Rhônes on the Rise: Washington State Takes the
BY ERIC GUIDO | AUGUST 10, 2023
It’s time to start
looking beyond Washington State wine’s usual reputation. Most consumers
associate Washington with Bordeaux blends, which isn’t wrong. However, beyond
the seductive Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend that Washington State has
mastered, there has been a slowly-building revolt among producers and
viticulturists. Some have planted Rhône varieties with notable success. A few
have built significant customer waiting lists or are obscure and hunted for.
Yet, when most reports on Washington State wine are published, they read more like a conversation
about Bordeaux than the Rhône varieties blends, a travesty in my view.
I’ve loved Washington
State wine for many years. It was often my choice over Napa and Sonoma because
of a combination of price and quality that is unheralded within the United
States. However, upon my first visit as a critic, as opposed to as a buyer, I
quickly realized that Washington State needed to receive a different treatment.
In the past, the region was covered in a single article spanning all wines and
areas within, resulting in the intricacies of terroir and varieties getting lost
in the 800 to 1,000 wines per report. Imagine if Bordeaux and the Rhône were
combined into one single article. That would be unacceptable. And so, as of
now, Washington State gets its just deserts because the level of high-quality,
world-class Rhône varieties produced here is nearly unparalleled in the United
States. The emerging AVA shared both with Oregon and Washington may one day be
considered one of the choice pieces of terroir around the world. This is a new
frontier, getting in on the ground floor, with producers waiting in anticipation
to see what Washington State might accomplish. It’s an exciting time.
Looking out across Red Mountain from Upchurch Vineyards.
Rhône varieties aren’t
new to Washington State. Many wineries have done a terrific job creating wines
that marry the region’s dry warmth with a terroir stamp and the winemaker's
hand. Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Royal Slope and Walla Walla Valley have all
succeeded in creating Washington State Rhône reds and whites for over a decade
now. The earliest plantings go back to the mid-eighties in the Red Willow
Vineyard of Yakima Valley.
To be clear, when I
speak of Rhône varieties in Washington State, I’m referring to these reds:
Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise and Petite Sirah and
these whites: Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette Blanche
and Picpoul. In many cases, consumers will mostly find Syrah. In Washington's
hot, dry and irrigated vineyards, Syrah can be wildly deep and expressive or
savory and earthy, reminding tasters of the Northern Rhône. It can also be
fruity and juicy but often forgettable. Knowing the right source and the
producer's style is a trick to gauge what will be found from bottle to bottle.
Outside of Syrah, there are many other varietal bottlings. Spicy Mourvèdres and
nuanced Grenaches are among the most exciting, along with some genuinely
seductive Viogniers. Châteauneuf du Pape fans have a wealth of GSM (Grenache,
Syrah and Mourvèdre) bottlings to choose from.
Certain producers, such
as K-Vintners, have successfully communicated the individual terroir of these areas
in a way that few others have. Their lineup of top-shelf single-vineyard Syrah
is a perfect example. Meanwhile, the well-known and highly allocated Cayuse wines
have blazoned the Walla Walla AVA on their labels since the winery's inception,
with a unique style that has bewildered and seduced wine collectors. Betz
family winery does a fantastic job of marrying site to winemaking style, with
old-world-styled reds sourced from throughout the region. More recently,
Liminal Wines, a project from Marty Taucher and Chris Peterson of Avennia, has
committed solely to exposing the unique terroir of the relatively new WeatherEye
vineyard on Red Mountain.
The exploration of
choice terroir to plant Rhône varieties continues and expands to this day. It’s
safe to say that nearly all producers in the region are looking to get some
skin in the game.
Charles Smith winemaker Brennon Leighton describes the diverse terroir that builds their Syrah portfolio.
What’s Everyone Talking About?
This brings us to the
thousand-pound gorilla in the room: The Rocks District of Milton Freewater. The emergence of this region might seem sudden, but many locals have been watching
the popularity of this AVA grow since its inception in February 2015. The Rocks
District of Milton Freewater, a relatively new AVA which I’ll refer to as just
“The Rocks” going forward, has breathed a new life into the category of Rhône varieties
from Washington State. Plainly stated, nearly everyone wants a piece of this
terroir. Interestingly enough, The Rocks is not as new as most people think. Christophe
Baron has been planting vineyards here since 1997 and makes some of the
region's best wines. For Baron, he has always chosen to label his wines as
Walla Walla (The Rocks is a sub-AVA of Walla Walla) while lovingly referring to
the area as “The Stones”.
Not only does the roster
of producers making wines from The Rocks include the who’s who of Washington
State wines, but it has also inspired outside investors to secure as much land
as possible as quickly as possible before it’s all gone. As of today, The Walla
Walla Land Company is the largest holder of vineyards in The Rocks, with 200
acres of vines and orchards that will be converted to vineyards over time,
as well as amenities for their brand, including 50,000 square feet of cold
storage that may one day become a custom crush facility. David Wanek, Principal of The Walla Walla Land Company, explains that,
ultimately, they will be growers that pay complete respect to the land.
To make this happen, the
Walla Walla Land Company has partnered with Todd Alexander (well known for his
time at Napa Valley’s Bryant Family Vineyards and now the talent behind Force
Majeure, Holocene, WeatherEye and many others) and Mike Martin (of The Walls
Vineyards), who together formed a farming co-op called Monopole. Moreover, Alexander will
make a limited series of wines from The Walla Walla Land Company's holdings to
showcase the terroir's potential. An investment like this is a huge step
forward for The Rocks, which totals just 5.9 square miles.
Deep in The Rocks of Milton Freewater.
So, what’s so special
about this location? The Rocks is a singular soil series named the Freewater
Series, a combination of basalt cobblestones and a single landform on an
alluvial fan. The fist-sized rocks that make up most of the soil in this area,
if you can call it soil, were deposited by the Walla Walla River flowing down
from the Blue Mountains. Over time, the river changed directions, as each
channel it flowed through would be filled with stones. This created numerous
deposits of differently aged rocks and depths, yet it’s virtually flat
throughout. These rocks hold in both the day's heat and regulate temperatures
throughout the cool nights, creating grapes with a high pH and low acidity, yet
are mysteriously able to age beautifully over decades. What is noteworthy is
that nearly any taster can identify the terroir of The Rocks in a glass of
wine. Place a Rocks Syrah in a blind lineup, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s
like picking out a G.B. Burlotto Monvigliero from any lineup of Barolo. It’s
uncanny. That said, Todd Alexander commented, “What I’ve learned working with a
lot of sites around here is that it’s not as much of a one-trick pony as many
people think, even though it's a single-soil series.” It will be fascinating to
see how Alexander communicates the diversity of terroir in the upcoming
complication that will likely confuse nearly all but the most dedicated
Washington Rhône wine lovers is that The Rocks is located entirely within the Walla
Walla Valley AVA. Yet, it lies on the Oregon side of the valley. Any winery
from Oregon or Washington can make wines from this location, and it happens
that most wineries are in Washington. That said, by law, only a winery located
in Oregon (Force Majeure is a good example) can produce wines from The Rocks,
listing its AVA on the label. Yet, anyone on the Washington side can use the
Walla Walla AVA instead and reference The Rocks in some creative way, such as
Reynvaan’s Syrah In The Rocks. It will be interesting to see how many Oregon
wineries will invest here, but that is a discussion for a separate
end, The Rocks is currently where it’s at, and it’s easily one of the most
exciting pioneering locations for wine in the United States, including a downtown
area ripe for investment to bring tourists in.
Sean Boyd is a pioneer of Rhône varieties in Washington State.
Rhônes Throughout Washington
beyond The Rocks, we find numerous locations on the Oregon and Washington sides
of Walla Walla Valley that demand attention. One of my top-scoring wines from
the last two vintages is Hors Catégorie, from a vineyard located on the steep
slopes of the North Fork of the Walla Walla River, within the foothills of the
Blue Mountains. The success of this wine, plus others, has spurred serious
interest in this location. Touring the Hors Catégorie vineyard was eye-opening,
to say the least. The south slope consists of darker soil, containing more clay
(around 35%), while the east slope is lighter, with about 8% clay, and all at
dizzying degrees of elevation that would remind many world travelers of the Mosel.
Christophe Baron jokes that these two locations are his Côte Brune and Côte Blonde.
Other significant sources of Rhône varieties in the foothills of the Blue
Mountains include the Powerline and Les
Collines Vineyards, southeast of Walla Walla, where we find cobblestone river
rocks and underlying layers of sand and gravel deposits.
It’s often the case from
the Yakima Valley to see fruit sourced from the Red Willow, Olsen and Boushey
Vineyards. This is a cooler location than many other areas of the Columbia
Valley, with elevations that rise to 1,400 feet, steep inclines
and soils that consist of silty loam, windblown loess and deposits from the
Missoula floods over fractured basalt. Then there is the Stoneridge vineyard of
Royal Slope, made famous by K-Vintners’ Royal City Syrah. Here, elevations
range from just 760-814 feet in gravel and sandy loam. That
said, what’s important to remember about Washington State is that it’s rare,
outside of some particular locations, such as The Rocks, to find a vineyard
dedicated to just Rhône varieties or Bordeaux varieties. Experimentation and
matching location to variety are ongoing projects as the region's wine scene constantly
A great example is the
WeatherEye vineyard on Red Mountain, located on both its north- and
south-facing slopes, meaning that not all of the plantings are part of the AVA.
This is another sight that has piqued the interest of growers throughout the
region. The Red Mountain AVA has already proven itself as an excellent source
of Rhône varieties, yet a search for more diversity of soil and exposition,
along with the ability to extend the growing season, inspired the planting of
this 33-acre location.
Planting began in 2016,
making WeatherEye a very young vineyard, yet what producers are already turning
out from this location is fantastic. The native biodiversity throughout the
vineyard remains fully intact. Each block follows the natural contours of the
land without upsetting the natural flora and fauna that predated the planting
of the vines. Ryan Johnson designed, planted and currently manages WeatherEye. Johnson
was previously in charge of Ciel du Cheval and co-founded Force Majeure. For
Johnson, experimentation is the name of the game. While traveling throughout
Washington State, it's always interesting to hear other producers gossip about
what new and exciting idea has been placed into action in the WeatherEye
Vineyard. As of now, producers sourcing fruit from WeatherEye are also very
impressive. Liminal Wines is dedicated solely to exposing individual blocks
from the vineyard and WeatherEye estate vineyards, with their wines made by
Todd Alexander. Other producers include Kobayashi, Kevin White, Devium, Sleight
of Hand, Latta, Dillon Cellars and Valdemar.
The sun rises over WeatherEye Vineyard on Red Mountain.
An Early Look at the 2021 Vintage
Later this year, I’ll
follow up with more details on the 2021 vintage and notes on Bordeaux
varieties. My current thoughts are formulated after tasting primarily Rhône varieties
that were recently bottled.
complicated, smoke-tainted 2020 vintage, the 2021s are beautiful, pure, rich
wines that are a pleasure to taste. However, production is down due to the
extreme heat of the vintage and a late frost in 2020. Outside of a warm and dry
start to the season, the defining factor for 2021 was a record-breaking heat
wave at the end of June, with temperatures reaching up to 120 degrees. Hot
temperatures remained throughout the summer months. The saving grace was a
cool-down period through September and October that allowed the vines to reach
perfect phenolic ripeness. While the resulting wines are often fruit-forward
and, at times, opulent, the best of them are genuinely harmonious.
I tasted all of the wine
in this report while in Washington State in May 2023, followed by tastings in
our New York office in June 2023.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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