The French government recognizes 22 different grape varietals in the greater Rhône Valley. However, only a few are used in today's wines, and around the world, even fewer are utilized.
There is no question that Syrah has grown in popularity in America. It has become well established in Washington State with roughly 4500 acres. It's hard to believe that when we released our first Syrah in the mid-90's there were only around 10 acres in the State. As a varietal, it adapts to a wide spectrum of sites and climates, translating into very identifiable differences in aroma and flavor. A vigorous plant, Syrah requires low-fertility soils and careful water stress to avoid mediocre quality, often a problem when a varietal meets with rapid acclaim in a new region, and when many wish to capitalize on that success. At its best, Syrah offers a host of aromatics and jam-packed flavors of dark berries, Japanese plum, sweet cherry, smoky game, blueberry, cassis, pencil lead, and dark cocoa-coffee. With a potential of so many flavors and aromas, how can one go wrong but to relax by a warm fire on a cold Northwest winter evening with a Washington Syrah!
With origins in Spain where it's know as Garnacha, this grape is the foundation for the renowned wines of the Southern Rhône, most famous in the appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pope. In Spain its acclaim is in the powerful and dense wines of Priorat. Often, it has been poorly treated in the U.S., producing weak wines of little distinction. When given the respect it deserves, it can produce wines of great character, laden with a spicy, peppery core and silky texture. Grenache requires a lengthy growing season to fully ripen the clusters, so in Washington State, it is very site specific and must be planted in the warmest locations that remain frost-free late into the fall.
In California, Tablas Creek Vineyard imported Counoise cuttings from Chateau de Beaucastle in 1990. Eventually, cuttings from these same vines were planted at Ciel du Cheval vineyard in 2000 and are also found scattered here and there about the State, gaining gradually in popularity. Much as with Cinsault, the grape produces very large berries, but with proper irrigation and some amount of saignee in the cellar, it can offer wines of red-purple color, scented with blue plum, tart cherry pie and cranberry. It has great acidity, is a good blender, yet is a perfect stand- alone red to pair with salmon.
Yet another transplant from Spain where it's name is Monastrell, Mourvèdre in Southern France is gradually gaining ground, increasing greatly in the blends of the Southern Rhône Valley. It has a compelling aroma of dark berry and gingerbread, with earthy components of truffle, graphite and moist rain-forest floor. Overall, it displays a captivating gamy element that is very intriguing. Washington State shows great potential for Mourvèdre, and will very likely become a primary wine in time. Of all the Rhône varietals in our State, it most greatly reflects characteristics that resemble "old world" wines such as those of Bandol in France and Spain's Jumilla region.
A high-yielding, hot-weather red that is generally used in blends to lend a spicy component. It represents the greatest volume of bulk wine in France and is too often treated as an inexpensive and common product due to its copious yields. However, when cropped low and irrigated to reduce the typically large berry size, it can be a very rewarding grape, displaying its close origins to Pinot Noir. It's rarely bottled as a full red wine, but can be found as a wonderfully enticing rose.
Viognier may be the world's least widely planted premium grape, but currently on the rise in popularity. It has gained a good reputation in Washington State where several very well-made versions have received favorable reviews. McCrea Cellars was the first winery to produce Viognier commercially in the State, and many wineries have followed. It can be a difficult wine during elevage as it's prone to sudden oxidation, so it has to be carefully monitored in the cellar. Viognier's unique status as a white is its exotic floral bouquet coupled with complex nuances of apricot, pear and tropical fruits.
Roussanne's name is derived from its propensity when mature to develop a russet-like coloration of the grape skin, particularly the sun exposed portion of the cluster. For that reason, it's difficult to determine proper harvest ripeness as the clusters typically have different colored sides with the less exposed grapes more green. If we could only turn the clusters around on the vines during the growing season, all would be well! Regardless, the ensuing wine is very textural with a lovely wet stone aroma coupled with something resembling mascarpone, talc and the little roadside flower, Pearly Everlasting.
Marsanne is the white workhorse grape of the Southern Rhône Valley, the primary white of several Northern Rhône appellations, and is an important varietal in the Australian wine industry. It's an unusual grape, drinking well in its first few years, going into a dumb stage in mid-life, then developing rich, deep maturity when it comes out of its flat phase. Typically, the wine has a somewhat deep color, tasting flinty in its youth then ultimately achieving great complexity with aromas of acacia honey, jasmine and roasted nuts. Some are inspired by Marsanne while others are unconvinced. Much of this is likely due to the time at which it is consumed.
Grenache Blanc is the white-berry variant of Grenache Noir, the red. As with the red Grenache, its origins are in Spain, and still to today, it plays a major role in the wines of Rioja and Navarre. When treated carefully, it can produce a full, rich wine, often high in alcohol and relatively balanced in acidity. Having spread east to France, it has thrived in the blends of the Southern Rhône and is the fourth most widely planted varietal in that country. Grenache Blanc stands well on its own, but still has not received much attention as a singular varietal in the U.S.. Generally, it's used in blends, lending good structure with ample flavors of apple and Japanese pear.
A native of the Languedoc region of Southern France, Picpoul's name means "lip stinger" due to its high acidity. For this reason, it offers excellent blending potential when paired with other whites such as Marsanne and Roussanne. Generally, it's a wine of good finesse with a perfume reminiscent of white flowers. Historians have indicated that it is possibly one of the oldest variatals in the region, pre-dating either Grenache or Carignan in the Midi.
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