Though plantings of Rhone varieties beyond Syrah remain miniscule in Washington (see chart below), there is no doubt that Rhone wines are on the rise in the state. From Grenache Blanc to Picpoul, Cinsault to Mourvèdre, winemakers and consumers alike are showing an increased interest in varieties native to France’s Rhone Valley. Moreover, these varieties are creating some of the state’s most exciting wines.
Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars was Washington’s Rhone vanguard. McCrea moved to the state in the early 1980s and attributes his interest in Rhone-style wines to the early wines of Randall Graham as well as his upbringing. “Having been brought up in New Orleans, wine and food were inseparable,” McCrea explained.
McCrea made his first wine, a Chardonnay, at his eponymous winery in 1988. The following year he made his first Rhone-style wine, a Grenache from Don Graves Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge. Come 1990, he convinced Graves to plant an acre of Syrah. “I don’t know how much Syrah was in the state then but there wasn’t much,” McCrea said.
Indeed, just four years earlier Washington's first Syrah vines were planted at Red Willow Vineyard by Mike Sauer, with Columbia Winery's David Lake providing the inspiration. Acreage was so limited in Washington in the early nineties that it wasn’t even tracked. At first McCrea blended his Syrah with Grenache before making his first varietal bottling in 1994.
While McCrea’s initial efforts focused on fruit from the Columbia Gorge, it was his relationship with Yakima Valley grower Dick Boushey that would hasten the surge in Rhone varieties in Washington.
“I had worked at a winery over in Woodinville,” McCrea explained. “Dick would come over in his truck and a trailer and bring his grapes to French Creek Cellars. I really respected him greatly as a wine grape grower. We just sort of hit it off.”
Together McCrea and Boushey selected a site in eastern Washington that would become one of the state’s signature Syrah vineyards. “If you look at that site, you’ve got about 20 to 24 inches of topsoil,” McCrea said. “Below that is pumice-style lava. A few years in as the roots got further down, we could tell that there was something really special about that location.”
In the ensuing years McCrea convinced Boushey and Jim Holmes (Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Red Mountain) to plant a wide assortment of other Rhone varieties, including Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul, and Marsanne. “It was almost like a shotgun approach,” McCrea said. This approach continued in the winery where McCrea produce a wide array of varietal bottlings and blends. “It almost got out of hand," McCrea said. "I think we were making like 12 different wines at one time."
Many years later, through the early efforts of McCrea, Boushey, Sauer, Lake, Williams and the many people who came after them - most notably Christophe Baron and Charles Smith who elevated both quality and awareness to new heights - Rhone varieties have taken off in the Northwest. Today the area is home to numerous world-class Rhone-centric producers, including Cayuse Vineyards, Gramercy Cellars, K Vintners, Maison Bleue, and Reynvaan Family Vineyards to name just a few. One of the most direct parallels to Doug McCrea’s early efforts, however, comes from Syncline Wine Cellars.
Located in the Columbia Gorge, Syncline was founded by James and Poppie Mantone in 2001 (read a previously published article about Syncline Winery in Edible Seattle). At Syncline, the Mantones work with a wide assortment of Rhone varieties, including Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre, and Syrah. Much like McCrea Cellars, many of these are produced as varietal bottlings, though Syncline makes a number of blends as well.
“The different Rhone varieties are so complementary to each other and you really understand why you grow them all and what role they play in the blend and how important they are,” James Mantone said.
Despite more than 25 years since Syrah was first planted in Washington, Mantone says that it remains early days for Rhone varieties in the state with a lot of experimentation taking place. Which variety is best suited to which particular location and what type of clones and trellising should be used? Mantone says that by and large people are still figuring that out.
“I could take Mourvèdre as a great example,” Mantone said. “The three vineyards on Red Mountain that we work with are all really close: Heart of the Hill, which is cordon trained; Force Majeure, which is head trained goblet; and Ciel du Cheval which is fan trained. They are radically different in the vineyard. They each bring in different aspects.”
Experimentation also continues in the winery where Mantone, along with a number of other Washington winemakers, is now using concrete tanks for fermentation and aging (read a good article by Full Pull's Paul Zitarelli in Seattle Magazine on the use of concrete in Washington here). “We really love the concrete,” Mantone said. “While stainless steel does a better job of capturing primary berry aromatics, the wines coming out of concrete are a little broader, more textural than stainless.”
What’s does the next 25 years look like for Rhone varieties in Washington? While Mantone said that he’s bullish on the prospects of Mourvèdre in particular, he is also excited about some of the white Rhone grapes as well.
“With Grenache Blanc and Picpoul, all of the sudden we have grapes that we can grow in fairly warm areas that hold onto their acids and deliver a crisp profile,” he said. The Syncline whites bear out Mantone’s enthusiasm and are among the more thrilling white wines I’ve sampled from Washington.
Will Washington come to be defined by its Rhone varieties in the years to come? Quite possibly, at least in part. Syrah has certainly already made a strong case as a signature variety for the state, though the abundance of varieties that excel here makes it more challenging for any one of them to gain more prominence than the others. Which of the numerous other Rhone varieties might take a place alongside Syrah as being particularly distinctive in Washington? That page of the book in Washington's wine history is currently being written.
Read a recent article on Rhone wines in Wine Enthusiast magazine that I co-authored with Paul Gregutt. You can also read an article I wrote on Rhone-style wines in the March/April issue of Edible Seattle. See a list of newsstand locations here.
Picture of Doug McCrea courtesy of McCrea Cellars.
McCrea Cellars Roussanne Yakima Valley 2011 $25
(Decent/Good) A moderately aromatic wine with herbs, apricot, citrus, and almond. The palate is full bodied with a creamy, rich phenolic feel with abundant lees influence. 94% Roussanne, 6% Viognier. Olsen and Ciel du Cheval vineyards. 14.1% alcohol. 100 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Viognier Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Mountain 2010 $25
(Good) Showing some of its age with notes of dried apricot and pear. It’s full bodied with a creamy, rich feel and an extended finish. Drink now. 89% Viognier, 11% Roussanne. 14.6% alcohol. 220 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Grenache Blanc Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2010 $25
(Good/Excellent) A moderately aromatic wine with lemon, almond, and straw showing abundant lees influence as well as a bit of age. The palate is full bodied with a creamy, phenolic feel and well balanced acidity. Doesn’t show anywhere near the alcohol listed. 86% Grenache Blanc, 14% Marsanne. 14.7% alcohol. 170 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Grenache Yakima Valley 2009 $28
(Good) Moderately aromatic with notes of jammy red fruit, licorice, and floral notes along with barrel spices. The palate is rich and liquorous with an almost port-like intensity to the flavors leading to a warm finish. 80% Grenache, 20% Syrah. Sugar Loaf and Boushey vineyards. Aged 40 months in five year-old French oak. 14.8% alcohol. 123 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Mourvèdre Yakima Valley 2009 $28
(Excellent) Moderately aromatic with abundant barrel notes (spice box, vanilla) along with dried cherry. The palate is full bodied with rich, sweet fruit flavors. The variety seems to get somewhat lost between the warmth of the vintage and the barrel accents but, putting that aside, it remains a delicious, hedonistic style wine. 78% Mourvèdre, 22% Syrah. Ciel du Cheval, Elephant Mountain, and Boushey vineyards. Aged in French oak (10% new). 14.9% alcohol. 201 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Sirroco Red Wine Washington State 2006 $28
(Good) A moderately aromatic wine that’s beginning to show its age with dried cherries and herbs along with barrel notes of vanilla, spice, and licorice. The palate is extremely rich, sweet, and concentrated, showing some warmth on the finish. A bold wine that is not for the faint of heart. 41% Mourvèdre, 36% Grenache, 13% Syrah, 5% Counoise, and 5% Cinsault. Ciel du Cheval, Boushey, and Two Coyote vineyards. Aged 16 months in French oak (25% new). 14.8% alcohol. 439 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Syrah ‘Amerique’ Yakima Valley 2008 $34
(Excellent/Exceptional) An aromatically rich wine with sweet barrel spices and vanilla along with smoke and blue fruit. The palate is full bodied, almost impenetrably rich in its dark fruit and savory flavors with abundant barrel accents leading to a lingering finish. 81% Syrah, 18% Mourvèdre, and 1% Grenache. Ciel du Cheval, Elephant Mountain, and Sugarloaf vineyards. Aged in one to three year old American oak. 14.8% alcohol. 267 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Syrah Yakima Valley 2009 $25
(Excellent) Lightly aromatic initially it opens to reveal notes of blackberry jam, pencil lead, roasted meat, herbs, and barrel spices. The palate is full throttle with rich, palate coating dark fruit flavors. A hedonistic wine that is in full bloom. Elephant Mountain, Sugarloaf, and Boushey Grand Côte vineyards. Aged 32 months in two to six year old French oak. 14.8% alcohol. 380 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Cuvée Orleans Syrah Yakima Valley 2008 $40
(Exceptional) This wine has fully blossomed with notes of black licorice, chocolate, and dark cherries. It’s full bodied, power packed, with layered, dense dark fruit flavors with a supple feel. A spectacular, unapologetically full throttled wine that is in a sweet spot right now. 92% Syrah, 8% Viognier. Boushey Grand Côte, Ciel du Cheval, and Elephant Mountain vineyards. 14.6% alcohol. 163 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
McCrea Cellars Syrah Boushey Grand Côte Vineyard Yakima Valley 2008 $36
(Exceptional) An aromatic tour de force with bacon fat, mineral, plum, and cherry. The palate is full bodied and instantly reminds you why this producer made a name for itself and this vineyard with this variety. It’s rich and dense but never goes over the top, hanging around for a lingering finish. 100% Syrah. Aged in French oak (22% new). 14.5% alcohol. 173 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Picpoul Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2012 $NA
(Excellent) An aromatically fresh wine with tangerine, lemon zest, mineral, the underside of a pineapple, and assorted citrus notes. The palate is full bodied, tart and puckering with a pleasing, steely blast of acidity that carries through to a lingering finish. A thoroughly delicious, must-try wine that is an acid hound’s delight. 100% Picpoul. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 14.4% alcohol. 102 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Grenache Blanc Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2012 $24
(Excellent/Exceptional) A moderately aromatic wine with an assortment of high toned herbs, citrus peel, mineral, lemon pith, crème fraîche, and a speckling of spices. The palate is medium-plus bodied with a tight zing of citric acidity and a long, lingering finish. Sample provided by winery. 100% Grenache Blanc. Fermented and aged in concrete. 14.0% alcohol. 181 cases produced.
Syncline Grenache Columbia Valley 2011 $25
(Good) Brings a bright assortment of savory herbs (thyme, summer savory, sage) and noble fir, along with plum and raspberries in an unusual profile. The palate is medium bodied with a tart, fresh feel and lip smacking fruit flavors. Lingers on the finish. A unique, intriguing example of the variety with a bit of a disconnect between the aromas and flavors. Have it at the dinner table to see it at its best. 100% Grenache. Sugar Loaf (30%), McKinley Springs (27%), Ciel du Cheval (26%), and Alder Ridge vineyards. Aged 12 months in three to seven year old French oak. 14.4% alcohol. 250 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Counoise Columbia Valley 2011 $30
(Excellent/Exceptional) Moderately aromatic with high toned herbs, light peppery spices, and plum with a real sense of freshness to the notes. The palate is very fresh in feel without an ounce of oak apparent on the flavors or feel. It’s supple, fruit filled, and flavorful – all about the fruit. 78% Counoise, 22% Syrah. McKinley Springs (61%) and Ciel du Cheval vineyards. Aged 12 months in neutral French oak. 13.9% alcohol. 210 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Grenache-Carignan Columbia Valley 2011 $25
(Good/Excellent) A moderately aromatic wine with notes of Dimetapp, celery stalk, wintergreen, and mineral. The palate is broad and flavorful, supple in feel with a lingering richness. Love the flavors and feel with some aromas that distract. 55% Grenache, 45% Carignan. Northridge, Alder Ridge, McKinley Springs, and Steep Creek Ranch vineyards. Aged 14 months in neutral French oak. 13.5% alcohol. 265 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Mourvèdre Columbia Valley 2011 $30
(Exceptional) A brooding wine with notes of ground white pepper, citrus, mineral, herbs, and a light meatiness. The palate is wonderfully fresh and textured in feel. An outstanding example of the variety with little apparent oak influence to interfere with the directness of the fruit and savory flavors. 100% Mourvèdre. Alder Ridge (42%), Heart of the Hill (29%), Coyote Canyon (19%), and Ciel du Cheval (10%) vineyards. Aged 14 months in concrete (50%) and neutral French oak. 14.8% alcohol. 388 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Mourvèdre Red Mountain 2011 $45
(Excellent) More fruit driven than its Columbia Valley counterpart with freshly pitted cherries, abundant herbs that lean ever so slightly green but ultimately stay in the savory, and spice. The palate is full bodied, rich and fruit filled with abundant cherry flavors and chewy tannins. The grape’s white pepper note is surprisingly absent here. 100% Mourvèdre. Heart of the Hill (53%), Ciel du Cheval (37%), and Grand Reve (10%) vineyards. Aged 16 months in three to seven year old French oak. 14.2% alcohol. 160 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Syrah Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2011 $35
(Excellent) A brooding, fruit filled wine with notes of huckleberry, thyme, and blue spruce. The palate is full bodied, supple and pure in feel with tart fruit flavors and a warm finish. 100% Syrah. Fermented in concrete (50%) and open top fermenters and aged 16 months in older French oak 500-L puncheons. 14.8% alcohol. 362 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Syrah Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Mountain 2011 $50
(Exceptional) Locked up aromatically with notes of fresh dark cherry, iron, licorice, and earth. The palate is dense and full flavored with grainy tannins and a lingering finish. 100% Syrah. Aged 16 months in three to four year old French oak. 14.3% alcohol. 145 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.
Syncline Cuvee Elena Columbia Valley 2011 $40
(Exceptional) Draws you into the glass with garrigue, blackberry, cherry, and peppery spices on a wine that is still quite closed up at present but plays toward the savory. The fruit flavors show great richness, depth, and texture while retaining a sense of restraint with lip smacking tannins. A lights out beautiful wine that is a perfect assemblage of these varieties with an uber compelling mouthfeel. 37% Mourvèdre, 30% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 5% Carignan, and 2% Cinsault. 14.4% alcohol. 330 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.