Fall Might be Washington’s Best Wine-Drinking Season
In the final part of a series on Washington varietals to drink each season, Paul Zitarelli recommends the best wines for autumn.
By Paul Zitarelli
September 21, 2017
I can’t be the only Seattleite who harbors a secret love of our rainy autumns. Don’t get me wrong: I love our glorious sunny summer as much as the next wine writer, but by Labor Day, I’m itching for that first morning when the gray underbelly of Puget Sound’s clouds are seemingly only 15 feet off the ground.
Why the love for overcast weather? It gives us guilt-free permission to turn our focus from the outdoors to the indoors and toward family and home, and very much toward the kitchen and the table. All of the sudden, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to have the entire Saturday to-do list be: 1) Braise short ribs for six hours until spoon-tender; 2) Choose an appropriate bottle of wine.
Autumn is a magical time for drinking wine. The white wine I love most in autumn is Chenin Blanc. Its honeyed apple character is evocative of an autumn harvest fair, where some old salt is pressing apples into cider with an antique hand crank. Chenin is incredibly versatile, making lovely dry wines and luscious sweet wines. Some of Washington’s oldest vines are planted to this character-filled variety.
Now we shift gears to three autumnal reds. This time of year marks the end of tomato season, with the last heirlooms turning up at farmers markets, and with home gardeners bringing under-ripe plants into the kitchen to finish maturing. No wine varietal pairs as well with a fresh chunky tomato sauce as Sangiovese, a grape whose ancestral home is Tuscany, where tomatoes play a central role in local cuisine. Sangiovese’s naturally high acidity allows it to still taste bright and fresh when paired with tomato-based dishes, and its alluring kiss of cherry-pit bitters offsets a tomato’s natural sweetness.
Any wine varietal whose description frequently includes “leafy” seems just about perfect for autumn, don’t you think? Frequently, descriptions of Tempranillo include tea leaves, tobacco leaves and, well, just plain leaves. There’s something about sniffing a good Tempranillo that can put you in mind of a twilight trail walk, leaves crunching underfoot. It’s also a beautiful braising wine, softening up all manner of tough cuts with enough hours of slow cooking.
Finally, autumn is nirvana for Northwest mycophiles. Mushroom lovers across the region head into the woods (or the grocery stores) seeking out chanterelles and lobster mushrooms and porcinis. Pinot Noir is generally considered the ne plus ultra of mushroom pairings. While Oregon is much better known for Pinot Noir than Washington, there are a few select vineyards north of the Oregon–Washington border where this delicate grape performs beautifully. Its light body and delicate flavors complement subtle ’shrooms whereas bolder wines can overwhelm, and Pinot’s natural earthiness makes it a fine spouse for up-from-the-soil fungi of all kinds. Better yet, versatile Pinot is the perfect red for the Thanksgiving table, so keep a few bottles around for the holiday that marks the end of autumn proper.
Paul’s Picks for Autumn Washington Wines
2015 Orr Wines Old Vine Chenin Blanc, $25
Erica Orr’s enology consulting business in Woodinville has been wildly successful since she launched in 2006, helping wineries such as Baer, Mark Ryan, Guardian Cellars and Sparkman Cellars make a series of beautiful wines. For her own Orr Wines label, she makes exactly one wine: this old-vine Chenin Blanc, from a nearly 40-year-old site in the Yakima Valley called Rothrock Vineyard. It’s an intense, delicious, bone-dry Chenin, mixing apple fruit and apple-blossom floral notes with honey and malt powder.
PAIRS WITH: Thickly cut pork chops stewed with caramelized apples and onions.
2012 Kiona Estate Reserve Sangiovese, Red Mountain, $25
This Sangiovese comes from two of JJ Williams’ Kiona estate vineyards on Red Mountain. It offers a wonderful aromatically dusty character, hovering over a core of red cherry and pomegranate fruit. A note of star anise adds further complexity. The palate possesses wonderful Sangiovese character: pie-cherry fruit, rustic back-end chew and a great finishing lick of Aperol-flavored bitters. The rich fruit (14.5 percent alcohol by volume) is well-balanced by Sangiovese’s bright natural acidity.
PAIRS WITH: Gnocchi Bolognese, the sauce made from the last fresh tomatoes of the season.
2012 Idilico Tempranillo, $20
It’s a sign of Tempranillo’s recent success in Washington that Woodinville-based Javier Alfonso can now source grapes from sites across our state, including Snipes Mountain (Upland Vineyard), Horse Heaven Hills (Elerding) and the greater Yakima Valley. His Tempranillo begins with a nose of deep black cherry fruit, autumnal leafy notes, and spices like anise and clove. Tannins are fine-grained, acids bright and juicy; all the components coexist harmoniously.
PAIRS WITH: Oxtails (short ribs or pot roast also work well) braised in this Tempranillo alongside a mess of root vegetables: carrots, celery root and turnips.
2009 Bainbridge Vineyards Pinot Noir, $29
Most of Washington is climatically inappropriate for growing Pinot Noir, but there are a few cool-climate pockets where it makes sense. One of those is the Puget Sound AVA. This Pinot Noir comes from one of the closest vineyards to Seattle as the crow flies: Bainbridge Vineyards on Bainbridge Island. Winemaker Betsey Wittick has crafted an eye-opening Pinot, elegant and delicious with its mix of red fruit and earthy mineral tones. Now seven years past vintage, this is beginning to display wonderful maturing tones of mushroom and leather.
PAIRS WITH: A bowl of polenta topped with whatever wild mushrooms you can find, sautéed in butter and fresh thyme, and deglazed with dry sherry.