Unusual varietals offer food-friendly alternatives to standard wines
Washington and Oregon winemakers are mixing it up with food-friendly varietals such as mourvèdre and malbec, tempranillo and counoise — in the process offering customers a wider variety of interesting and unusual choices.
JUST ABOUT the time I finally learned how to say viognier (vee-ohn-yay), Washington and Oregon winemakers introduced a whole new crop of unusual wines from Old World countries with lyrical names such as dolcetto and petit verdot.
Of course, white wines from France like roussanne and marsanne, lusty Italian reds such as nebbiolo and sangiovese, and Spanish varieties such as albariño (a dry white) certainly aren't strangers in their own lands. There, they are components in blended wines, such as grenache in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Others are bottled separately, like malbec.
But not until recently have these newcomers been grown in any great numbers in our region's vineyards, as winegrowers figure out what grows best here. Winemakers have also introduced unique varietals in an attempt to differentiate themselves and attract new customers who've grown accustomed to chardonnay, syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
Those three wines can be tough to pair with food. But with their balanced flavor profiles, high acid levels and less oak, many "new" varietals make better food matches.
In March, Sarah Munson, founder of The Local Vine wine bar in Belltown, hosted a tasting entitled Weird Washington Wines. Her customers sipped Sleight of Hand Cellars Gewürztraminer (an aromatic white), Shooting Star blue franc (a spicy red wine also known as lemberger) and Parejas Cellars zwiegelt and mourvèdre (intriguing red wines).
Winemaker Doug McCrea, a pioneer in Rhône varietals in this state, works with 10 different grapes to produce 4,000 cases of wine a year at McCrea Cellars in Rainier. He loves the unique flavors of these grapes, but thinks it's important for people to experience the varietals in blends, too.
Wade Wolfe at Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser is another pioneer in unique varietals. His interesting blends include PGV (pinot gris/viognier/muscat blanc) and Dr. Wolfe's Family Red. But in 2002, he bottled petit sirah, a hearty red grape that's popular in California, on its own. It sold so well that he increased production and this year added single-varietal bottlings of primitivo (an Italian clone of zinfandel) and tempranillo.
Winemaker Jamie Brown and business partners Jason Huntley and Greg Harrington founded their entire Walla Walla winery — Wines of Substance — on single varieties. The response to them on the winery's interactive Web site has been great, Brown says.
To get an idea of what all the fuss is about, try these six varietals for starters:
• Abacela Vineyards & Winery 2006 Estate Tempranillo (southern Oregon, $35): Spain's most noble grape thrives in Roseburg, Ore., where Abacela bottles three distinct tempranillos. According to winery owner Earl Jones, "The 2006 Estate Tempranillo has dark fruits like blackberry and plum aromas mingled with Asian spices, licorice, tea notes and a distant grapefruit-pith aroma." Pair with tapas or a well-marbled steak.
• McCrea Cellars 2007 Mourvèdre (Yakima Valley, $28): Mourvèdre (France), monastrell (Spain) and mataro (California and Portugal) are all the same grape. According to Doug McCrea, "Washington state mourvèdres are deep ruby red with aromas of roasted meat, brambleberry, spice and leather. Flavors include blackberry, coffee and a hint of black tea." Pair with osso buco or hoisin-marinated flank steak.
• Thurston Wolfe Winery 2006 Zephyr Ridge Petite Sirah (Washington state, $20): Wade Wolfe describes his wine, a Double Platinum award-winner from Wine Press Northwest magazine, as having, "intense color, with spice, dark-berry and cherry aromas and a smooth finish." Pair with spicy Indian food or grilled lamb.
• Wines of Substance 2007 Counoise (Columbia Valley, $18): Of this southern-Rhône grape, winemaker Jamie Brown says it has "a distinct spicy and black-pepper nose, nice bright red fruits in the mouth, medium body and strong acidity that makes it a great food wine." Pair with fatty fish (salmon or halibut) or fowl.
• Cascade Cliffs Vineyard & Winery 2006 Barbera (Columbia Valley, $40): At his Columbia Gorge winery, Bob Lorkowski nurtures "old," "kinda' old" and "baby" Barbera vines planted from 1990 to 2000. Barbera, a significant grape in the Piedmont region of Italy, "usually possesses very dark-berry flavors including blackberry, black currant, raisin and prune, as well as hints of clove, nutmeg, black pepper and smoke," he says. Lorkowski's Barbera is another Double Platinum award-winner. Pair with game meats or spice-rubbed, goat-meat tortillas.
• RiverAerie Cellars 2007 Malbec (Columbia Valley, $22): Malbec, a grape native to France, is sourced from a warm site on Washington's Wahluke Slope, which results in a wine "with spicy aromas of black pepper and cardamom, and flavors of bright red plums and black cherries," according to winemaker Ron Bunnell. "Black stone fruit predominates on the mid-palate with firm but friendly tannins and a lingering finish of fresh cherries and spice." Pair with grilled lamb or sockeye salmon with grilled onions and peppers.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of "Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining." Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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