The Next Rhone Revolution

Posted on Aug 12, 2015

Grape varietals indigenous to the Rhone Valley have been grown elsewhere in the world for years. Notably, Spain has roughly ¾ of the acreage planted to Grenache that France does and Australia has about ¾ of the Syrah that France does. But the USA has been the late entrant to the game, and while it does not have nearly the amount of acres under vine of Rhone varietals, it has certainly become a force to be reckoned with for lovers of Rhone wines.

The first Rhone Revolution started in California in the late 80s and early 90s. These winemakers and growers who acted on their passion for Rhone wines became known as the “Rhone Rangers”. There were a number of early pioneers among those first Rhone Rangers, but probably none gained more profile for the group (and for himself) than Randall Graham. Graham had his own winery, Bonny Doon Vineyard. In 1986 they released their first vintage (1984) of La Cigare Volante, an homage to Chateauneuf du Pape, blending grapes grown in Central California that are indigenous to the Southern Rhone Valley. That wine remains their flagship today. Good as Bonny Doon’s wines are, they were probably over-shadowed by their maker’s exuberance and personality. Graham is not a shy man; he is a man of considerable wit, and a master marketer. In promoting his own product he promoted the awareness of California’s Central Coast as a high quality producer of Rhone style wines. The movement has recently (since the turn of this century) caught on in Washington State as well.

The key point to understand about the Rhone Rangers is that their focus has been on the red varietals from the Rhone Valley. Syrah and Grenache together occupy 11,863 hectares under vine in the United States, according to a global survey conducted by the Wine Economics Research Center of the University of Adelaide. That is a 2.6 times increase from the 4,597 hectares in 2000. The white varietals of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc did not even get broken out from the “other white” category.

Avennia Barrel top signWhile Randall Graham’s personal charisma certainly helped the first Rhone Revolution in the USA, aided by the efforts of his fellow Rhone Rangers, they managed to achieve the recognition that they have obtained not just through promotion, but through producing a great product. Today, Rhone Rangers from California’s Central Coast like Sine Qua Non, Alban, and L’Aventure together with Washington’s Cayuse, Charles Smith/K Vintners, Betz and Avennia are producing wines that are competing with the best of the Rhone Valley. What we are seeing today are the beginnings of the second Rhone Revolution, and it is happening with the white varietals.

That first Rhone Revolution had its foundations in California’s Central Coast, be we think the epicenter of the next Rhone Revolution is in Washington State, as Washington seems to have the right climate for growing these white varietals. Washington shares roughly the same latitude as the Rhone (46 degrees), about 10 degrees North of the Central Coast. The more Northern latitude provides slightly cooler temperatures but perhaps more importantly is the larger swing in diurnal temperature, the difference between day and night time temperature.

ForgeronLabelWe spoke to Marie-Eve Gilla, owner and winemaker at Forgeron Cellars in Walla Walla. She explained what Washington has that allows this region to do so well with these varietals. “Washington State excels at growing a wide range of varietals, which can be confusing to the public at large. The growing conditions here, poor soil and very dry, with vigor controlled through irrigation, and mostly no grafting (grafting I believe interferes with the unique expression of each varietal) are ideal for growing vines. These conditions, arid and dry, are very similar to the South of France, and ideal to grow the South of France varietals. For example, Roussanne will take that amber color with the sun to protect itself like a tan, and Viognier, with its thicker skin, is very suitable for dry and lots of sun as it bakes in that environment, while Grenache Blanc retains acids and is a natural blender for these hot conditions which often lead to acid loss in the fruit.“

Marie-Eve came to the United States from France and brought with her a knowledge base of wine making as practiced in France. That background is particularly helpful in gaining the most from white varietals. She explained: “my experience in Burgundy taught me that white wines are capable of greatness. They can be so many things at once: intense, pure, balanced, light yet rich, refined… My goal when making whites is to let them reveal the flavors from the soil and the earth—as I believe whites will easily tell the story of their terroir. Following this philosophy, our white winemaking practices are focused on retaining freshness and vibrancy. 2013 was such a warm year that we harvested much earlier than usual to retain brilliance, and the white wines produced prove that sooner was definitely better than later. In the vineyard, most growers knew to grow vigorous canopies to prevent sunburn damage which definitely helped. In the cellar, we were very careful to limit extraction from the skins and seeds by reducing drum press rotations to avoid bitterness from phenol extraction. Our whites are always whole cluster pressed, and in 2013 we separated our press cuts very early, between 0.6 to 0.8 Bar, depending on vineyard lots.”

Lauren Ashton signWashington is showing itself to be a natural for producing these varietals. Names like Forgeron, Lauren Ashton, Darby, áMaurice and DeLille are producing wines that are not just pleasing us at Advinetures, they are capturing the praise of the major wine critics as well. One of the attributes we love about the Washington Rhone white varietals is their texture. These are wines that offer a relatively full body while at the same time retaining enough natural acidity to keep the wine adequately structured. In a world that is trending toward lower alcohols and higher acidities resulting in leaner structure, these wines of greater texture stand out.

“I think it’s a sleeper grape for us,” superstar grower Dick Boushey, who has helped pioneer Rhône varieties in the state, told the Wine Enthusiast, about whites like Grenache Blanc. “It’s taken me a while to figure it out—what cropping level and when to pick it—but I think it’s the perfect oyster and seafood wine because it retains its acidity.” His thoughts echo the sentiments of many of the winemakers that we have spoken with in the state, which is this is still relatively new territory and growers and winemakers continue to experiment to define their way.

Over the past year we have tasted many Washington whites made from Rhone varietals. We have formed two conclusions about them: 1) the best are excellent and some can be the qualitative equal of all but a few of the much more famous white wines of the Rhone, and 2) they are very fairly priced for the quality offered. Here are some of the wines we have found to be the most memorable, together with our rating:

2013 Facon Blanc from Forgeron Cellars2013 Forgeron Façon Blanc

This is their white Rhône blend and this year it is a winner once again. In previous vintages this was called Ambiance, but it’s still a blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Marsanne. Melon and apricot with a hint of grapefruit combine with a rich, mouth-filling body that gives this wine a special substance. The medium acid finishes the wine and gives it balance. Mostly Yakima fruit and from some of their finest vineyards: Boushey, Den Hoed and Crawford, and their pedigree shows. A bargain compared to what you would have to pay for this quality level from the Rhone Valley.

Very Good/Excellent  US$25 at their Tasting Room

aMaurice Viognier Label2013 áMaurice Viognier

From the Gamache Vineyard this wine has a lovely aroma of orange peel and creamsicle. The medium body delivers flavours of apricot and honey balanced by a streak of acidity. We picked up just a hint of marzipan on the finish. No doubt it would be a great compliment to any seafood dish but it was refreshing enough to also be enjoyed on its own.

Very good (US$28 at their Tasting Room)

LaurenAshtonQR2012 Lauren Ashton Roussanne

Even better than the 2011, which we wrote about here, the 2012 turns up the dials to deliver an intensely flavoured wine with an unctuous texture and crisp finish.  We are reminded of a citrus/herbal tea with honey in it. Floral notes backed up with a hint of spice form the aromatics of this wine. The rich mouth feel is complemented by a minerality that keeps everything in balance. Delicious! 100% Dineen Vineyard.

Excellent/Extraordinary – US$25 at their Tasting Room* (Particularly good value; versions of this varietal from France at this quality level will cost twice or more than this price.)

Maison Bleue wine bottle2012 Maison Bleue Metis Blanc

60% Marsanne, 35% Grenache Blanc and 5% Roussanne from Boushey and Dutchmen Vineyards in Yakima Valley. Lovely aromas of apricots, honey and citrus combine together and are supported by a slight nuttiness. Medium to full body, the intensity is driven up a level here. The voices of aroma, taste and mouthfeel all sing louder but stay in harmony. Would pair well with seafood and white meats, this bigger wine asks to be served with food!

Very good/Excellent – $30 US at their tasting room

2013 K Vintners Viognier 

100% Viognier from Art Den Hoed and Wallula Ranch in Yakima Valley. Peaches and apricot lead to a full body of voluptuous texture with just enough acidity to keep it all together. This wine is all about pleasure and hedonistic delight. Smith wrote “balanced in the mouth with a minerally finish so long you’ll need binoculars to see the end.” What can we add to that??

Excellent – US$25 at their tasting room. (Particularly good value for this quality level)

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