Washington’s earliest experiments with Rhone varieties began with Grenache in the 1960s. However, the notoriously cold tender variety eventually succumbed to eastern Washington’s harsh winters, wiping out the original plantings and leaving many a grower and winemaker discouraged.
Syrah, a staple in the northern Rhone Valley and also used in blends in the south, has fared considerably better in Washington. Grower Mike Sauer first planted the variety at his Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley in the mid-1980s at the encouragement of Columbia Winery’s David Lake. Since that time, Syrah has gone on to become Washington’s fifth most produced variety and is also creating some of the Northwest’s most highly touted wines, with wines from the likes of Cayuse Vineyards achieving cult wine status with a years-long waiting list (at least five years and counting for yours truly).
Syrah is known for its sponge-like qualities, soaking up the characteristics of the particular place that it is grown. As a result, Washington Syrah runs the gamut from fruit-driven wines with notes of blueberry and blackberry to more savory wines with notes of earth, bacon fat, and olive depending on the site where it is grown as well as the winemaker style.
Winemakers have also begun experimenting with Mourvèdre—a grape known for its savory profile with notes of freshly ground black pepper and raw meat. Grenache has even made a comeback, with more judicious site selection allowing it to (thus far) survive Washington’s cold winters. Styles range from full-bodied wines with notes of dark raspberries to more savory wines with plum, white pepper, and truffle. As in the southern Rhone Valley, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre are also increasingly being blended with impressive results. Some wineries are even beginning to add small amounts of Carignan and Counoise to the blend as these varieties become more available in the state.
While much of the interest has been focused on red wines, what is happening with the white Rhone varieties is equally exciting. Viognier is currently far out front in terms of production. Though a notoriously difficult variety to work with, an increasing number of Washington winemakers seem to be unlocking its secrets. The resulting wines are full bodied and aromatic with notes of honeysuckle and peach.
Though both Grenache Blanc and Picpoul have miniscule plantings in Washington—so much so that the acreage is not even tracked—the wines being made from these grapes command attention. Both create tart, full-bodied wines with puckering acidity—perfect for pairing with food or for cooling down a hot summer day (yes, though it seems hard to believe, they are coming).
While it remains early days for many of the Rhone grapes in Washington, it is already clear that these varieties can thrive here. Look for an increasing number of Rhone-style wines in the coming years. Due to more limited availability of many of the grapes outside of Syrah, the entry price is often higher than what you might find for Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Still, these wines are well worth seeking out. Below are 10 wines that show what all the fuss is about.
William Church Winery Viognier Columbia Valley 2012 $23
This Woodinville winery has championed Viognier for years and consistently produces one of the state’s top bottles marked by notes of pear and peach.
Two Vintners Grenache Blanc Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2012 $25
One of very few varietal bottlings being produced in the state with notes of wet stone and grapefruit rind framed by a blast of citric acidity.
Maison Bleue Métis Blanc Columbia Valley 2012 $30
A blend of Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Roussanne, it brings a lot of aromatic and textural complexity with notes of hazelnut, melon, and apricot.
Maison Bleue Le Midi Grenache Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2011 $40
An aromatic dazzler with notes of dark plum, pomegranate, dried herbs and white pepper along with a supple, fruit-filled palate.
Gramercy Cellars L’Idiot du Village Mourvèdre Columbia Valley 2011 $42
This wine brings all of Mourvèdre’s savory goodness with notes of black pepper and roasted meat. Pour it at the dinner table to see it at its best.
For A Song Syrah Columbia Valley 2012 $15
Redolent with notes of boysenberry, smoke, and spicebox, it brings a rare level at this price. It’s drinking young still, so give it some additional time in the bottle or an hour in a decanter.
McCrea Cellars Syrah Yakima Valley 2009 $25
From the warm 2009 vintage, it’s rich and hedonistic in style with notes of blackberry jam, roasted meat, and barrel spices.
McCrea Cellars Syrah Boushey Grand Côte Vineyard Yakima Valley 2008 $36
Doug McCrea helped make a name for Syrah in Washington and this wine shows why. Close to six years old, it’s in full bloom and is priced an Alexander Hamilton or two below wines of similar quality. Drink up!
Owen Roe Sinister Hand Red Wine Columbia Valley 2012 $25
This blend of Grenache (70%), Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault packs a rich mouthful of flavors ranging from plum to herbs, chocolate, and clove. You won’t find better at this price.
Syncline Wine Cellars Cuvée Elena Columbia Valley 2011 $40
A blend of Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, and Cinsault with notes of blackberry, herbs, and peppery spices, it’s a one-wine primer on why Washington Rhone-style wines are generating so much excitement.