Among Washington’s best styles of wine is GSM, shorthand for a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
All three of those grapes are traditionally grown in southern France’s Rhône Valley, from a region known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is part of the greater Cotes du Rhône appellation, much as Red Mountain is a small part of the greater Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape (pronounced sha-toe newf de pop) literally means “new castle of the Pope.” Centuries ago, a series of wine-loving popes ruled from the Avignon area of France — instead of Rome — inspiring advancements in the region’s viticulture. Historically, the wine regions of Europe grew thanks to the Catholic church, thus this region became famous in the context of the Rhône Valley.
In that French region near Avignon, up to 18 grape varieties — red and white — now are permitted, and they have to be able to thrive in an arid setting where lavender and thyme will also grow. Varieties that proved successful in this appellation include Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
Naturally, the predominance of these three grapes would result in a blend. The three grapes used in a GSM blend are radically different from each other, but they produce a magical elixir when combined. Grenache is a high-fruit, high-acid grape that typically makes a delicious rosé. Syrah is a full-bodied grape with a ton of flavor. And Mourvèdre is the backbone of the trio, with powerful tannins and rich, dark jamminess.
A popular New World region for GSM, unsurprisingly, is in California — specifically, Paso Robles. In the Pacific Northwest, GSM territory is in southeastern Washington, starting in 1986 when Syrah was planted at Red Willow Vineyards on the western edge of the Yakima Valley. The blend itself is delicious and typically intentionally created, although GSM also serves to absorb any overplanting of Rhône varieties.
In 2021, Washington winemakers brought in 1,575 tons of Grenache, 20,975 tons of Syrah and 1,195 tons of Mourvèdre. The state’s total red grape harvest was 110,885 tons, according to the Washington Wine Commission.
Among those making GSM in Washington is winemaker Victor Palencia. He calls his GSM blend Casa Amarilla. The 2016 vintage was selected by The Seattle Times as its 2019 Northwest Wine of the Year. The 2019 Palencia Casa Amarilla ($36) is 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre — aged in 100% French oak — with tasting notes of chocolate, cloves, ground pepper, leather and mocha.
Palencia grew up amid the vines of the Yakima Valley and learned his craft at Walla Walla Community College. After years as a successful winemaker for others, he ventured out on his own and now has two locations: Bodega Palencia in West Richland near Red Mountain, and Monarcha Winery, in Kennewick’s waterfront Columbia Gardens.
Learning about Rhône varieties in his early winemaking days at Willow Crest Winery in Prosser inspired Palencia to master the GSM blend. First, he makes each wine as a stand-alone variety. When the blending begins, any wine that doesn’t complement the particular vintage of GSM is bottled as a separate wine. A fun thing Palencia does in the tasting room is have customers taste all three wines separately before serving the GSM blend, so they see how the different varieties meld together. He’ll also box up three or more vintages of GSM so customers can create their own vertical tasting.
All three of the components come from vineyards in the Prosser area. GSM is a wine that traditionally pairs well with dark meats and barbecue fare. When Palencia serves it with spicy Mexican food, the acidity and tannins tend to dissipate, leaving only the massive fruit. He has even successfully paired it with smoked salmon, proving the blend is plenty versatile.
GSM also ages moderately well, up to a decade, thanks to the acidity in the Grenache and the tannins in the Mourvèdre. Collecting multiple bottles of GSM — either vertical (same winery, consecutive years) or horizontal (different wineries, same year) — makes for an interesting wine tasting event as each bottle tells a story of the winemaker’s blending decisions particular to that vintage’s terroir.
A number of Northwest wineries are making great GSM. Woodward Canyon Winery uses estate grapes from the Walla Walla Valley. Those who have enjoyed Rick Small’s wines over the years won’t be surprised, as he is known for his quest to craft delicious wines. He has made GSM for several years, and each vintage shows he has mastered this style to produce a wine with balance and longevity. The Walla Walla Valley Estate Mourvèdre-Grenache-Syrah ($59) is a 50%-25%-25% blend noted to pair with Mediterranean cuisine such as grilled lamb or summer vegetables.
In Great Northwest Wine’s 2021 Platinum Awards competition, nine GSMs wowed the judges. A growing number of Pacific Northwest wineries are excelling at GSM, and they include:
• Zerba Cellars in Milton-Freewater, Ore., with a 2021 Platinum Award for its 2017 Cockburn Vineyard Estate GSM (its third Platinum for a GSM in the past six years).
• T2 Cellar of Seattle earned its first-ever Platinum Award this past winter with its 2018 GSM.
• Cinder Wines in Idaho’s Snake River Valley offers a pink twist with its outstanding 2019 GSM Rosé from the Snake River Valley.