Are Rhône Varieties Washington State’s White Knight?

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Washington’s red wines have long received the lion’s share of critical and consumer attention, while the state’s white wines have so often gone overlooked. Riesling and Chardonnay dominate production, but many Americans still appear to have a Blue Nun hangover from the former, and California selections largely crowd out shelf space devoted to domestic expressions of the latter.

Lately, however, an increasing number of Washington winemakers have been turning to white varieties from France’s Rhône Valley with impressive results.

In the last several years, Washington has offered thrilling examples of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche and even the rarely seen Picardan, as well as blends of these grapes.

“I love white Rhône varieties mostly for their aromatics and their texture,” says Charlie Lybecker, owner and winemaker at Cairdeas Winery in Manson. “You can have a wine that has acidity but is also soft. That’s oftentimes a really hard combination to find.”

Lybecker recently planted the state’s first Picardan.

“With Picardan, you get that crazy acidic brightness of Picpoul, but you also have the nice aromatic qualities of Clairette [Blanche],” he says.

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In addition to its exploration of white Rhône varieties, site selection in Washington has improved, with growers planting at higher elevations and in cooler locations. Sean Boyd, owner and winemaker at Rôtie Cellars, gets fruit for his Rhône-style white blends from Walla Walla Valley, an appellation most often known for its reds.

“It’s a little cooler,” says Boyd of the valley. “We’re picking at the end of September, so we have some long hang time but still have good acids.”

With a string of superb vintages, the quality of these paler-tinted wines has also soared in recent years, and Rhône varieties have been leading the way. These wines show texture and richness, but also a distinct acidic snap that has often been missing.

So, are these grapes Washington’s next big blanc thing? Everything mentioned here suggests yes, but current production levels say no. Plantings remain scarce, and many of the best examples don’t travel far beyond the state’s borders.

For now, these wines look to remain an insider secret. But it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine these varieties might someday define the state’s white wines in the eyes of critics and consumers alike.

We Recommend:

Three to Try

Avennia 2018 La Perle (Columbia Valley); $40, 94 points. Roussanne makes up 65% of this wine, with the rest Marsanne. Fruit comes from Sagemoor, stalwart Boushey and, notably newcomer WeatherEye. It is a revelation. Appealing aromas of almond, corn silk, custard, stone fruit and spice lead to a full-bodied richly textured palate, brightened by lively acidity and heightened by a hyperextended finish. It’s a benchmark wine for the state—nothing short of an accomplishment. Editors’ Choice

Gramercy 2019 Picpoul (Walla Walla Valley); $20, 92 points. Aromas of citrus zest, whole lemon and wet stone are followed by medium-bodied tart and puckering white-grapefruit flavors backed by electric acidity. This wine has always been a standout, but this vintage brings more of everything: more aromatic and flavor complexity and even more acidity. It requires food alongside it to be fully appreciated. Pair it with grilled halibut with a lemon oregano sauce. Editors’ Choice

Cairdeas 2019 Marsanne (Yakima Valley); $30, 91 points. Blended with 16% Roussanne from Lawrence Vineyard with the rest of the fruit coming from famed Boushey, this wine was fermented in concrete and then aged in stainless steel and new French oak. The aromas are brooding out of the gate, with notes of lemon balm, almond and crushed rock. The palate is medium bodied and seamless in feel. It brings a whole lot of acidity for this variety. Editors’ Choice

Published on September 1, 2020
Topics: Editors Speak