As the main north-south avenue of travel and trade from northern Europe to the Midi, the Rhône Valley was tamed early, and in Greco-Roman times, the wine grape traveled with civilization. Close to 2,000 years ago, grape trellises were already climbing the precipitous slopes above Roussillon and Chavanay. And because the balance between mountain and maritime climates shifts constantly as the river flows southward, dozens of grape varieties quickly evolved to fit every microclimate along the way. The Rhône’s most famous wine, Châteauneuf du Pape, is traditionally made from a baker’s dozen varietals, some in barely trace amounts.
Still, two grapes dominate the field: One, grenache, was known a little unfairly beyond its home turf primarily as “the rosé grape”; the other, syrah, was hardly known at all. But now syrah’s ripe, robust flavor has grown so popular that it’s all but conquered the world (including Australia, where they call it shiraz).
However happy the general drinking public is to lap up anything calling itself syrah, the grape presents serious winemakers with a problem of definition. Everybody knows what a wine made from 100 percent pinot noir should taste like. It should taste like (you should be so lucky) Burgundy. But what’s 100 percent syrah “supposed to” taste like?
Here in Washington, where syrah has been planted for only about 20 years, there are almost as many answers to that question as there are winemakers.
Two winemakers in particular are laying the groundwork for such understanding—Doug McCrea and Ron Bunnell. Both are convinced that if winemakers are going to create great wines in the Rhône manner, they have to recognize that “Rhône” and “syrah” are not synonyms. McCrea and Bunnell are busily experimenting not only with blends of Rhône varietals—viognier, carignane, roussanne, marsanne, mourvèdre, counoise, cinsault—but also with pure bottlings of these ancient grape strains. Both approaches can produce wonders. McCrea’s roussanne ($22) is that rarity, a white wine that cries out to be drunk with barbecued ribs or oxtail stew, while his 2004 Sirocco ($34) blends grenache, syrah, and other Rhône grapes into something that would be plausible under the name Châteauneuf.
With only his first independent release just now on the market, Bunnell, a veteran corporate and contract winemaker, follows a somewhat more playful but still strict approach, dividing his releases into “vins d’endroit” (crafted to express the essence of fruit from individual growers like Dick Boushey, Paul Champoux, and the Milbrandt family) and “vins de l’esprit” (blends created more by intuition than formula, but no less prepossessing). With investigators like these, the often strange case of Washington Rhône reds may soon be closed.