah
- 3Beyond Syrah