Syrah-heavy Rocks District surprisingly diverse

By on October 20, 2015
Christophe Baron stands amid his cobbles at The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area.

Christophe Baron, vigneron for Cayuse Vineyards in Milton-Freewater, Ore., stands amid the famous cobblestones at his vineyard. The region now is officially The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Oregon’s newest American Viticultural Area. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. – A region famous for its Syrah is surprisingly diverse.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is perhaps the best-known area in the Pacific Northwest for Syrah, thanks to such wineries as Cayuse Vineyards, Saviah Cellars, Dusted Valley Vintners and Reynvaan Vineyards.

But new tracking information released Monday by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance shows 18 wine grape varieties are grown in The Rocks District.

The Rocks District is Oregon’s newest American Viticultural Area, having been given federal approval in early February. It is entirely within the Walla Walla Valley AVA but also is completely in Oregon. Thanks to a quirk in federal rules, Washington wineries are not allowed to use The Rocks District AVA on their labels. Only wineries that finish their wines on the Oregon side of the border may use that distinction.

The new information provided by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance shows that 279.2 acres of wine grapes are planted in The Rocks District. All of this planting has occurred since March 1997, when French expat Christophe Baron was shown the area during a visit to the valley with friends, bought land and began planting Syrah.

And as one might expect, Syrah dominates the vineyards of The Rocks District with 126.7 acres, or 45.4 percent of the total AVA. However, Cabernet Sauvignon comes in at No. 2 with 66.3 acres, followed by Grenache at 20.9 acres.

Rocks District of Milton-Freewater grape breakdown

Geology professor Kevin Pogue stands Stoney Vine Vineyard, an estate site of Dusted Valley Vinters and now is within the proposed The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Ore.

Geology professor Kevin Pogue stands in Stoney Vine Vineyard, an estate site of Dusted Valley Vintners and now is within the The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Ore. Pogue authored and championed The Rocks District AVA, which was approved in February. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Here is the complete breakdown of wine grapes planted in The Rocks District:

  1. Syrah: 126.7 acres
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon: 66.3 acres
  3. Grenache: 20.9 acres
  4. Merlot: 15.8 acres
  5. Chardonnay: 11.9 acres
  6. Tempranillo: 10.9 acres
  7. Cabernet Franc: 7.5 acres
  8. Viognier: 5 acres
  9. Mourvèdre: 3.9 acres
  10. Malbec: 2.5 acres
  11. Sangiovese: 2.3 acres
  12. Barbera: 1.6 acres
  13. Petit Verdot: 1 acre
  14. Marsanne: 1 acre
  15. Grenache Blanc: 1 acre
  16. Counoise: 0.3 acre
  17. Cinsault: 0.3 acre
  18. Carignane: 0.3 acre

Why Rhône varieties rule in The Rocks

Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards holds a cobblestone from his vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley.

Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards holds a cobblestone from his estate vineyard in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in the Walla Walla Valley. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

When Baron was shown The Rocks District back in 1996, it reminded him of an area in his native France.

“I came with my wine atlas,” Baron told Great Northwest Wine. “I was going through photos and showed (his friend Scott Byerley) Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a region in France’s southern Rhône Valley where red wines are made with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. And it’s famous for cobblestones that cover the ground. Byerley told Baron he knew of a place that looked like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so they drove south toward Milton-Freewater.

“This is where I first met the stones,” Baron said.

He quickly understood the opportunity before him and purchased the land. By March 1997, he began planting Syrah between the grapefruit-sized cobbles. This was the first commercial vineyard in the area for at least 40 years.

“Several farmers here in the area said the little Frenchman was crazy to plant a vineyard in the stones,” Baron said. “But in the years after, some of these farmers pulled out orchards and planted vineyards. Not so crazy! Without the stones, I would not be here in Walla Walla.”

Instead, he might be a little farther out west in the Willamette Valley, where he originally planned to settle and craft Pinot Noir instead.

Wine critic Sean Sullivan recently revealed his Seattle Met magazine list for top 100 wines of Washington, and the top four were all from Cayuse – and all were Rhône varieties: two Grenaches and two Syrahs.

At the recent Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, Saviah Cellars’ 2012 The Stones Speak Syrah won a unanimous double gold medal from the judges. Because Saviah Cellars is (barely) on the Washington side of the Walla Walla Valley, owner/winemaker Richard Funk must currently label this wine as Walla Walla Valley rather than The Rocks District.

Washington side leads Walla Walla Valley

Betz Family Winery is buying and planting a vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley at SeVein.

SeVein is a 2,700-acre vineyard development in the southern Walla Walla Valley near Milton-Freewater, Ore. (Photo courtesy of SeVein)

Contrary to popular belief, a majority of the grapes grown in the Walla Walla Valley come from the Washington side. Until mid-August, conventional wisdom was that most of the vines were planted south of the state line.

But a study conducted by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance showed that, in fact, 57 percent of the grapes are grown on the Washington side. However, most experts believe that with the growth of plantings in such areas as The Rocks District and the nearby SeVein project, it’s only a matter of time before the Oregon side of the valley takes over.

The Walla Walla Valley also is more densely planted than most thought. Many wine industry experts believed there were fewer than 2,000 acres of vineyards planted in the valley, but the study showed that 2,836 acres of grapes are planted in the Walla Walla Valley. Overwhelmingly, they are red, with just 5 percent of the grapes planted being white varieties.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Walla Walla, with 1,036.8 acres planted, but Syrah has overtaken Merlot as the No. 2 grape, with 491.7 acres vs. 486.4 acres. More than a quarter of the Syrah planted in the valley comes from The Rocks District.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

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