Food & Drink

Rhône grapes gaining larger niche at Washington wineries

Rhône varietals have certainly found their niche among Washington wineries and wine enthusiasts. Once produced in scant quantities and used primarily for blending purposes, they’ve shown an increasing presence in the market, especially as stand-alone products.

So what exactly is a Rhône varietal? It’s one of 22 grapes designated for wine production within France’s Rhône Valley. Although some of the grapes remain fairly obscure, many are now commonplace in vineyards throughout Washington and the United States.

The Rhône Valley has two distinct climates. The southern portion is characterized as Mediterranean, with hot summers and mild winters, while the north has warm summers with winters that are much more austere. As you might expect, each region’s climate has a profound influence on the types of wine grapes that can be grown there.

Eastern Washington’s climate more closely aligns with that of the Northern Rhône, and the four varietals permitted in the French region – syrah, viognier, roussanne, and marsanne – have, not surprisingly, also been grown there with good success.

Heat-loving Southern Rhône varietals, such as grenache and mourvèdre, are more adverse to our sometimes brutal winters. And yet, planted wisely and maintained properly, they also have found a home in Washington, albeit to a much smaller extent.

Here’s a primer of a few Rhône varietals you’re likely to find from Washington wineries in stores and at winery tasting rooms:

Viognier – Sometimes mentioned as an alternative to chardonnay, this fragrant, full-bodied, low-acid white often carries flavors of stone fruits, such as peach and apricot.

roussanne – This viscous wine has common flavor descriptors of pear, apple, and nutty, with a round, creamy finish. It’s one of the few white wines that can benefit from long-term cellaring.

marsanne – This full-bodied white is similar to roussanne, with the same nut-like quality, a rich, oily texture, and oftentimes a savory/spicy finish.

Syrah – King among Rhône varietals in Washington, this is the third most-planted red wine grape in the state. With low to medium acidity with medium to high tannins, it’s usually characterized as having dark berry and plum fruits and spicy/smoky accents.

Grenache – This up-and-coming medium-bodied red varietal often features red fruits of raspberry and currant, with refreshingly vibrant acidity.

mourvèdre – Frequently blended with syrah and grenache, it’s darkly colored with a somewhat gamey/meaty quality and generally high in tannins.

If you’d like to learn about and taste several Rhône varietals grown in Washington, I’ll be teaching a class on the topic from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, at Bellingham Technical College. Register online at, or call the registration office, 360-752-8350.