As anyone who has experienced the wines of Walla Walla knows, Syrah is one of the flagship wines of the region. Its deep color and full flavors have made Syrah one of the most notable grapes of the Walla Walla Valley. The history of the Syrah grape is long and mysterious, and while the Syrah grape–surprisingly–did not originate here in Eastern Washington, the region it comes from is a fascinating site of wine history as well as an exciting counterpart to our own home here in Walla Walla.
This, of course, is one of the oldest wine regions in the world — the Rhône, located on the Rhône River in southeastern France.
The Rhône is impressive simply for the sheer length of history that wine has in the region. As far back as 600 BCE, Greeks and Romans were enjoying and writing about the region’s wine. The varieties they described could either be Syrah or one of its parent grapes. Scientists hypothesize that the grape we know today as Syrah was most likely cultivated for the first time in this region. One thing’s for certain: two thousand years later, the Rhône’s popularity and renown have only increased!
Generally, the larger Rhône wine region is broken up into two distinct sub-regions, the Northern and Southern, each with its own identity and flavor of wine. These fascinating regions combine the fertile climate of the south of Europe with the rugged chill of the north, to produce a variety of wonderful wines. They showcase the importance of climate on wine, and illustrate how even a small difference in location can yield vastly different grapes.
The northern Rhône region is hilly and full of steep, stony slopes carved by the river over thousands of years. It has harsh winters and mild summers, with a climate largely dominated by the powerful mistral wind, which brings in the cool air of northwestern Europe. This climate is ideal for Syrah grapes; in fact, Syrah is the only pure red wine that may be labeled an official regional product of the northern Rhône. Here, some of the worlds oldest and highest quality wines are grown and produced. It’s fair to say that the northern Rhône was the first Syrah country on Earth!
The larger Southern Rhône is a broad valley that straddles the river as it enters a more Mediterranean climate. This means warmer winters and hot summers, and a larger variety of grapes that can be grown. Reflecting this, the most popular reds from this part of the region are blends—which of course, almost always include Syrah.
As lovers of Syrah, we find the Rhône to be an inspiring parallel to Walla Walla. Hot summers, cold winters? Mountain hillsides and warm valley floors? A thriving industry with strong Syrah and a community that cares deeply for the quality of their wine? Hopefully in 2,000 years, we will still be singing the praises of Walla Walla wines as well.
Interested in exploring Walla Walla, the “Rhône” of Washington? Book a stay at our Walla Walla hotels to experience Washington wine country firsthand.