Whether the blends are Bordeaux, Rhône-style, or something completely unique, Washington is serving notice that its red wines made from a mix of grapes are world-class. This week we talk to Wine Enthusiast Contributing Editor Sean Sullivan and get to know bottles from three unique regions, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and Walla Walla Valley, and how vineyard site impacts what ends up in your glass.
The wines discussed in this episode are:
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Read the full transcript of “Washington Red Blends Take Wine’s Center Stage”:
Jameson Fink: Welcome to Wine Enthusiast’s “What We’re Tasting” podcast. I’m your host, Jameson Fink. Join me as we discuss three fantastic wines and why each one belongs in your glass. This episode, we’re looking at red blends from Washington state with Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast contributing editor who covers and reviews wines from the region.
“What We’re Tasting” is sponsored by Vivino. With the largest online inventory, Vivino finds the right wine every time, including wines from my dear home state for a decade of Washington. Download Vivino to discover and buy your favorites. Stock up at vivino.com/wineenthusiast.
One of the conversations we always have about a wine region or a state is having a signature grape, does it have to have a signature grape. Definitely with Washington, what’s really interesting about that is you could probably say Merlot, you could say Cabernet, perhaps even Syrah. I think what’s interesting about Washington, besides its diversity in grapes, is its red blends. For me, that’s where a lot of excitement is so I’m excited to speak with you about this, Sean. Welcome to the show.
Sean Sullivan: Thank you very much for having me.
JF: With red blends, I think … Also, I should mention that you wrote a really interesting article for winemag.com about wine blending and red grapes. If you go to winemag.com and search for wine blending, it will come up. I was thinking about Bordeaux-style blends, your Cabernet-Merlot, Cabernet-Franc, et cetera, based blends. Rhone blends, which are your Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and a few other suspects might be involved in that, too. Sean, is Rhone … Are the Rhone blends, the red blends, is that really where a lot of kind of the excitement and really interesting things are being done in Washington?
SS: Yeah. I think that in terms of … Bordeaux-style blends have really been done for quite some time in Washington now. It’s really only more recently … If you look at it, Syrah has really only been in the state … It was first planted in 1986 and the plantings have been growing ever since, so it’s a reasonably short history. It’s really only much more recent that we’ve started to see an increasing number of wines using Grenache and using Mourvedre and some of the other varieties, as well, in Rhone blends. Definitely, we see a lot of those, as well some very exciting wines being made in that category, but we see people blending with pretty much everything under the sun in the state. We have over 70 different grape varieties planted here and people are experimenting with a lot of different things and they’re trying to blend with a lot of different things and seeing what they find.
JF: Do you think, just because I think Syrah has been such a rising star, that that’s kind of … Obviously, some of these blends are Grenache-heavy or possibly Syrah-heavy or another grape, but it seems like, with sort of the ascending stardom of Syrah, where it has that kind of savory Old World notes and some good acid and some of that kind of New World lift and power, is that kind of playing a part in the popularity of Rhone-style blends?
SS: Not just in Rhone-style blends. Even in Bordeaux-style blends, we see some wineries blending in sometimes a little bit of Syrah, sometimes a lot of Syrah, which you could say is that still a Bordeaux-style blend or not. I think one of the things you get with Syrah, in addition to the things you said, is that you get that nice plush richness of fruit flavor that a lot of consumers find very, very appealing. I think we see Syrah being used in a variety of different types of blends in addition to the Rhone-style blends.
JF: I kind of think of … This is something just when I first came to Washington in 2004, 2005, that I found interesting, and I really hadn’t seen it anywhere else, is it seems like there’s a lot of Syrah-Cabernet blends that kind of … A little bit of Syrah, a little it of a Cabernet, is that kind of a signature Washington blend? It seems really interesting.
SS: Yeah, it’s definitely something that you see a lot of in the state and people have been doing at least going back to the early 2000s, if not earlier. There are two … Right, you see it a little bit elsewhere in the world, such as Australia. You see those types of blends, but it’s definitely something that we see a good bit of here in Washington and something that I think can be done very, very well in Washington. It’s a good marriage of the two varieties.
JF: Yeah. You’re not sort of … That’s one of the nice things about a fairly young wine region is you’re not kind of bound by tradition, like, “Okay, we can either make a Bordeaux-style blend or we have to make a Rhone-style blend.” It’s like, “Hey, let’s take a little bit from Column A and Column B.”
SS: Well, I was told a great story by Steve Griessel at Betz Family Winery where he was saying that he had a winemaker in from Bordeaux, from a fairly well-regarded winery. They were working with a series of barrel samples and he said the first thing the Bordeaux winemaker did was take some Syrah and try blending it into the Bordeaux blends and kind of seeing what that looked like. It’s something that I think a lot of people are experimenting with. As you said here, it’s early days and very much the Wild West, and so people are trying different things and trying to see what works. It leads to a lot of excitement and a lot of interesting wines being made.
JF: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about one of those interesting wines. The first one I wanted to talk about was the Underground Wine Project 2015 Idle Hands red from Red Mountain, 90 points. When we were talking about this earlier, that … It’s 90% Syrah, 10% Cabernet, so it really could be labeled as Syrah.
SS: Correct, could be labeled as Syrah. They actually make … Underground Wine Project makes another wine that’s the flip of these wines called the Devil’s Playground that’s 90% Syrah … Excuse me, 90% Cabernet and 10% Syrah, as well. Yes, this wine could be … To be a varietally labeled wine, it needs to be at least 75% of this variety. At 90% for this particular wine, it’s well above that but they’re labeling it as a red blend. I think partly in doing so, it gives them the flexibility to change that blend over time if they wish, and partly red blends are just a very, very hot category now and have been for the past few years.
JF: Yeah. I picked … That was something I wanted to talk about, just because a lot of … We might be drinking a lot more blends than we even know, just because any bottle of Cabernet or a single variety grape, whether red or white, it can have a certain percentage of other grapes in it. I think that is kind of an interesting development. A lot of people might not know that when they buy a Syrah. They’re like, “Okay, it’s a Syrah,” but you know what? It might have 10% Cab, it might have 15%. I think that’s kind of an interesting thing for people to kind of dig deeper in if you’re … Those lovely PDF tech sheets with all the wine data on them, it’s pretty interesting when you sort of dig down a little and get the blend.
SS: Yeah, absolutely. I think most wines are blends of some type. Either they’re blends of different barrels, they’re blends of different varieties, they’re blends of different vineyards, they’re blends of different appellations, and so it can be very interesting to look down in that and say, “Okay, what is the 5% of this? What does it bring to the wine? Why did the winemaker add it?” Sometimes, you can try to figure that out and try to taste that in the wines, and sometimes it’s much more subtle and it can be hard to do. It’s definitely interesting to think about.
JF: It’s like all the wine world is a blend.
SS: All the wine world is a blend. Exactly.
JF: Actually, that … When you said a little, kind of detecting those smaller percentages, I thought it was really interesting, just going back to your article about wine blending when you talked to James from Syncline about one of his blends has 2% of something in it. A lot of people would be like, “2%? What the hell is that going to do? That’s not going to contribute anything,” but he was … He spoke very strongly about, “Yeah, that’s something … When it’s there, you can taste it and, when it’s not there, it’s a different wine.”
SS: Yeah, absolutely. Another part of that conversation with James which didn’t make it into the article, he was also talking about sparkling wines. He was talking about the dosage or adding of sugar to those wines, as well, and he was saying that as much as a quarter of a milliliter can radically affect the taste and overall sensation of the wine in a sparkling wine. It seems … 2% in a 750 mL bottle seems like an extremely small amount but he’s saying even tiny drops of sugar to wine can also radically affect them, as well. That’s part of the article.
JF: Yeah. Look, I’m just going to give a little sidebar even though we’re talking about red blends, that the Syncline sparkling wines are great, and the sparkling Gruner is really cool.
Sean Sullivan: Yeah, it’s definitely … It’s both an extreme rarity and absolutely delicious and well worth people seeking out.
JF: Just going back to the Underground Project Wine, just something you said I thought was real interesting, too, just not calling it a Syrah, giving that flexibility. With red blends, such a hot category, and having those kind of proprietary names like Idle Hands or the Prisoner or something like that, one year to the next, people are like … They’re responding to the name, the packaging, and then the wine inside, of course, but it does give you that. Maybe next year it will be 80% Syrah or maybe there will be another grape in there. As long as it’s got that kind of, I think, maybe stylistic consistency that people expect, and this is a project with, I should say, between Trey Busch and Mark McNeilly, that people are going to respond to it. They’re kind of looking for that kind of profile with these wines. Would you agree with that?
SS: Yeah, I would absolutely agree. Yeah, Trey Busch, Sleigh of Hand sellers, Mark McNeilly, Mark Ryan Winery. The wine coming from Red Mountain, known as a very, very warm area of Washington state, so wines with a lot of ripeness of fruit but also a lot of structure to them, as well, when we’re talking about Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. Big, powerful wines that I think are very, very consumer-friendly.
JF: Yeah. One thing I’m glad you mentioned, Red Mountain, it’s a really … As far as appellations in Washington go, Red Mountain is a tiny place, right?
SS: Yeah, it’s only 4,040 acres total in size, so really, really a small growing region, but, if you go there, it is extensively planted to wine grapes. I don’t know what the current number is. It’s at least 2,600 acres, I want to say, planted to wine grapes at this point, so it’s very much wine country there, and specifically red wine the vast majority of grapes grown there are red wine grapes because of the heat.
JF: Are you seeing more collaborations like this with winemakers, more projects where two or more winemakers are kind of getting together and making something together, a new brand, kind of something that’s different than what they’re doing with their own winery?
SS: I definitely think there’s some interest in doing that. One of the things that I think makes Washington such a fun area to cover and such a fun area to visit is it’s a very small industry and everyone really still knows each other. In this case, Trey Busch and Mark McNeilly made this wine because they’ve been friends forever and were interested in working together and doing something together. I think those types of collaborations are definitely something that is very Washington. A lot of winemakers here, in areas like Woodenville, they’re sharing equipment, they’re sharing presses, they’re sharing all sorts of different things during the harvest time, and that lends itself to a really nice kind of collegial atmosphere that then leads to people doing various joint projects together.
JF: Yeah, and they share beers and pizza. Actually, interesting. Earlier, you talked about how there’s another Underground Wine Project wine that’s kind of the flip of that heavy Syrah-Cab blend. Actually, the second wine is kind of like that, the Buty 2014 Columbia Rediviva Phinny Hill Vineyard red from the Horse Heaven Hills, 91 points. That’s 80% Cabernet, 20% Syrah. My experience with Buty is actually more of … To me, their white wine, their white Bordeaux, their Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle is, to me, a really iconic Washington white wine. Can you talk about this particular red wine?
SS: Yeah. I agree, the Buty white wine is definitely one of the iconic white wines of Washington state. Here, we see one of their reds with the 2014 Columbia Rediviva from Phinny Hill Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills. Horse Heaven Hills is a pretty warm growing region in Washington, near the Columbia River. This particular vineyard is right next to Champoux Vineyard, one of the most famous vineyards in Washington state, so we see this really nice ripeness of fruit flavor from that Cabernet Sauvignon, a lot of nice structure to it, too. Oh, really nice fruitfulness coming from the Syrah, this kind of plum flavor.
They also, at Buty, make a wine that is, again, kind of the flip of this, focusing more on Syrah, called the Rediviva of the Stones. That’s coming out of the Walla Walla Valley appellation where the winery is actually located. We see in Washington a number of wineries that are playing with these Cabernet-Syrah blends. Some will be Cab-dominant, and then sometimes they’ll make another one that’s kind of Syrah-dominant with the opposite percentage. It makes for an interesting comparison between the two wines.
JF: One thing … Reading your review, you called Phinny Hill Vineyard “up and coming.” Is that because of its location next to Champoux, or is it relatively new? What’s kind of exciting about it to you?
SS: Yeah. This is a vineyard where, if you talk to different wine makers, they’re … One of the things about Washington I should say, just back up for a moment, is we don’t have as much of the estate model here in Washington, where we have a vineyard with a chateau or winery sitting next to it. Instead, we have wineries sourcing fruit from different vineyards across the Columbia Valley, which is Washington’s largest growing region. A lot of different wineries are sourcing fruit from Phinny Hill Vineyard, and there’s just a lot of excitement about the fruit that’s coming out of that particular area. In particular, Gramercy Cellars, a lot of their Cabernet Sauvignon, which is an outstanding wine coming from Washington, is coming from the Phinny Hill Vineyard, as well. It’s definitely one that, when you talk to winemakers about what they’re excited about that’s in their cellars, Phinny Hill is definitely one of those places.
JF: It’s pretty interesting because these are some, like Champoux, Phinny Hill, some really prestigious vineyards, but the appellation Horse Heaven Hills, I went there once and my instructions were like, “There’s this lonely gas station and, if you don’t get gas there if you need gas, you might be in trouble,” and it was a very lonely gas station so it wasn’t exaggerated. Can you talk about Horse Heaven Hills, where this wine comes from, because I think there’s obviously a lot of maybe more high production type of wines that come from there, but then there are these really prestigious vineyards.
SS: Yeah. The interesting thing about the Horse Heaven Hills is it is a very remote growing region. The closest major town would probably be Prosser, which is about an hour, maybe a little bit less than that, away. It’s a pretty remote growing region, but some exceptional growing conditions. As I said before, it’s down close to the Columbia River so you get a nice river effect, which helps protect against frost and freezes, which is one of our issues that we can potentially have here in Washington. There’s also a very nice wind flow coming through, in part because of that river, which helps make thicker tannins and concentrate the fruit a little bit more. I think it’s a very interesting growing region.
I’ve also … I was initially a little bit skeptical of how good of a region it might be for Syrah, mainly because of the warmth of the regions, but I’ve recently seen some very high quality Syrahs coming out of the Horse Heaven Hill, as well. It’s a very interesting growing region, but it is extremely remote.
JF: Okay, so the first two wines were pretty much wines with 90% Syrah, 80% Cabernet, but now let’s really get into a blend for real, serious time. The La Rata 2014 Red from Walla Walla Valley, 93 points. It’s a Grenache 53%, Cabernet 34%, and 13% Syrah blend. Sean, can you just talk about the winemaker who is making this wine because there’s a lot going on there?
SS: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot going on here. This is a project, this was started in 2012 by Elizabeth Bourcier, who is the assistant vigneronne at Cayuse Vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley. She was kind of inspired by a bottle of Priorat to think, “Well …” In the Rocks area of the Walla Walla Valley, you have Cabernet Sauvignon growing right next to Grenache and they tend to ripen around the same time period, so she thought, a la with Priorat, maybe she could blend these together and come up with something interesting.
Her first vintage was in 2012, and a really interesting blend of these two varieties. The Rocks is one of the more distinct growing regions in the Pacific Northwest. It’s in the Walla Walla Valley but it’s on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. The soil, if you can call it that, is made up of fist-sized cobblestones from the bed of the Walla Walla River. It gives the wines this very unique profile with a lot of earth notes, a lot of savory notes, a lot of mineral notes that are either compelling. People either love them or they hate them.
Elizabeth was really the first person to, in that region, to take some of these varieties and say, “Well, let’s take Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon and put them together.” With the 2014 vintage, she’s added in a little bit of Syrah, as well. That’s the first time in this wine. It’s a very compelling and interesting bottle of wine, and really is the only one like it, certainly coming out of the Walla Walla Valley.
JF: Yeah. The Rocks, it’s such an interesting place. If you want to make … For me, if you want to make an argument about Terroir, Chablis comes to mind, but tasting those Rocks wines have such an interesting signature. Then, just being there, they’re like, like you said, these kind of brain-sized rocks and that’s the soil. It’s so weird to think … You think soil, you think dirt. You grab it in your hands and compress it. These are big rocks. [was-alt 00:19:14] the first place I ever saw being plowed by a horse. I remember I was visiting Cayuse and I was like, “Wow, there’s just a giant horse there with a plow.” It was pretty dramatic. It was probably planned for us because we were media but it was still pretty dramatic.
SS: Yeah, it’s a very, very fascinating growing region. To plant the vines, you literally need crowbars to kind of pry between the rocks to get the vines down in there. One of the things that’s happening is the rocks are absorbing all this heat and then transmitting it in the infrared back up at the grape clusters. It gives the wines an extremely unique signature, and one that you see really almost trumps variety in that particular region, which I think is very unusual, certainly for Washington. You can detect that. I remember having a wine several years back where I thought … It was a Syrah and I thought, “Is there some Rocks fruit in this particular wine?” I think it had 6% Rocks fruit in it but you could tell because it’s such a distinctive signature.
JF: James from Syncline would be very proud of you for pointing that out. Then, we got to talk about … This whole Rocks appellation, which is now the Rocks of Milton Freewater, I think it is, but … Let me see if I can describe this right. This wine is made from grapes in the state of Oregon but it’s … I don’t know why it’s Walla Walla Valley or is it a Washington wine or what is it? I’m confused. I’m still confused and I live there.
SS: Yeah, it’s … I think the Walla Walla Valley is a very interesting appellation in that it spans both the Washington and Oregon borders and there’s extensive plantings on both sides of the appellation. That said, of the, let’s say, 110 or so wineries and tasting rooms in the area, the vast, vast, vast majority of them are on the Washington side so you see a lot of wines being made in that area that are blends of fruit from the Washington and Oregon side or maybe they’re all from the Oregon side but they’re being vinified in a winery in Washington. It gets a little confusing in terms of whether that wine is … It’s definitely a Walla Walla Valley wine. Is it a Washington wine or is it an Oregon wine? That becomes much harder to say.
I think it’s more clear where the winery is. In Oregon, the Rocks are all located in Oregon. If the winery is there, it’s definitely an Oregon wine. If it’s a Washington winery that’s using that fruit, I can tell you they will call it a Walla Walla Valley, Washington, wine. I think that can be a little bit confusing to people, certainly.
JF: Or it could be contentious, too. You’re talking about is this Oregon’s wine or Washington’s wine.
SS: Yeah, no, absolutely. It’s something that, in … Going back a little bit in history, where kind of all of the Walla Walla Valley wineries, or most of them, really, were on the Washington side, you look back historically, a winery like Seven Hills originally started on the Oregon side, then moved to the Washington side. As in many other areas, they were just a little bit before their time because now you’re seeing wineries on the Oregon side, as well. It just gets difficult to say where do … If a wine is 51% Washington fruit, 49% Oregon fruit, made by a Washington winery versus an Oregon winery, it’s hard to say what exactly the factors are that determine where that wine is from and how that wine should be labeled.
It gets more interesting, in terms of the Rocks district, where it’s a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley but it’s all wholly located on the Oregon side of the valley. There’s actually, and this is very insider baseball, to put something on the label, to put an appellation on the label, the wine needs to be what’s called fully finished in the state in which that appellation lies, so wineries in the Walla Walla Valley cannot currently use the Rocks District of Milton Freewater on their label because they’re in Washington, even though it’s only five, 10 miles away from the Rocks district. They can’t currently put that on the label. That’s something the government is looking into, and hopefully we’ll figure out a way around that in the future.
JF: Yeah. This is the not fun, bureaucratic side of wine.
JF: But the wines are … I guess kind of to summarize that, though, if you can find, and maybe just go to your wine shop or you’re at a restaurant and just say, “I want to try a wine made with fruit from the Rocks district,” I really think they are just … There’s something about them. I guess their sort of savoriness, meatiness, maybe a little gaminess is very … It’s just one of those things where you’re just like, “Wow, this is really …” When you have a line-up of Washington reds, I think it’s pretty … It has such a signature that really pops if the rest of them aren’t from there.
SS: Yes, absolutely. There are wines that, if you blind taste them in a line-up, you can absolutely point out which wines are coming from this area because they have that unique aromatic signature and also flavor signature. These wines are also a higher pH and it gives them this very soft, kind of luxurious mouthfeel, as well, which is also something that’s very distinctive. Sometimes, people say, tasting these wines, like, “Wow, these wines remind me of wines from the northern Rhone,” in terms of that savory aspect, but that higher pH, to me, is always kind of the tell of them being from the Rocks district, among other things. That mouthfeel that you get from these wines is very, very distinctive, as well.
JF: Yeah. Well, a lot of the blends from the Rocks district are really fascinating, and all over Washington, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills. Like I said at the beginning, there is certainly a great Cabernet, there’s great Merlot, there’s great Syrah, and lots of other interesting grapes, but it’s really worth exploring the blends of Washington state because there’s some really exciting and unique blends being made by winemakers all over.
Sean, thanks for shining a little light on some of the great wines from Washington state.
SS: Thanks so much again for having me, Jameson.
JF: Okay. My pleasure.
Thank you for listening to the “What We’re Tasting” podcast, sponsored by Vivino. Wine made easy.
The three wines we discussed today were Underground Wine Project 2015 Idle Hands red, Buty 2014 Columbia Rediviva Phinny Hill Vineyard red, and La Rata 2014 red.
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What We’re Tasting” is a Wine Enthusiast podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023