Ask most Northwest wine consumers to name the white wine varietals that come from France’s Rhone region, and it’s a little like asking someone to name the Seven Dwarfs. After the first few — “Ummm, Viognier, Roussanne, … Marsanne, ….” And chances are the list will end there.
That’s because such Rhone whites as Aligoté, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Vermentino and Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains are little grown in our region and consequently even less appreciated.
Aligoté is a good example. Although it’s been grown in the Yakima Valley for roughly 30 years and made into wine for about as long, it’s seldom seen and will be even less common because one Yakima Valley grower has pulled out his Aligoté vines and is replacing them with grapes that will be an easier sell.
Some of the indifference is understandable, because several Rhone whites have a reputation for being bland, uninteresting wines. But in the Northwest, many growers are finding ways to produce grapes that our winemakers turn into lip-smacking crowd pleasers.
So when Wine Press Northwest magazine assembled 75 single varietal wines and white blends made from Rhone white varietals, I was looking forward to our spring edition judging. After tasting all of them, I came away impressed.
First, 12 percent of them rated either a double gold, a unanimous vote of the judges for a gold medal, or gold, a majority vote of the judges. That’s not stellar — a Riesling tasting might produce almost twice as high a percentage of golds — but it’s certainly respectable for wine grapes that Northwest growers mostly ignored during the first couple decades of the Northwest’s post-Prohibition return to wine grape growing.
Riesling already was making Washington famous for top-quality wines before any Viognier was even planted in the state.
Red Willow Vineyards, one of Washington’s pioneer vineyards was first was planted in wine grapes in 1973 by Mike Sauer, but didn’t see its first Viognier until 1983, and it was little recognized. Red Willow’s well-known and highly regarded Syrah vines came three years later in 1986 and were the state’s first Syrah vines. They gained a fan base almost immediately.
The judging’s nine gold medal wines included three Rousannes, one of them a sparkler; three Viogniers; two Rousanne-dominated blends, and one Marsanne-dominated blend. Six came from four Washington AVAs — the Columbia, Yakima, Walla Walla Valleys and the Horse Heaven Hills. Three were from Oregon, with two designated Rogue Valley and one Southern Oregon.
Worth noting is that among the gold medal winners was the state’s and the Northwest’s largest producer of Viognier, Maryhill Winery, which made 8,291 cases of it in 2016, the latest vintage that winemaker Richard Batchelor has released.
If there’s a trend here, it’s that areas known for their Syrahs also can produce excellent grapes from Rhone white varietals. Boushey Vineyards, generally recognized as the second vineyard in Washington to plant Syrah and as one of Washington’s finest Syrah producers, also grows Rousanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Picpoul Blanc.
Both Red Willow and Boushey are in the Yakima Valley AVA, Washington’s oldest, established in 1983, the same year Red Willow’s first Viognier vines went into the ground.
So, if you are like many of us and have been chasing after the latest and greatest of the region’s wines so long as they’re something you’re comfortably familiar with, think outside your Bordeaux and Burgundy boxes. It needn’t be expensive. Most of these Rhone whites retail for about $22 to $26, and cost a few dollars less on sale or when you buy a case from a favorite winemaker.
And that gold-medal Maryhill Viognier is a mere $16.
Wine words: ABC
Some years back, the inventive and somewhat eccentric California winemaker Randall Grahm coined the acronym for “anything but Cabernet” or “anything but Chardonnay” as a catchy way to encourage wine enthusiasts in California, where his Bonny Doon Vineyard winery is located, to try the wines he was making that were neither of the two perennial favorites.
Instead, Grahm was focused on the wines of France’s Rhone region, which makes “ABC” especially appropriate for this column. He’s likely best known for his Le Cigare Volant (flying cigar) red blends made from Rhone red grapes, but also makes Le Cigare Blanc, a 66 percent Grenache Blanc and 34 percent Roussanne blend.
For a while he also was infatuated with Riesling — and still may be, for that matter — and started up another winery called Pacific Rim to focus on Riesling. If that sounds familiar, it should. Eventually, Grahm became convinced the best place to grow Riesling in the U.S. was Washington state.
So, he moved his winery here, and it now calls West Richland, Wash., home and sits in the afternoon shadow of Red Mountain when the summer sun sinks really low. Pacific Rim still makes great Riesling, although Grahm eventually sold out his interest and transferred his attentions back south.
His “ABC” marketing slogan still pops up occasionally, although The Sotheby Wine Encyclopedia notes a bit dismissively that it lost its appeal because, “It has been hijacked by inverted snobs and myopic critics, however, who have been zealots in their crusade to rid the world of two great wine grapes.”
I frankly drink an awful lot of Cabernet and Chardonnay, so I hope I’ve not become inverted, although I admit I was born myopic. And I’m still an adherent of the “ABC” idea and observe it often, especially during the summer months when white wines and Grenache rosé (or any other rosé) are the perfect choice for a laid-back weekend afternoon or a warm summer evening on the deck.