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Monday, April 26, 2010

Washington State

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On the world wine stage, Washington's a relative newcomer. Not long after settlers started moving to the Pacific Northwest in great numbers in the late 1880's...along came Prohibition to throw a big ol' monkey wrench into the works. Once the Dark Ages were over, Washington started cranking out some wines —but most of them were of the sweet, jug variety. "Actual" wine production really got moving in the 60's and 70's, and some of the more recognizable labels (Columbia Winery, Chateau St. Michele) started showing up.

Washington wines were largely a curiosity nationwide until the merlot boom of the 1990's. Washington's soil and cooler climate were perfect, it turned out, for cranking out large quantities of relatively inexpensive, approachable merlot. This gave the state a real foothold in the American market and it's been solid ever since.

My image of the Pacific Northwest didn’t exactly match up with "perfect grape growing environment." When I think of Washington, I think of snow-capped mountains, gorgeous rivers, Pearl Jam, and lots of rain. Grapes like to grow in dry soil —and dry is not the first thing most people think of regarding Washington climate. What kind of amphibious grapes are they growing out there?

The answer lies, as it usually does, in geography.All but one of the viticultural (WineSpeak for "wine grape growing") regions lie to the east of the Cascade Mountains. While western Washington is very wet, the Cascades form enough of a tall, solid wall that the clouds end up dropping all their moisture on the west side of the mountains, leaving the eastern side extremely arid, but with irrigation water available. Couple this with sandy, volcanic soil, and you've got a dreamy place for a vinifera grape vine to drop roots.

You'll see a lot of similar varietals from both California and Washington. If you try them side-by-side, though, you'll probably notice a pretty sharp difference. Especially among the reds, Washington wines tend to be "softer" wines. Cooler climates allow grapes to ripen more slowly. The fruit and tannin tend to be more subtle. I've rarely run into a fruit bomby merlot from Washington, especially among inexpensive ones —whereas if you try a merlot from California at the same price point, you'll get a big, fat dark berry in the face.

A nice example I found lately was the Dusted Valley 2006 "Boomtown" Merlot. At first sip, I noted how much lighter this wine tasted. It also started off almost tart, so I decanted it, and the flavors balanced pretty well.  The tartness eases a bit as some air gets to it. The nose is raspberryish and tasty. The flavor isn't overly fruity, sliding more towards an easy smokiness. By itself, I thought it was OK —but we put next to a somewhat complicated-spice meal and it performed beautifully. On the menu: roasted pork chops in a Moroccan (read: nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon-heavy) spice blend, sautéed pears in a sauce of apricots, onions, honey, and more of that spice blend. The spices, being largely bases, cut the tartness in the wine —allowing more of the cherry and berry fruit character to show through —and it smoothed out the spices as well. This one was around $15 for a spice-friendly, light meat answering wine.

Washington also produces a fair number of other Bordeaux-type grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is fairly common, and Bordeaux blends of Cabernet and Merlot are easy to find. I popped open a Washington blend and found some interesting iterations. The Kiona 2003 Cabernet/Merlot was a fascinating blend, especially for $9. The wine had an interesting "French funk" on the nose that I would not have expected. The body had some muted fruit and earthiness that could easily have passed for a young Bordeaux. The finish was slightly fruity, and definitely a major value if you're into some more Francophilic selections. This one also demonstrates the aging potential of some of the wines from there —since it's held up flawlessly for six years in a low price point.

There are a number of good pinot noirs from there, as well, although they can sometimes be a little hard to track down. (Oregon is usually the better bet for pinot.)

Among whites, Washington is known widely for some very good Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. They're made in a wide variety of styles, and I've tried a couple of examples lately. The other day, I had the Chateau St. Michele Cold Creek Vineyard 2006 Riesling —CSM is one of the best-known Washington wineries and, along with Hogue, always produces a bottle that I know I can count on. I've thought their regular Riesling is always a little too sweet and slightly sharp, but this "single vineyard" version still comes in at around $13 and is a significant improvement. It's got a slightly "oily" nose with plenty of apple and melon scents. The body is very smooth. It's nicely balanced —it reminds me a lot of a German Kabinett. The fruit holds firm and doesn't get lost in some of the sharpness that some Rieslings have on the end. The finish is soft and pleasant. It was an absolutely exceptional pairing with a potato, leek, and fennel soup topped with smoked salmon.

I also cracked the Barnard Griffin 2008 Columbia Valley Riesling. Quite a contrast. It's very light for a Riesling —almost Chardonnayish in feel-- with a flint and lemon nose. The flavor was very crisp and minerally. Some tasty green apples at first, but it mellows a little to a creamy lemon. The citrusy finish is a little tingly, almost like there's a little spice or carbonation. Good acidity. There are few Rieslings I'd consider "refreshing," but this one fills that bill. It also matched up well with a chicken & chickpea curry.

Washington wines, for me, have always been good, reliable choices. Many of my "go to" inexpensive bottles have been from there —and as I'm trying more wines from there, I'm realizing just how much depth this region has. The winemakers up there do experiment quite a bit, so I'm looking forward to seeing what the next "big thing" from there will be. 

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