Taste Washington: A Showcase for the State’s Wines (Along With a Caveat)

April 15th, 2014

On March 29, I had the opportunity to attend Taste Washington in Seattle.

Co-sponsored by the Washington Wine Commission and Visit Seattle, the two-day Grand Tasting event featured over 200 Washington wineries, 65 Seattle-area restaurants and 50 exhibitors. It was estimated that more than 200,000 wine pours were made from the 800-plus wines at the event.

All I can say is that these people really know how to throw a great party.

This isn’t to say that everything was picture-perfect. I’ve got a few gripes to air, so let me get these off my chest this week and then I’ll get back to the good stuff.

nullFor the first time in recent memory, I came across more than a few wines, particularly from the 2011 vintage that fell into the “perfectly average” category. If you follow me on a regular basis, you already know I’ve given you fair warning about this testy, cooler than normal vintage, which took its toll on some Washington vineyards.

My experience is that good winemakers have the ability to coax flavors and character from challenging vintage grapes. Marginal winemakers do not. Be very, very careful when purchasing your 2011 wines, especially the reds. Taste first if you can or follow the lead of critics and recommendations. If not, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment by paying for something that’s generally lackluster and underdeveloped.

Which leads me to my second complaint: high prices.

I was shocked by the number of wines at the tasting that were priced over $50, with a fair number even in the sky-high $75 to $100-a-bottle price range.

Yes, I understand that Taste Washington is an opportunity for wineries to pull out their “big guns” and try to impress people. I’m just not certain how more and more wineries, especially those with little or no winemaking pedigree, feel justified in charging, say, $70 or $80 for a bottle of wine. Have consumers simply become blasé about these prices?

That said, I’d like to commend pioneering wineries such as Kiona Vineyards, Chinook Wines, Milbrandt Vineyards, and Pontin del Roza, who offered plenty of solid choices in the $15 to $25-a-bottle price range.

I also found a number of excellent wines in this same price category from relative newcomers such as AntoLin Cellars, Airfield Estates, Treveri Cellars, Palencia Winery, Tempus Cellars, and Waitsburg Cellars.

The bottom line: Washington has an incredible array of wines and wineries to choose from. Shop wisely and by all means splurge when you can, but let’s also remember that higher-priced wines need to be held to a higher standard.

Next week: some of my favorite wines from this year’s Taste Washington.

Celebrate Malbec With Affordable Choices From Argentina

April 8th, 2014

These days there’s practically a special day for everything. World Smile Day, World Pasta Day, World Left-Handers Day … even World Malbec Day.

Did somebody say Malbec Day? Now that’s a day I’ll celebrate.

World Malbec Day was established a few years by an organization called Wines of Argentina (think Washington Wine Commission as a regional equivalent). April 17 is the day for this year’s events, which include tastings around the globe in recognition of this red wine grape that has really taken off during the last 20 to 25 years.

Malbec has shown promise in Washington State as well, but production has been nowhere near the quantity coming out of Argentina. You’ll find Washington malbec primarily as a component of a red wine blend or, if it is bottled as a single varietal, frequently costing somewhere around $25 to $30 a bottle.

That price range can be a bit steep for some people’s wine budgets, although I’d say that many Washington malbecs are well worth it.

But if you’re trying to be a bit more cost-conscious, look no further than Argentina for solid, reliable malbecs. It’s relatively easy to shop locally and find Argentinian malbecs that fit nicely within the $10 to $20 a bottle category.

nullWhatever the source, it’s good to know that malbec is an excellent wine to have on hand at the dinner table. It pairs well with most everything beef (prepared in practically any style) and also complements lamb, barbeque pork ribs, and roasted chicken.

Here are some Argentinian malbecs from the country’s critically acclaimed Mendoza region that I’ve tasted as of late for you to consider:

Árido 2011 Malbec (about $12) – This wine jumps out with black olive, pepper and dried herbs along with adequate acidity and somewhat firm tannins. Enjoy it with a juicy, medium-rare pepper-encrusted steak.

Argento 2012 Malbec (about $14) – A sip of this malbec is almost like sinking your teeth into a savory berry pie. Juicy blackberry fruits, with melt-in-your-mouth buttery, caramel and herbal accents on the finish. Fun, but sophisticated, this wine is a pleasure to taste.

Tomero Wines 2011 Malbec (about $19) – Understated boysenberry and blueberry flavors lead off, with a nice meaty texture in the mid-palate and a trailing hint of smokiness. If you like your malbecs more reserved without all the fruit-forwardness, this is the wine for you.

Argento Reserva 2011 Malbec (about $19) – Stunning violet and plum aromas are followed by perfectly balanced black currant, blackberry and black plum flavors. The nicely structured finish glides endlessly on a velvety note of bittersweet chocolate. This malbec is the complete package and one of the best I’ve tasted in quite some time.

With Wine Tasting it’s All About the Differences

April 1st, 2014

It’s time once again to eavesdrop in on a conversation between a novice Bellingham wine drinker and our Resident Wine Enthusiast.

Novice: So lately I’ve been checking out a few wine reviews and recommendations. I still don’t get how you guys come up with all those crazy adjectives. Bold, intriguing, seductive…are we talking about a soap opera story line or a wine tasting?

RWE: Well, I suppose we do get a little carried away. But if you continue to try new wines, especially with friends, where you can taste several wines side-by-side, you’ll start to come up with your own descriptors. And it really is easier to compare and contrast flavor components and styles when you have a number of different wines in front of you.

It also doesn’t hurt to try new wines with someone with a bit of tasting experience so they can point you in the right direction. Let’s just say the power of suggestion can be very helpful when you’re learning about wine.

nullNovice: But I don’t want suggestions. You wine people are always talking about hints of this and suggestions of that. Enough beating around the bush! I want answers!

RWE: As I’ve said before, the truth of the matter is that there are no definitive answers when you’re tasting wine. What you taste and what I taste can be two completely different things. The important thing is not to worry if our interpretations don’t agree. We’re only looking for a general consensus, not exactness.

Novice: This sounds like a cop-out to me. Why should I buy something you say tastes like one thing when I think it tastes like something else?

RWE: Actually, it’s those differences that make wine tasting fun. I mean, if everyone agreed about everything and we all liked the same thing, we’d all be drinking the same wine all the time. Boring!

Also remember there’s a lot more to wine than just flavors. Aromas, alcohol content, sweetness, acidity levels…these things can be much more important, especially when you’re trying to pair foods with wine.

And while we may not exactly agree on what a wine tastes like, we’re more likely to agree on whether or not it’s sweet, acidic, or even young and chalky tasting versus a smoother, rounder wine that’s had more time in the bottle. You don’t need to be an expert to taste those kinds of differences.

Novice: Well, I suppose you’re starting to make a little bit of sense. But there’s still one thing that bothers me. When are you guys ever going to write a wine review that says the wine “tastes like grapes?”

RWE: Probably when Welch’s decides to bottle a Concord grape wine.

California, Oregon Great Sources for Pinot Noir

March 25th, 2014

Finding pinot noir from Washington isn’t always easy. Finding a good pinot noir from the state can be even more difficult.

Close-to-home wineries Challenger Ridge and Mount Baker Vineyards come to mind as producers of this finicky grape, as well as a few wineries in Eastern Washington within the Lake Chelan Appellation and from Gingko Forest Winery in Mattawa.

But if you want an established domestic source for pinot noir, California and Oregon are unquestionably your best bets.

California’s Carneros, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast regions provide the perfectly cooler climate in which pinot noir flourishes; and in Oregon, the Willamette Valley has become world-renown as the quintessential producer of pinot noir in the United States.

nullOne sticking point I often have with this wine is its price. Although what you pay is purely discretionary, be forewarned that some pinots may cost you a small bundle. For most of us, this isn’t a problem as long as the wine delivers. The rule of thumb, simply stated: pay more, expect more.

Here are some suggestions of pinot noir from California and Oregon for you to consider:

Simi Winery Sonoma County 2011 Pinot Noir (about $24) – Pie cherry, raspberry and pomegranate flavors predominate, with slightly herbaceous undertones and a whisper of smokiness on the finish. Roast chicken or salmon come to find as first-rate food pairings.

Robert Mondovi Napa Valley 2012 Pinot Noir (about $26) – This is the style of pinot noir I prefer, with slightly darker berry fruits on the palate and a bit of a softer finish. Even those it’s more fruit forward, the wine’s underlying earthiness and minerality gently remind you that this is undeniably pinot noir.

J Vineyards Misterra 2012 Pinot Noir (about $50) – This Russian River Valley gem is even darker still, with a scant amount of pinotage and the red Champagne grape, pinot meunier, blended in for added complexity. Blueberry, dried black cherry and notes of roasted coffee shine through to a bright finish with nuances of toasted oak.

Hyland Estates 2010 Estate Pinot Noir (about $35) – Sourced from the McMinnville Appellation (a sub-appellation of the Willamette Valley AVA), this lovely pinot opens with floral aromas, luscious cherry and strawberry flavors and expressive acidity. The finish comes across as borderline velvety with spicy accents. Outstanding!

Hyland Estates 2011 Cloury Clone Pinot Noir (about $60) – From the same region’s more challenging 2011 vintage, this pinot offers leaner layers of cranberry, raspberry and red currant flavors with trailing notes of sweet cedar and toast. Serving suggestions include roast duck, pheasant or perhaps pork tenderloin in a sour cherry reduction sauce.

California Well Represented at Vancouver International Wine Festival

March 18th, 2014

Even though last month’s Vancouver, BC International Wine Festival had a decidedly European flavor, I found myself spending plenty of time around the California wine section.

One thing that’s always appealed to me about California is the broad range of varietals and styles this top-producing US wine area has to offer.

From its cooler coastal regions known for leaner, brighter wines to its warmer central valleys famous for big, expressive reds, California has you covered at virtually every point on the wine spectrum.

nullPersonal favorites at the Festival included the Hope Family’s 2011 Treana White Wine (about $23), a nutty, butterscotch-like 50/50 blend of marsanne and viognier; and the overachieving Truett-Hurst 2011 Colby Red (about $14), a delicious combination of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah, merlot and petit syrah.

Everything from Michael David Winery (producer of Seven Deadly Zins) was an over-the-top guilty pleasure I couldn’t ignore. The 2011 Petit Petit (about $18) was a standout, with mouthwatering blackberry and currant flavors and a vibrant, slightly edgy finish to balance out the fruit.

Back at home, I’ve also enjoyed a number of new releases from California. Here are my tasting notes:

William Hill Estate Winery North Coast Chardonnay and North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon (about $17 each) – The chardonnay is a lovely choice, with luscious Bartlett pear flavors to lead off and brighter citrus notes near the finish with accents of vanilla and toffee. In between, there’s a pleasant layer of meaty chestnut that lends a bit of texture to the mid-palate.

The cabernet could use a bit more cellaring time, but aeration opens up the wine’s dark fruits of berry and plum for current enjoyment. There’s also a dusting of cocoa powder and a whisper of mocha on the finish.

Simi Winery 2012 Chardonnay (about $18) – This is a lighter style chardonnay with touches of apple, pear and white peach. Oaky undertones linger on the finish as a complement to the fruit without overpowering it. The wine should pair beautifully with roasted chicken and root vegetables.

Seghesio Family Vineyards 2012 Sonoma Zinfandel (about $24) and 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel (about $38) – One can’t talk about California zinfandel without mentioning this pioneering winery. Both wines offer understated, food-friendly interpretations of the grape that are a nice break from heavier-handed alternatives.

The Sonoma Zinfandel offers bright red fruits of raspberry and boysenberry, with a dash of dried herbs, pepper and sage; while the Old Vine displays aromas and flavors of slightly darker berries, layers of red currant and caramel, and a lengthy finish with hints of anise and spice. Try either with a pork roast or veal entrée.

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