QUEEN OF THE PUGET SOUND VINEYARDS
by Jerome Richard
photos by Lara Ferroni
[twocolumns]I first encountered the lovely Madeleine Angevine in the wine section of the old Thriftway (now Metropolitan Market) on Queen Anne. With her long neck and intriguing name, I could not restrain myself; I picked her up. She was a local girl, from Mount Baker Vineyards. I didn’t know wine grapes (vinifera) could grow west of the mountains.[/twocolumns]
Grapes have been grown in the Puget Sound area since 1872, when Lambert Evans planted some on Stretch Island—but they were labrusca, or table grapes. Very few growers attempted the more finicky vinifera and the few commercial wineries that existed around the Sound were gone by the 1960s.
[twocolumns]In 1967, however, American Wine Growers, which had been producing cheap, sweet wines in Washington, brought in noted California winemaker André Tchellitscheff for consultation. While here, he encouraged a group of amateur winemakers, mostly at the University of Washington, in their winemaking. Two years later, state laws were changed to allow wine importation from other states and retail sales outside the state system. The competition and availability of more outlets encouraged a rush towards growing and making fine wines in Washington.
The modern planting of premium wine grapes in Washington began in the Yakima Valley, and quickly spread south to the Columbia and east as far as Walla Walla. Chateau Ste. Michelle built a handsome winery in Woodinville in 1976, but it was largely a showcase. Wine was made there, but the grapes were from eastern Washington. The Puget Sound area was too cold and rainy for the classic wine grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Then, along came the charming Madeleine Angevine.
[/twocolumns]The Washington State University Research Unit at Mount Vernon began experimenting with varieties that might thrive in the Puget Sound climate. Some grapes were grown in similar climates in England (not renowned for their wine), and Germany. In fact, German Riesling is one of the premier wine varieties in the world, and the first important variety produced in the eastern Washington wine renaissance. Its growing season, however, is a bit too long to be reliable west of the mountains.
[twocolumns]Some Riesling relatives and derivatives, such as Muller-Thurgau and Sylvaner, however, did work. A few other varieties produced decent wines, but the star was Madeleine Angevine. The researchers described it as a “very worthwhile grape giving heavy crops of green-white grapes that yield large quantities of juice for wine and may be enjoyed fresh,” though they warned of its susceptibility to birds and botrytis, a kind of late season rot. Its great virtue is that it ripens early, generally in late September.
Madeleine Angevine is a cross between Prococe de Malingre and Madeleine Royale. It appears likely that it was developed in the Loire Valley of France in the mid-19th century, but it was grown most successfully in the cooler climates of Germany and England. The second half of its name is thought to derive from the French city of Anger, but no one knows who the royal Madeleine was.
In 1977 Gerard Bentryn, who had worked at vineyards in England and Germany, among other countries, planted the grape at his Bainbridge Island Vineyards. The next year Al Stratton planted it at Mount Baker Vineyards about twenty miles east of Bellingham. Stratton had tried 60 different varieties to see what would make the best wine in the Puget Sound area, and decided that Madeleine Angevine was more complex than most.
[twocolumns]Mad Angie, as she is sometimes known, produces a crisp white wine that may have hints of tropical fruit, grapefruit, melon, or peach, with herbaceous notes. Vinted dry, it goes well with shellfish and egg dishes. Off-dry, it is an excellent summer aperitif. It is relatively low in alcohol, usually less than 12%. This versatile grape is sometimes crossed with still other varieties. The most successful of these crosses is Siegerrebe, in which it is wedded to Gewurztraminer, giving the wine a spicy flavor.
It can also be blended, as it is in Bainbridge Island’s Ferryboat White. Bentryn at Bainbridge is even experimenting with a blend of Madeleine Angevine and an unusual red grape called Duncklefelder to make a rosé (look for it at the winery next year).
In 1995, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms recognized the Puget Sound Viticultural Area as a distinct vinifera growing region. The designated district is essentially the lowland areas surrounding the Sound, including the San Juan Islands. At present there are eleven wineries in the Puget Sound AVA, plus Mount Baker, just outside the delimited area.
Seven of these wineries produce Madeleine Angevine from their own vineyards. “Estate grown” on a wine label means the wine was made where the grapes are grown. Some wines made by Puget Sound wineries are processed from grapes imported from eastern Washington, but not Mad Angie.
[twocolumns]Bentryn suggests Madeleine Angevine for people living around the Sound who want to grow grapes in their backyard; Madeleine Angevine grapes do have seeds, but are good for eating out of hand or making jelly. The vines should be planted in the sunniest possible locations. Ideally, plant nurseries will accommodate the request for the grape starts to be packed in local soil, to avoid importing unwelcome bugs.
Because all of the Puget Sound wineries are relatively small, getting your own Mad Angie may be a bit of a challenge. The easiest way to find her is simply visiting the wineries in person. Or, like me, just keep your eye out for her long neck as you wander the local wine shops—you never know where she might turn up.
Jerome Richard has written about beer, wine, food and travel for Wine Enthusiast, Northwest Palate, Wine Times, Robb Report, Northwest Prime Time and several newspapers. He took time out to write the novel The Kiss of the Prison Dancer, a finalist for the 2005 PEN/Hemingway Award.