Rhône in Washington

A promising new project from Syrah stars of France's Rhône Valley and Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle
May 26, 2015

Even if Syrah still doesn't get the respect it deserves, the grape makes some of Washington's most compelling wines.

Tenet Wines is a new collaboration between Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Michel Gassier, the owner of Château de Nages in France's Costière de Nîmes, which aims to apply a French sensibility to Rhône varieties in Washington. A preview of the initial releases suggests this is something to watch.

"Sandy soils are my favorite in Châteauneuf-du-Pape," said Philippe Cambie, a leading wine consultant in the Southern Rhône Valley who is working with Tenet Wines. "They give finesse. You see them all over Washington, and the basalt underneath is unusual in the wine world."

I tasted the first of the wines—two from Washington and one from France, all from the 2013 vintage—with Gassier, Cambie, Château Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates chief winemaker Doug Gore.

"We're trying to find a balance between fruit and elegance," said Bertheau. For a more savory style, he's using techniques such as fermenting with stems and extended maceration, which he resisted for his own wines. Cambie and Gassier showed his team how it can work.

For the initial 2013s, the team tried every likely site in the 100,000 acres of Syrah in Ste. Michelle's estate vineyards and available in long-term contracts. After looking at more than 100 lots, Cambie saw distinctions among Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills, especially in the company's Canoe Ridge estate. Future vintages should zero in on favored sites.

Of the two wines rolling out now, I preferred The Pundit, a $25 Syrah. It corrals deep black fruit flavors with lightly crunchy tannins, a touch of roasted red pepper on the persistent finish. Less showy than many Washington Syrahs, I liked its sense of integrity.

A wine from Gassier's vines in Costière de Nîmes, Le Fervent ($22) plays its crisp texture against a hint of wet concrete in the ripe fruit and spice, finishing with charm. A pioneer in modern Costières, Gassier has earned outstanding ratings since he took over his family's estate in 1993.

Due in autumn, the top wine, called Tenet ($75), blends Grenache with Syrah and Mourvèdre. "Grenache needs older vines, and there aren't too many of those in Washington," said Gore. The core is Grenache from Ste. Michelle's Cold Creek vineyard, just south of Wahluke Slope, planted in the 1970s for rosé.

"Washington Grenache has ideal balance," said Gassier. "It has freshness, fruit and elegance." The wine has precision. Its crisp structure reins in the generous nature of Grenache and Syrah. And the Mourvèdre shows no extra gaminess or earthiness.

The Tenet Wines labels are distinctive, too. A bold image of a stern-faced owl defines the shape of the Pundit label; the Tenet label is an ambigram in a stylized medieval font on a diagonal sticker. They're meant to appeal to wine drinkers in their twenties and thirties. "For the first time we went to an outside designer," Gore said. "If we're going to restore the sparkle to Syrah, it will have to come from a younger generation."

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