Rhône-style wines are on the rise in Washington State

One of the best wine regions in France, along with Bordeaux and Burgandy, is the Rhône Valley. It is a large, warm grape growing area known by oenophiles for its exceptional wines. Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre are the most common reds from the region, in addition to GSM, a blend of the three.

During the 1990’s, Syrah, one of the most notable Rhône varietals, fell out of favor with consumers. Vineyards in California had been over-planted, flooding the market with bargain priced grapes. The over-production and questionable quality caused everyone to pull back. The wine was difficult to sell.

In Washington, Syrah was just getting started. Mike Sauer planted the state’s first Syrah at his Red Willow Vineyard in 1986. The grapes went into Columbia Winery’s 1988 vintage: Washington’s first commercial Syrah. The wine received critical acclaim, even from French Rhône producers. The quality was clearly in the bottle.

Meanwhile, in the Yakima Valley, Joe Hattrup, owner of Elephant Mountain Vineyard was planting test plots with various grape varieties to determine what would grow well on his steep, rocky site. He discovered that Rhône-style grape varieties were well suited to the heat of his high-elevation vineyard.

The fruit from Elephant Mountain is exceptional. Its quality has created demand from vintners all over the state. Winemakers purchasing grapes from the vineyard encouraged him to plant more Rhône varieties; “They saw the opportunity for a new style of wine in Washington state,” said Hattrup.

“Winemakers drove the interest. It’s something new and a good way for wineries to expand their portfolio,” Hattrup explained, adding, “There is plenty of Syrah available; by adding Grenache and Mourvèdre, winemakers can make a nice GSM.  It’s a style that discerning wine consumers might be familiar with.”

Today, many of the Rhône-style wines are interesting, desirable, and marketable.  Much of Washington’s success with these up-and-coming wines can be attributed to the quality of the grapes grown here.

Once considered difficult to sell, the demand for Syrah and other Rhône-style varieties continue to rise.  In 2016, Syrah was the third top producer among red wine grapes in Washington State with a harvest of more than 21,000 tons. Much of that goes into single varietal Syrah, but more and more is becoming part of Washington’s growing Rhône-style wine scene, notably blends such as GSM.

Although the focus has been on reds, the white Rhône wines are creating just as much excitement. Viognier is probably the best known of the white varietals in Washington, others include Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Picpoul.

These wines are excellent for summer. The whites are great to savor during the heat, and the reds are a perfect wine for anything barbequed.

Wines to try:
2014 Saviah Cellars GSM, Yakima Valley.  Sourced in part from Elephant Mountain Vineyard, this wine offers floral and cherry aromas with flavors of red fruit and pepper. Pair with beef, lamb, or even venison. $38.00

Sparkman Cellars 2014 Wonderland Grenache, Yakima Valley. Layers of plum, strawberry and pomegranate with a hint of spice underscore the great attributes of this varietal.  An excellent example of one of the growing Rhône-style wines in Washington. $32.00

K Vintners 2015 K Art Den Hoed Viognier, Yakima Valley.  This is a bright crisp white wine with floral and melon aromas with peach and citrus on the palate. The perfect wine to finish off the summer season. $25.00

Ask your local retailer or scan the list of Rhône wines being served at restaurants around town. There is a reason these wines are on the rise, they are delicious!

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