White Hope

They say that it's your generous impulses that get you in the most trouble. You don't need to tell that to Susan Neel. The marketing director of McCrea Winery thought she'd give the Seattle Weekly tasting panel a treat when she came in to present McCrea's new midprice red blend non sequitur ($16), so she brought along some home-smoked pork ribs to set it off. But her real mistake was in fetching along a sample of Doug McCrea's $22 2004 roussanne as well—"just for a change of pace from red." Well, everybody enjoyed the non sequitur, but they went gaga over the roussanne. It's not easy finding a wine that complements barbecue, even among reds. A spicy syrah can end up quarreling with the heat and piquancy of a good barbecue sauce, and less lively reds can be erased right down to their acids. But it had never occurred to me that the solution to the barbecue problem might be the right white. I am here to tell you that roussanne is the right white, but I'll be darned if I can tell you why. There's nothing in the variety's pedigree to suggest an affinity for smoke, fat, and spice. Until recently, it was grown only in France's northern Rhône Valley, and not much of it there. Grape guru Jancis Robinson refers to it as elegant and delicate, perky in youth but able to age gracefully up to 20 years. The Washington-grown roussanne I've tasted is anything but delicate. Elegant, yes, but assertively elegant, lean but lovely and sure of itself—think Lauren Bacall, not Twiggy. But that still doesn't explain why it works so well with barbecue. Some wines pair well because they contrast effectively, offsetting rich fatty flavors with refreshing astringency. Roussanne and barbecue blend, producing an elevated sensation of sumptuousness without excess. Surprisingly, even winemakers aren't certain why this is. James Mantone, who makes a 100 percent roussanne for his Syncline label, says he suspects "that it was the fattiness of the foods that allowed the roussanne to really sing. We have had great success with fatty shellfish (pan-fried scallops with bacon and lobster broth!) and fatty pork (crisped pork belly). . . . It is the perfect rich-food white wine." Brett Isenhower, who makes a blend of roussanne and viognier for his Isenhower Cellars line, loves the variety so much he's planting it next to his winery. And sure enough, he and his wife, Denise, find that it "goes great with gumbo and other Creole dishes, Thai foods with yellow curry—catfish, swordfish, and trout. Paprika- flavored dishes are good matches with roussanne." So far, there are only about 30 acres of roussanne in Washington, but with gifted winemakers eager to experiment with it, that's sure to change. It ought to do well in our climate, where early fall cold snaps are almost unheard of (though too much sun can burn the fruit if not protected). Maybe the highest barrier to its wide acceptance is tradition. After all, who drinks white wine with ribs? rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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