A Bottle of Sun

Beyond syrah with wine pioneer Doug McCrea.

In the early 1990s, when merlot was all the rage and syrah had barely raised its head, a Washington winemaker named Doug McCrea went against the current, seeking out skimpy plantings of syrah and grenache grapes to make a big, luscious red wine he called Tierra del Sol, "land of the sun." Unlike many fanciful wine names more memorable than meaningful, this one suited the contents of the bottle it adorned, which seemed to capture the warmth and fragrance of an Indian-summer day in your glass. The severe freeze of 1996 which damaged vines and cut yields over most of Eastern Washington effectively wiped out plantings of cold-sensitive grenache, thereby putting an abrupt end to Tierra del Sol. McCrea, undaunted, continued to produce pure syrah wines of stunning quality, setting an example for many of the vintners who've crowded into the rapidly growing slice of the market in the last several years. But McCrea had and has a broader goal than making top syrah. His vision is to explore and foster all the grape varieties that contribute major flavor elements and grace notes to the immensely complex wines of France's Rhône Valley. Never mind that this is more a research project suited to a multiyear program at an agriculture college than an objective for a one-man boutique winery. Such is McCrea's prestige in the state's winemaking community that he has been able to persuade growers to plant such Rhône oddities as mourvèdre, counoise, and roussanne for him to practice his alchemy on. Although hyperambitious, McCrea's objective is not a matter of concern only to a few specialists in exotic varietals. A great Rhône appellation like Châteauneuf- du-Pape is authorized by law to contain a dozen or more grape varieties, red and white, and all, in their varied ways, contribute to the wine's unmistakable nobility of character. Most Washington state syrah today resembles a milder, more polished version of Australia's rambunctious shiraz (same grape, different spelling). If it's ever to achieve its full potential, winemakers need to have access to all the components that make the grape so memorable in its southern French homeland. McCrea's all-Rhône-all-the-time focus is already paying off for the rest of Washington's wine industry. He was the first vintner in the state to craft a wine from the important Rhône varietal viognier, a notoriously tricky grape to grow, but capable of extraordinary power and finesse on its home turf in the northernmost reaches of the Rhône. The results he got showed that viognier (pronounced "vi-OWN-yay") may be a strong contender among Washington-grown whites. The potent pear-blossom fragrance and fresh acidity that lead connoisseurs to pay astronomical prices for the viognier-based wines of Condrieu are both present in wines made from Washington grapes. Those who enjoy the spicy fragrance of gewürztraminer but are put off by the flabby flavor of much homegrown gewürz, those who appreciate the flavor and body of chardonnay but find Washington chardonnay often too hard and acidic, could well make viognier their white wine of choice. McCrea's success with the grape has encouraged a number of growers to try their luck with it, with highly promising results. Six wines entirely or partially made from the grape were featured at this year's Taste Washington wine and food festival last week, all retailing around $15 to $20. Not all Rhône varietals are likely to provide such agreeable surprises here in the Northwest, but we'll never know until we try, and McCrea is trying; he is making 100-percent varietal wines— albeit in tiny quantities—from grape varieties that in France are used almost exclusively in blending: 110 cases of the oddly astringent counoise and 150 of rough and robust mourvèdre. There's method in his apparent over-extension; we'll never know what these grapes contribute to Châteauneuf until we get to know what they do on their own. And the magic that happens when a mere drop of (white) roussanne is added to a glassful of (red) mourvèdre suggests that McCrea is once again serving the whole Washington wine industry through his magnificent Rhône obsession. But for McCrea fans of long standing, the most exciting news is Sirocco. Named for the hot wind from Africa that blows over the south of France, Sirocco is Tierra del Sol–plus: a blend of 50 percent (replanted) grenache, 25 percent syrah, 20 percent mourvèdre, and 5 percent counoise—a complex wine promising years of development in bottle but as warm as Eastern Washington's desert sun the day of its release. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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