Search & Distill: Rhône Rage

Washingtonians have been making wine for decades, but our industry grew up primarily when cabernet sauvignon and merlot ranked as the "it" grapes—those commonly associated with Bordeaux, France. But since the other side of the mountains is an irrigated desert prone to brutal heat and equally crushing freezes, our climate is more suited to the ultra-hardy grapes of France's eastern Rhône Valley, especially syrah.A few weeks ago, the Rhône Rangers—an organization of West Coast wineries hell-bent on getting you off the cab and on to syrah, grenache, viognier, and mourvedre—held a Seattle tasting as part of Farestart's Guest Chef on the Waterfront fundraiser. California wineries may have outnumbered Washington's, but I was happy to see some new faces among the locals that came out to represent.I'm still thinking about the first releases from Sean Boyd, assistant winemaker at Waters, who self-distributes and has no tasting room as of yet. His Rôtie Cellars pays homage to the Rhône Valley with two blends that mimic the wines of the northern and southern Rhône. My tasting of Boyd's 2007 Northern Blend (syrah and viognier) marked the first time in a while my notes have matched what a winery has written about its wines—it was an intense cherry-and-cola bomb with an aroma I wanted to turn into powder form so I could snort it all day long. Boyd's 2007 Southern Blend, dominated by grenache and rounded out with syrah and mourvedre, has a mellower mix of red and black fruit with a spicy edge and long finish. If you could put it in the basement and forget about it for a year or two, I bet the wine would show more fruit as the underlying structure toned down.Brent and Sarah Goedhart of Goedhart Family Winery make just one wine, a single-vineyard syrah from Hedges' Bel' Villa vineyard on that prized bump of Benton known as Red Mountain. Sarah is the assistant winemaker at Hedges, and though they use the older winery's facilities to crush their grapes, all storage and barrel-aging takes place in their home garage. At the tasting, the Goedharts showed their first two vintages. Their 2006 syrah was well-built, a full spectrum of earthy, black fruit with a dry finish that made me wish I could try it in two years. The 2007 was a complete yang to that yin—pretty, floral ripe-berry fruit with a juicy, soft finish that wants to be drunk now.If you've ever had viognier, you know Rhône varietals are more than just red. Wines made from viognier and its companion grapes, roussanne and marsanne, appeal to all sorts of white-wine drinkers because they can be as aromatic and fruity as a just-plucked peach. These wines can be both dense with fruit and as rich as a California chardonnay, or they can have a light, cool, crisp appeal more like a delicate Oregon pinot gris. Maison Bleue Winery out of Prosser has gained quite a bit of attention for its white wines. The ladies flocked around winemaker Jon Martinez's table for the lovely whites, including his 2007 "Notre Vie," a viognier that transported me back to last July and three perfect days when the apricots were just right."Most people think of white as an afterthought," says Martinez, "I think these varietals show that our whites can be every bit as complex as reds. Roussanne especially is just a red wine masquerading as a white."Indeed, Maison Bleue's roussanne had a more pronounced acidity than the viognier. It's a wine around which you create a meal or, hell, a

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