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The expansion of Red Rhone varietals and blends from Northwest wineries has been dramatic in the last ten years. Vineyards from the Columbia Gorge to Southern Oregon to the Yakima and the Walla Walla valleys have increased plantings of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and other varietals. Winemakers are now crafting blends that are more complex and interesting, and are creating food-friendly wines to accompany hearty carnivore fare. I am very encouraged with these developments and our tastings bear out this optimism for the future.
A bit of information about the Rhone region of France helps the consumer navigate the styles and components of these wines. Reds from the Northern Rhone region are limited to Syrah as the red varietal grape and up to 20% of white varietals depending on the AOC sub region. Red from the Southern Rhone are generally blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (depending on the AOC sub region) with several other red varietals also permitted in blends.
Chef Ted grilled Rib Eye steaks - marinated in a Salvadoran spice mix - that were tender and flavorful, making a superb pairing to the wines.
The Rhone region is also known for Rosés from the varietals above that are lip-smacking accompaniments to warm weather fare. Today, we’ll take a look at some Southern Rhone-style blends, a handful of Syrahs and Northwest Rosés.
Southern Rhone Blends
Doyenne (DeLille Cellars)
This blend of 51% Grenache, 32% Mourvèdre and 17% Syrah was a favorite with my tasters for its complexity and structure, evoking memories of fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines and offering great opportunities for further aging. Winemaker Chris Upchurch notes that the wine “exhibits classic Grenache characters of strawberry leaf, white pepper, deep black cherry, vanilla and graham cracker cinnamon in the nose, followed by intense flavors of Rainier cherries and raspberries.
Winemaker Jon Meuret-Martinez crafted his Jaja blend (French slang for everyday wine) from grapes grown at four well-respected Yakima Valley vineyards that each offer unique microclimates. Arthur’s, Boushey, Olsen and Upland Vineyards are names that you will see throughout this season of Red Rhone wine reviews. Jaja offers aromas of dark plum and blackberry with notes of white pepper and floral perfume. On the palate you’ll find appealing flavors of dark fruits, dried herbs, spicy oak and mineral with hints of meaty earth.
Herb Quady comes from a winemaking family and from a background of winemaking gained in California. His parents Andrew and Laurel Quady have been the proprietors of Quady Winery in Central California since the 1970s, crafting Port, Essencia and Elysium – dessert wines that set the standard for such styles for more than 30 years. Herb Quady worked as associate winemaker for Bonny Doon Vineyard before heading north in 2004 looking for “cooler margins” of grape growing in southern Oregon. His Southern-Rhone-style blend offers aromas and flavors of smoky dark fruits, cherry, strawberry, anise, violets and earthy mineral – great with steak from the grill.
As Washington’s most accomplished artist of the blend, Brian Carter is especially at home in crafting his Southern-Rhone-style Byzance. The construction of this wine demands skill and knowledge of each varietal and growing site (seven different vineyards contribute to the wine) and the ability to assemble a blend that will equal more than the sum of its parts. Byzance offers aromas of rich dark cherry and plum with distinct notes of toasty oak and spice. The palate is rich with ripe black fruit flavors, vanilla, earthy mineral and a complex finish that lingers to accompany rich grilled meats or other savory fare.
Since his first vintage in 1996, Robert Smasne has devoted his career to crafting wine from the region his family has called home for more than 100 years, and in 2006, he released the first vintage under his own Smasne Cellars label. He pursues the Washington style of making red wines from rich, ripe fruit with ample new-oak aging. He is always looking for new opportunities to craft unique wines, bringing us to his Ancient Rocks blend. Those who are fans of the Washington style will enjoy the rich aromas of spicy oak, dark chocolate, boysenberry and vanilla. The palate echoes with flavors of black cherry, plum and notes of dried herbs and toasty oak.
Burnt Bridge Cellars
Despite the generic Columbia Valley appellation designation, David Smith’s Southern-Rhone-style blend hails from two of Washington’s most heralded vineyards: Les Collines Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley and Upland Vineyards in the new Snipes Mountain AVA in the Yakima Valley. Pont Brulé (burned bridge a la Française) offers the bright raspberry and strawberry of Grenache with the darker fruits of Syrah. Hints of spice from the splash of Tempranillo mingle with occasional super whiffs of toasty oak from 15 months in barrel – a nice accompaniment to meats from the grill.
Names after contractions of the owners’ children’s names, AniChe Cellars is located west of the Columbia Gorge town of Underwood, Washington. The winery is a synthesis of the owners’ art and science interests with winemaker/owner Rachael Horn holding down the science side and offering discussions of wine topics in her blog: Geek Out with Rachael. Rachael pulled out all the stoppers to assemble this blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, Counoise, Carignan and Roussanne which offers aromas and flavors of spicy cherry, mineral, cocoa and hints of lavender and citrus.
Syrahs and other blends
Dobbes Family Estate
The Fortmiller Vineyard is one of several owned by Don and Traute Moore in Southern Oregon. The Moores sold their orange orchard in Southern California in 1989 and relocated to the Rogue Valley. Joe Dobbes has had a long relationship with Don and Traute and produces this vineyard-designated Syrah from their Fortmiller Vineyard. He uses some of this Syrah in his Grand Assemblage blend as well. The wine is dark and rich with black fruits, smoky mineral, dark cherry, floral and citrus notes and a spicy finish – superb with foods from the grill.
Amavi Cellars is the sister winery to Pepper Bridge Winery in the Walla Walla Valley producing wines of a broader selection of varietals that are more affordable – some only available at the tasting rooms in Walla Walla and Woodinville. The winery began in 2001 making Syrah and Semillon – different wines than produced by the parent Pepper Bridge Winery. Winemaker/partner Jean-François Pellet crafted this tasty Syrah from grapes grown in the winery’s estate vineyards. Look for rich blueberry, cassis and floral spice aromas leading to a rich palate of mixed berry flavors, spicy olive and smoky cedar.
This selection is a blend of wines from Serenade, Steelhead Run and Mae’s Vineyards, as well as Frank’s and Sam’s Valley Vineyards. The name came from Herb Quady’s young daughter who blended her water and fruit juice naming it “for-too-ay” (like ChardonnAY, Cabern-AY). The wine is redolent with aromas and flavors of black fruits, dark cherry and earthy notes of tobacco and coffee. Toasty cedar and cherry on the palate lead to a finish of firm tannins that pair well with rich steak.
Dr. Wade Wolfe made his first Syrah in 1995 from fruit grown at Burgess Vineyard north of Pasco, Washington. The grapes for this bottling were harvested on October 12, 2010 and the wine was aged for 16 months in French and American oak. Look for aromas of plum, dried cherries and sweet, toasty oak mingling with hints of spice and lavender. The palate is chewy with ripe plum flavors wrapped in smoky cedar and creamy vanilla.
Doyenne (DeLille Cellars)
This wine is named for Aix-en-Provence and suitably includes Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre in the blend. Before the phylloxera crisis in France, Cabernet was more widely planted in the south and it is once again being included in vineyard plantings by innovative winegrowers. The 2010 bottling of AIX offers the best of both Syrah and Cabernet and perhaps points the way for future winemakers to learn from the old world ways, adapting them to Washington’s expanding wine offerings. Just as Grenache and Syrah balance one another in Southern Rhone blends, so Cabernet and Syrah complement each other’s strengths. As the taster discovers the blueberry, violets and spice of the Syrah, the cassis, pepper and herbs of the Cabernet weave a flavorful complexity to contemplate and enjoy with fine meats from the grill.
Southern Rhone wines from other areas
This wine was the overall favorite of the Southern Rhone blends coming from arguably the leader in the category in the U.S. Tablas Creek Vineyards is a partnership between the owners of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and wine importer Robert Haas. They established some of the first certified Rhone-varietal vineyards in the new world. Esprit de Beaucastel is a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise and defines the success of the blend showing dark currant fruit against bright raspberry notes with complex blueberry, spice and meaty accents. Stunning.
The Chapoutier family has been making wine in the Rhone since 1808. Both as growers and negociants, the family has embraced the traditions that make the wines of France the most revered in the world. The Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC allows a great variety of grapes to be used in red wines from the district, but Chapoutier uses only a few varietals, in this case only Grenache (90%) and Syrah (10%). The bright raspberry and strawberry flavors of the Grenache are complemented by the darker fruit characters of the Syrah to bring the wine in balance. Aromas and flavors of baking spice, coffee and herbaceous notes add complexity to the wine.
Rosemount Estate was established in 1969 and has evolved to become one of Australia’s leading wineries, producing a selection of wines that illustrates the qualities of different vineyard regions and showcases different value tiers. This old-world blend has been crafted since 1994 with the classic Southern Rhone components of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, each taking its respective role. As the wine breathes up, it transitions from initial raspberry and cherry aromas to more sophisticated notes of white pepper, melon, vanilla and cedar toast. The palate shows very food-friendly fruit flavors and a bit of tannic grip to balance with hearty meat dishes.
Tablas Creek Vineyards
This Tablas Creek wine was also very popular with tasters and has a slightly different blend of varietals (more Grenache and Syrah, less Mourvèdre). Cotes de Tablas shows more dark fruits and earthy mineral with high notes of vanilla and smoky cedar coming to the fore.
Rhone Red – Rosé Wines
The combination of varietally true fruit and luscious, complex aromas and flavors brought this wine to the top of the rankings in its flight of Northwest Rosé wines. It is crafted from grapes grown at the winery’s estate Fault Line Vineyard near Roseburg, Oregon. The beautiful light cherry pink hue invites a sniff, revealing spicy pear and cherry notes with hints of peppery spice. The wine is crisp and dry on the palate with flavors of cherries and strawberries.
DeLille Cellars Doyenne label added this flavorful Rosé bottling to the lineup in 2008 with first a Mourvèdre-heavy blend that has now been changed to a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Cinsault (percentages of 55%, 39% and 6% respectively for the soon-to-be-released 2012 vintage). The refined character of this bottling is defined by delicate aromas of spicy strawberry and pear with hints of mineral and citrus. The palate offers flavors of light watermelon, raspberry and rose petal.
Herb Quady mentions on the back label that “the Quady family is ‘vociferously Pro-Rosé,’ suggesting that we are members of a concerted National movement, card-carrying Pinkos in a sense, using any occasion to evangelize and collect converts.” The wine will no doubt win many friends with ripe aromas of red berries, pomegranate, mineral and rhubarb leading to a complex palate of raspberry and cranberry with a bright acid finish that complements many summer foods - good value.
This wine from Ron Coleman’s Tamarack Cellars is nicely crafted, friendly, accessible, and appealing – a delightful summer sipper to accompany a wide variety of lighter fare. On the nose it offers strawberry and floral notes with hints of tropical fruits and pear. Flavors of cherry and citrus are massaged by a creamy character on the mid palate - easy for a novice to like, but also an appealing quaff for the sophisticated wine lover.
Mark Newton and Donna DiStefano are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of DiStefano Winery in 2013. Starting out in a basement space in downtown Ballard, they are now a destination winery near downtown Woodinville, where thousands of visitors each year enjoy tasting and special events. Their Rosé Amare is based on the Counoise grape and was produced by the saignée method, drawing off a small amount of juice at the crusher. The aroma is delicate and spicy with notes of strawberry and vanilla. The palate offers similar flavors with a bit of grip on the finish to accompany lighter meats from the grill or other summer fare.
Kiona First Crush
The Williams family were the original pioneers of Red Mountain, founding Kiona Winery and Vineyard with then partner Jim Holmes. Today, their showplace winery is a popular stop for wine lovers who are seeking a comfortable and friendly introduction to the Red Mountain AVA. This fresh and grapey rosé is crafted from Mourvèdre grown at Kiona’s Heart of the Hill Vineyard and offers spicy cherry aromas and flavors with notes of red plum and a finish of crisp acidity.
Kyle and Amy Johnson set out in 2008 to start a winery with a specific vision: to embody the soul of wine from vineyard to bottle to table, believing that a wine’s most important purpose is to bring together family and friends. Their Rosé is made from Syrah (85%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (15%) harvested from Milbrandt Vineyards near Mattawa on the Wahluke Slope AVA. The light and delicate aromas and flavors suggest strawberry, watermelon and rhubarb – superb for summer sipping or to accompany light appetizers.