The Bar Code: Is Washington the New Rhone Valley?

Washington state’s syrahs and grenaches may become its standout wines.

At a recent dinner event, I got into a conversation with several members of the Washington Wine Commission. One topic we discussed was how, unlike our West Coast neighbors, Washington has yet to find those few grapes that define the region—you know, the way that pinot noir does the Willamette Valley or cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay do Napa Valley. Instead, Washington growers seem more interested in experimenting with just about any grape variety they can get their hands on. While it’s interesting to see how the local terroir handles barbera or tempranillo or auxerrois, one of the most exciting discoveries has been that Washington can make some really amazing wines modeled on those of France’s Rhone Valley.

Leading that charge is Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars. The name hints at the kind of wines he’s making: The Cote Rotie is a small region in the northern Rhone Valley known for its syrah-based wines, and indeed Boyd makes his Northern Blend in the classic Cote Rotie style, adding a small amount of marsanne (yes, a white grape) to enhance the aromatics and, paradoxically, darken the color.

A quick word about the Rhone: It’s generally divided into north and south, with different grapes pre-eminent based on where you are. In the north, red wines are largely or totally made from syrah, while the whites are largely viognier. The best-known appellations are Cote Rotie, St. Joseph, and Hermitage. Down south, grenache is the dominant red grape, but plenty of syrah and mourvedre are grown as well, while roussanne and marsanne are the central white grapes, with viognier factoring in too. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the best-known region in the southern Rhone, but wines from Vacqueyras and Gigondas are similar in style and often match in quality.

Both Rotie’s whites are aromatically expressive and bright, but with a nice backbone of acidity and minerality that reins in the fruitiness inherent in Rhone varietals. In particular, the Northern White Blend is the best Washington viognier I’ve tried, showing fragrant white flowers and luscious stone fruits on the nose, but delivering a balanced and complex taste with a refreshing zing of acidity on the finish. It’s that devotion to balance and acidity that defines all Rotie’s wines.

When it comes to reds, syrah has a long history in Washington, but it’s typically made into rich, jammy, fruit-forward, high-alcohol wines that have more in common with Australian shirazes than the wines of France. Boyd has consciously broken with that tradition, making complex, elegant, high-acid red wines that are wonderfully food-friendly. His Northern Blend showcases Washington’s ability to achieve a wonderful ripeness without sacrificing acidity and complexity, with notes of blackberry, bacon fat, and chocolate leavened with a nice dose of spices and a bracing hit of rocky minerality.

Even more exciting to me than well-made Washington syrah is the potential of grenache. While it has until now gone largely unnoticed in this state, grenache is currently being buzzed about as a potential “grape of the future.” As a counterpoint to the rich and luscious fruits of the Northern Blend, Rotie’s Southern Blend shows brighter red fruits coupled with dusty, leathery, and briny notes which would be right at home in the southern Rhone. With those flavor components, it’s one of my favorite reds for grilled meats, especially lamb.

Beyond bringing Rhone varietals into focus, Boyd is one of the founders of Proletariat Wines, one of the local pioneers in keg wines. These allow bars and restaurants to avoid one of the traditional perils of glass-pour wines: An opened bottle of wine goes bad really quickly. Keg wines are kept fresh with inert nitrogen, so the wine can be served for weeks on end without any spoilage or waste.

In short, it’s winemakers like Boyd who push forward the frontiers of Washington wine. Paradoxically, this is sometimes done by looking back at Old World wines and figuring out how they can be recreated locally. Of course, the goal isn’t to make a perfect clone of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but to understand what makes those wines great, and then to apply those grapes, materials, and techniques to the outstanding and unique local conditions of eastern Washington.

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