I can almost hear Washington State complaining “California, California, California” in the same tone as Jan Brady lamenting over her popular sister, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.” We tend to think American wine is JUST California wine. This is not the case, and due to the particular climatic conditions of Washington State, it can be a place to find some of the lesser-known varietals that just don’t shine as brightly in sunny California. The reason can be cooler temperatures (at least in the Western part of the state, the Eastern part is quite warm and dry) and can also be higher latitudes, soil conditions and microclimates. The first Blue Lemberger wine I ever tasted came not from Germany, but from Washington State, so here are three other varietals, perhaps better known for blending, which shine on their own in Washington.
Bergevin Lane produces two of these very interesting varietal wines, and their female touch comes across not just in their outstanding winemaking, but also in their creative names like “She-Devil” Chardonnay, “Moonspell” Cabernet Sauvignon, “Wild-Child” Merlot, and their “Calico” and “Linen” lines.
One of my favorites is their “Love-Struck” Viognier, a grape that is better known for blending in Rhone Valley whites or as Condrieu’s famous dessert wine. In California, the heat can make Viognier a little oversweet, with cloying tendencies, but the coolness of Washington (like the coolness of the Mistral breeze in France) brings balancing acidity to this wine. Plenty of floral notes, as we expect from a Viognier, but also a bright zesty character from the cooler temps and the volcanic mineral-laden soil. After that first floral whiff, I get white peach and pear, framed by minerality and rounded out by 5 months in oak after being aged on the lees. This provides creaminess on the palate as well as vanilla hints. You still get a rich mouthfeel, though not as rich as a classic Cali Chardonnay, but rich enough to appeal to butterball fans. For this reason Viognier is one of my favorite wines to pair with a typical Thanksgiving repast, able to balance between turkey and ham, stuffing and dressing, cranberry sauce and yams, and still appeal to most of your guests.
Bergevin Lane also makes a fantastic Petit Verdot “Amare Aeterna” or “Love Eternal.” This lesser-known Bordeaux blending grape is rarely seen bottled alone, and I always pick it up when I do see it. Petit Verdot ripens even later than Cabernet Sauvignon and gives complexity to the typical Bordeaux red blend. Petit Verdot has thick skins like Cabernet Sauvignon and a particular minerality that often comes across as graphite or cedar shavings. Black currant is the dominant fruit to me with nice wood tones to help flesh out a wine that skews to the mineral. This is not a fruit bomb varietal; this is a mineral depth charge. What you lose in obvious fruitiness you gain in complexity and depth. If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, especially Medoc Bordeaux, then you will love trying this Petit Verdot.
Another Bordeaux varietal that does very well in Washington is Cabernet Franc, one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon. Though part of the blend in Bordeaux (especially on the Right Bank as in Fronsac), this grape is a solo player in the cooler Loire Valley wines of Bourgueil and Saumur. Fall Line is a great Washington producer that focuses their blends on Cabernet Franc rather than Cabernet Sauvignon, and they are not the only Washington wine maker to do so. The flavor profile is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but the vines have larger grapes with thinner skins, so are not as tannic as its progeny. Sometimes I get hints of caramel and burnt sugar with Cab Francs at first whiff, and then the black currant and black cherry dominate with a hint of green bell pepper. Franc based wines have more elegance than force, and the grape adapts well to cooler climates making it a perfect choice for northern regions.
So if you feel like trying something new and exciting, go a little north of California, off the beaten path to Washington State, and look for varietals that are less common. What you may lose in warmer weather jamminess you gain in cooler climate elegance, and trying something new is always a plus.
Daniel Eddy, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine & spirits supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwineDanE