When enthusiasts talk about Washington state wines, it’s likely the conversation will turn to syrah and viognier, Northern Rhone grapes that are generating buzz. That’s an impressive feat for French varietals that have only been planted in the Evergreen State since the 1980s.
While cabernet sauvignon and merlot hold the leading spots for red varietals most planted in the state, syrah, known for yielding deep-hued, long-lived pours, comes in third. The white grape viognier, often relied on as a perfumed blending partner with syrah, also makes appealing bottles on its own.
Jesse Skiles is one Pacific Northwest producer who ferments syrah and viognier grapes together in the same vat, just as many of his French counterparts do in the Northern Rhone. One wine, made mainly with syrah, called Garde Manger (the chef who prepares cold dishes), uses this technique. Skiles, a chef-turned-winemaker, gave his operation the tongue-in-cheek name Fausse Piste, French for “wrong direction.” What he’s turning out is very right by us.
Skiles became enamored of Rhone wines while visiting France. He came back determined to make wines with similar heft and heart. Fruit for Garde Manger is primarily sourced from trusted vineyard partners throughout Columbia Valley, in eastern Washington, although his winery is located in Portland, Ore. (In that part of the country, where some of Washington’s viticultural areas spill into Oregon, such an arrangement is common.)
The winemaker likes to work as naturally as possible. He relies on the native yeasts that ride in on the grapes, as well as those ambient in the winery. Some consider this risky, because you never know exactly how these yeasts will behave, but Skiles won’t have it any other way. He also practices whole cluster fermentation, where fruit, stems, and all go into the vat. This lends rusticity and complexity to the finished glass. Ultimately, he is intent on making delicious pours.
“Rhone varietals always resonated with me as a cook,” says Skiles, noting that these grapes are food friendly in ways different , say, than is pinot noir. While traveling in the Rhone, he recalls a dish of river fish poached with peas in the local syrah. While he hasn’t re-created that surprising combination stateside, he loves to see chefs push the boundaries of what’s expected.
When winemakers do the same, we love it too.
K Vintners Viognier 2013 Barrel fermentation, along with aging on the lees (the sediment remaining after yeast has turned sugar into alcohol) lends weight and creaminess to this white wine from Yakima Valley. Aromatics reflect well-handled oak, as well as roasted pear, yellow apple, and citrus. Fresh, balanced acidity makes it a pleasing pairing with pad Thai, fatty fish like salmon, or pasta with light cream sauce. Around $25. At Dion’s Fine Wine, Natick, 508-650-4321; Wasik’s, The Cheese Shop, Wellesley, 781-237-0916.
Corvidae Wine Co. “Lenore” Syrah 2012 Aromas are distinctly floral in this lighter-weight red with a tart palate that emphasizes cherries and berries, plus fine-grained tannin. This Columbia Valley pour, tightly wound at first, benefits from some time in the glass, then takes you from cocktail hour into mealtime with ease. Around $15. Blanchards Wines & Spirits, Jamaica Plain, 617-522-9300; Dion’s Fine Wine, Natick.
Fausse Piste “Garde Manger” Syrah 2013 If you are looking for a syrah that is wild and untamed, this bottle is for you. Scents of plum (both fresh and dried) as well as field herbs, soil, and stone, point to a glass that is rich and pure. The palate is intensely tart, with plenty of mineral, herbaceousness, and a tangy, peppery finish. This robust red, with a touch of viognier, can stand up to anything grilled with heft and char. Around $25. Blanchards Wines & Spirits, Jamaica Plain; Bin Ends, Braintree, 781-817-1212.
Jones of Washington Syrah 2009 Hailing from the Wahluke Slope near the center of the Columbia Valley, this is a pour with presence. It drinks a little young, despite having more years in the bottle compared with others on the shelves, but the red ripe fruit, black cherry, and generous tannins offer weight and chew while remaining bright. Delicious with smoky pork spareribs. Around $18. Beaver Brook Bottles, Waltham, 781-609-2576; Wine & Spirits Depot, Pembroke, 781-826-2082.
Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.