I don't exactly recall when I tasted my first Rhone - or even my first Rhone-style wine - but I no doubt finished it with a smile on my face.
The Rhone must be a magical place. I've not yet been there, though I hope to some day. Meanwhile, I will just need to be satisfied with enjoying the Northwest versions of Rhone wines.
The Rhone Valley is a north-south stretch of land in southeastern France that is the ancestral home to such grapes as Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. It's divided into two distinct regions, the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. And distinct they are. Syrah dominates the north, while Grenache reigns in the south.
Names of great Rhone appellations include Côte-Rôtie, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Condrieu and Hermitage. Some of France's top producers are from the Rhone, including Guigal, Beaucastel and Chapoutier. While they often have toiled in the shadows of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Rhone producers have enjoyed a strong following to go with their superb wines.
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While there are more than 20 approved grape varieties in the Rhone, the best known are:
Reds: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Counoise, Carignane and Cinsault. In the United States, add Petite Sirah, a cross of Syrah and Peloursin that was developed in France.
Whites: Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.
In the New World, Rhone varieties have begun to catch on. And those who have discovered their seductive nature are nearly as rabid as Pinot Noir lovers - and regularly more satisfied.
Australian Shiraz (another name for Syrah) is all the rage, and the Aussies have done a marvelous job not only of making superb wine, but also of marketing it to the world.
In the United States, Syrah gained a following in the '80s in California, where a loose-knit group of producers became known as the Rhone Rangers. Led by the frenetic and energetic Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, Calif., the Rhone Rangers promoted Rhone varieties to the masses. The group became official in the late '90s, and now it's known for holding fun, giant tastings in California.
Rhone varieties, especially Syrah, began to catch on in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-'80s, when winemaker David Lake of Columbia Winery in Woodinville, Wash., and Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley began to plant Syrah. The experiment worked, and by 1997 there were 270 acres planted in Washington. It exploded to more than 2,000 acres a couple of years ago and now is growing not only in Washington, but also in Southern Oregon, Idaho's Snake River Valley and British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.
Lake continues to excel with Syrah, and he's joined by Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards and others who craft and focus on Syrah and other Rhone-style wines.
Lake is a firm believer in the Northwest as one of the finest areas anywhere to grow Syrah. He points out that the 45th parallel is roughly the dividing line between the continental climate of the Northern Rhone and the Mediterranean climate of the Southern Rhone. So while California wineries tend to produce Southern Rhone-style wines, many of the wildly exotic and complex reds of the Northern Rhone can be similarly crafted in Washington, above the 45th parallel.
If you don't think Syrah is having an effect on the Northwest yet, note that the Best of Show the past three years at the Northwest Wine Summit - by far the Northwest's largest wine judging - has been a Syrah.
Today, more than 150 Syrahs are made in the Northwest, and about two dozen regional wineries have joined the Rhone Rangers.
This is exciting stuff, and now the Rhone Rangers are riding up the West Coast to Seattle for their first-ever Pacific Northwest event July 10 at the Marriott Waterfront. Included is a grand tasting of American Rhone-style wines, which benefits FareStart, a group that provides meals and job training to people in need.
With the quality and growing quantity of Northwest Syrahs, I hope we can expect this to be an annual celebration of everything good and great about Rhone-style wines.
I'm not much for cowboy hats or spurs, but I'll plan to be in the mix at the inaugural Seattle event - and all those that follow. So saddle up, join the posse and experience the greatness of Rhone-style wines in America.