Viognier’s Pretty Stepsisters

Drink these roussanne and marsanne wines with mushrooms.

There's a reason Washington syrah is so hot right now—mostly because Eastern Washington is so hot. The extremely warm days and very cool nights of our state's eastern half mesh best with the environment that sports the classic varietals syrah, grenache, and viognier: the Rhône Valley in France. The Rhône harbors many white grapes that make some of the most complex white wines in the world. These grapes are gaining more attention every year, not to mention ground in Washington and California vineyards. Viognier may be the white that started the buzz, but it often suffers from the unwanted attentions of chardonnay-fixated winemakers who take overripe grapes and dress them in chardonnay's clothes (aka oak barrels). In the Rhône, winemakers blend viognier with its sister grapes marsanne and roussanne to achieve crisp, refreshing wines perfect for drinking after Labor Day. For some reason, wines based on roussanne and marsanne don't warrant the chardonnay treatment from many winemakers—to your benefit. If you can find a wine labeled "roussanne," grab it. (You'll have a tough time finding marsanne solo. Perhaps it's too subtle.) I always get a hit of raw almond off the best roussanne wines, part of their lovely, complex aroma. Roussanne also balances pretty fruit withgreat acidity, though that of a peach as opposed to a green apple. A month ago I had a marvelous chicken roulade stuffed with mushrooms at Juno that was screaming for the acidity of a roussanne, as well as its soft pear and almond notes. Since I had a case of Mas Carlot marsanne-roussanne ($11 per bottle) in the garage, the next day I cooked a mushroom duxelle (like a cooked-mushroom tapenade) to smear on crusty bread. These grapes love hearty, earthy flavors like mushrooms and lentils, and I think there should be a law requiring every bottle to come with a sprig of thyme. I can't wait to go mushroom hunting so I can polish off the rest of the case. I think the master expressionist of these Rhône grapes in our country, year after year, is Tablas Creek. The Paso Robles winery's Esprit de Beaucastel ($40) and Cotes de Tablas ($20) whites effortlessly express the three main characteristics of the marsanne and roussanne grapes: a combination of soft fruit flavors, like melon and pear, and the juicy acidity found in a ripe nectarine; a host of subtle pastoral smells usually reserved for tea or bath bombs; and that wonderful trace of almond. Locally, Isenhower's Snapdragon white ($20), a blend of roussanne and viognier, makes the case for planting nothing but aromatic white grapes from now on in the state of Washington. Novelty Hill's Stillwater Creek Vineyard Roussanne ($20) manages to come off crisp even with the rich, dominating presence of baked pear. I also remember the fresh pasta with spinach walnut pesto and cabrales cheese that I enjoyed with it. Pears, walnuts, blue cheese: all the elements of one of my favorite autumnal salads, presented in a completely different way. Maybe that old rule "no white wines after Labor Day" misses the point. Maybe it's all about drinking the right whites after Labor Day.

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