Whether Judging or Casual Tasting, Don’t Be Afraid to Share Your Opinions

July 22nd, 2014

I had the privilege of serving as one of 28 judges in the 19th Annual Northwest Wine Summit earlier this year. The first half of the event was held in Naramata, British Columbia and I participated in the second half in Hood River, Oregon.

Sometimes it seems as if nearly every wine entered in a competition wins a medal. That was hardly the case at this year’s Summit, where only 89 of the 942 wines entered received a gold medal. In addition, 254 wines earned a silver medal and 258 a bronze.

nullBrian Carter Cellars’ 2009 Solesce, a proprietary Meritage-style blend was selected Best of Competition and Best Red Wine, while Kiona Vineyards and Winery 2013 Chenin Blanc was named Best White Wine.

Two British Columbia wineries, Gheringer Brothers Estate Winery and La Frenz Winery, along with Washington’s Maryhill Winery garnered Wineries of Distinction honors based on the number of gold medals received. La Frenz took home eight golds, Maryhill earned five, and Gheringer received four.

Another Washington winery, Thurston Wolfe, earned both the Best of Washington award and Best Fortified Wine for its Non-Vintage Tawny Port.

If you think judging wines is a “fun” and glamorous task, think again. There’s an element of fatigue to deal with, and after tasting dozens of wines in a day, the last thing you want to look at is another five-glass flight of merlot.

nullIn addition, the process of swirling, tasting, spitting and evaluating is serious business. Comments are exchanged, a final score is arrived at, and, thanks to a great group of fellow judges, nothing close to fisticuffs broke out at any time.

Judges consisted primarily of winemakers, distributors, and writers and critics, like me. I considered myself to be a representative for the average wine consumer. This sometimes left me feeling a little intimidated, especially if two winemakers were at the table pontificating in technical jargon.

I mentioned this to a winemaker after the competition and much to my surprise, he said that he felt intimidated by me. His reasoning was that his laser-sharp focus is primarily on the wines he produces, while I have a broader range of wine tasting experiences to draw upon.

Volume of wines aside, his comments called to mind some of my own wine tasting philosophies that I lost track of during the competition. First, there are no right or wrong “answers” when tasting wine, only consensus; and second, never be afraid to share with others what you taste.

That’s sound advice for so-called experts, casual wine drinkers and novices alike and it’s something to keep in mind whether you’re involved in a serious tasting or simply enjoying wines in an informal setting at home.

Washington Winemakers “Rediscovering” Chenin Blanc

July 15th, 2014

This week I’ll wrap up my two-part series on chenin blanc, a white wine varietal that’s a personal favorite and one that’s seen a bit of a resurgence as of late among Washington winemakers.

Originating in the Loire Valley of France, chenin blanc was quite popular several decades ago, but later it suffered a perception problem as a cheaper, sweeter alternative to chardonnay.

My slant on this: First, a wine that costs less doesn’t always mean it’s inferior. In fact, “affordable” might be a better descriptor. Second, if a wine can be enjoyed in a sweeter style then it can be made in a drier style as well, and that indicates versatility.

nullThe bottom line is that chenin blanc got a bad rap. It deserved better and it’s nice to see that winemakers and wine consumers are rediscovering it today.

Chenin blanc is oftentimes aromatic, flavorful, and brimming with acidity, which makes it a good match for pairing with green and pasta salads, poultry, and seafood such as crab, halibut or scallops. In addition, it’s a terrific sipping wine; especially during the warm summer months when served well-chilled.

A few chenin blancs from Washington for you to consider:

Pontin del Roza 2012 Chenin Blanc (about $14) – When you talk about Washington chenin blanc you’ve got to include Scott Pontin in the conversation. His winery recently celebrated its 30th anniversary and he’s been producing the varietal since day-one as a solid, reasonably priced choice. This vintage leans towards the tropical side and also displays juicy peach and pear flavors and a slightly sweet finish.

Waitsburg Cellars 2012 Cheninières and 2012 Chevray (about $17 each) – If you’ve yet to hear about Waitsburg Cellars, trust me, you soon will. This partnership between wine critic Paul Gregutt (pictured above – from The Waitsburg Times) and Precept Wines is stirring things up in the town of Waitsburg, located about 20 miles northeast of Walla Walla.

These wines impressed me with their understated fruit flavors, clean finish and overall European-style profile, which is exactly what Gregutt set out to do. A major difference between the two: the Chevray is made in an off-dry style, reminiscent of a Loire Valley Vouvray, and higher in alcohol.

Both wines were sourced from the Snipes Mountain Appellation, and although I’m not totally enamored with the wine’s names, everything else about them is a grand slam.

Dakota Creek Winery 2013 Chenin Blanc (about $20) – On the opposite side of the spectrum, local winemakers Ken and Jill Peck pull out all the stops with this full-bodied chenin. Packed with Golden Delicious apple and stone fruit aromas and flavors, the residual sugar content is nicely balanced with brisk acidity. Big, round, and fruit-forward, it’s a pleasure to taste.

Chenin Blanc Shows Signs of a Comeback in Washington

July 8th, 2014

Chenin blanc is one of those white wines I can’t get enough of – especially during the summertime.

This food-friendly, easy-to-drink wine was extremely popular in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and was a mainstay among Washington’s inaugural wineries such as Quarry Lake, Preston Premium Wines and Tucker Cellars.

But its popularity waned shortly thereafter, and the decline in chenin blanc can almost certainly be linked to the upsurge of chardonnay, which muscled its way into the vineyards and wine glasses of consumers three decades ago and has since cemented its status as one of the state’s most prevalent grapes.

To give you an idea of the disparity between chardonnay and chenin blanc consider this: according to the United States Department of Agriculture Statistics Service, in 2013 Washington wine grape production of chardonnay grapes was 40,500 tons. For chenin blanc, the figure was a mere 1,300 tons. (Riesling, by the way, weighed in a close second for white wine varietals at 40,200 tons.)

nullEven though today’s chenin blanc is just a fraction of the state’s total production, its star appears to be on the rise, with the 2013 totals over 40-percent higher than the year before. That’s the biggest jump among any of Washington’s top ten red or white wine grape varietals.

So despite its small numbers, Washington chenin blanc is still out there, to be sure. Just recognize that in order to find it you’ll probably have to do a little extra searching through the shelves of the white wine section at your local grocer and wine merchant or when ordering online.

Your reward: a tasty, fruity white wine that is generally high in acidity and can be made in a range of styles from ultra-sweet to bone-dry. It also pairs beautifully with a wide variety of light salads, fresh seafood, and creamy cheeses. In other words, it’s a perfect wine for dining al fresco, picnicking, and warm weather sipping.

Here are a couple of Washington chenin blancs to start you off and I’ll follow these up with several more recommendations next week.

Proof that chenin blanc is on the rebound: the Kiona Vineyards and Winery 2013 Chenin Blanc (about $15) took “Best White Wine” honors at this year’s Northwest Wine Summit in Hood River, Oregon. I’ve yet to try this particular wine, but it’s made in a barely sweet, off-dry style that many prefer.

Kiona also currently produces a 2012 Chenin Blanc Ice Wine (about $25 for 375 milliliters) with a flavor profile that consistently explodes with tropical fruits and a seemingly endless, honey-like finish. Sourced from estate vineyards on Red Mountain, this particular vintage features a mind-numbing 17.2-percent residual sugar content.

Red Mountain Home to Vineyards for Corvus and Hightower Cellars

July 1st, 2014

Today’s focus is on two excellent wineries with vineyards in Washington’s Red Mountain Appellation, which is located just west of the Tri-Cities area.

Corvus Cellars was established in 2004 and although the winery tasting room and production facility have since moved to the Walla Walla, they still maintain their estate vineyards on Red Mountain.

Two of their current releases that I recently tried and thoroughly enjoyed included the 2010 Loceaux and the 2010 Syrah – Petit Sirah (about $28 each).

nullThe Loceaux (pronounced “loco”) is a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. This is a perfectly balanced red wine, with spicy aromatics, and big blackberry and black cherry fruits that display a bit of an acidic edge. There’s also a nice meaty texture to this wine, with just the right amount of tannic structure and a lingering finish of toasted oak.

I also loved the Syrah – Petit Sirah combination; particularly the smoky characteristics of the latter varietal that waft around the glass and carry through to the palate. Intense, dark notes of black currant, anise and chocolate predominate, with accents of black pepper and baking spice on the finish.

Hightower Cellars is a Red Mountain favorite of mine that gets a perennial visit due in large part to husband and wife owner/winemakers Tim and Kelly Hightower, who make touring and tasting wines in this area an absolute pleasure.

nullThe Hightowers had the foresight to purchase 15 acres of real estate in this now world-famous Washington appellation in 2002. I’ve followed the growth of their 10 acres of estate vineyards since they were planted in 2004 and it’s safe to say that these have now matured into some of the region’s finest.

Two Hightower wines I enjoyed as of late absolutely blew me away, especially the 2010 Murray Red (about $20). Despite the Columbia Valley label designation, all of the fruit for this wine was sourced from Red Mountain vineyards.

The 2010 Murray is a delicious Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot, and cabernet franc. There’s a pleasant, wet stone, mineral-like aroma – indicative of Red Mountain terroir – that leads off and follows through to the finish. In between, this overachieving red wine offers generous, mouth-watering boysenberry and blueberry flavors that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Also a pleasure to taste is the 2010 Merlot (about $25). Subtle black cherry, plum and currant flavors are complemented with a fifteen-percent contribution of malbec, which gives it a gentle but distinct brambly, blackberry finish. Here, the Hightowers show how attention-to-detail winemaking can result in an excellent wine despite a challenging, cooler vintage.

For additional wines and winery information: corvuscellars.com or hightowercellars.com.

Chateau Rollat, Otis Kenyon Give You Reason to Visit Walla Walla

June 24th, 2014

Looking for some good wines from the Walla Walla area? I’ve got a couple of wineries for you to check out that place special emphasis on red wines that are truly superb.

Better yet, for you wine region purists: three of the four recommendations for today are sourced completely from vineyards located within the Walla Walla Valley Appellation.

Chateau Rollat Winery has a few wines in current release that are drinking well now and should continue to age beautifully.

The 2009 Sophie de Rollat (about $25) is a Columbia Valley-based red blend that opens with a nose of blackberry and pie cherries and more red cherry on the palate coupled with ripe raspberry and strawberry fruits.

The finish displays a touch of toasted oak, mocha and baking spice. This is a soft, easy-to-drink wine that you can enjoy now or within the next one to three years.

Sourced from Walla Walla Valley grapes, the 2008 Rollat Cabernet Sauvignon (about $38) has reserved black cherry and black currant flavors with an underlying layer that hints at cinnamon, dark chocolate and anise.

nullThere’s a good bit of chalky tannins on the finish that refused to let go even after an hour or two of aerating, suggesting this wine could continue to benefit from additional cellaring time.

Otis Kenyon Wine is one of my favorite Walla Walla wineries. Steve Kenyon, grandson of the label namesake, made a great first impression when he drove from the Seattle area to my home to conduct a tasting several years ago. His daughter, Muriel, is frequently at the Walla Walla tasting room and never without a smile and great customer service.

Then add in Otis Kenyon’s accomplished winemaker, David Stephenson, and you’ve got all the makings for a first-class winery.

Stephenson’s 2009 Matchless (about $20) is a nicely priced blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot from three Walla Walla vineyards including Seven Hills. Big aromatics of spice and sweet cedar lead the way to dark berry and black plum flavors, with a whisper of coffee bean and bittersweet chocolate on a slightly grippy finish.

Another Otis Kenyon, Walla Walla-based red that should be on your must-try list is the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (about $35). There’s a pleasant woodsy aroma with sweet violet undertones for starters, followed by generous plum and cherry fruit-flavors. The trailing layer of red and black currant carries a bit of an acidic edge that complements the soft tannins. On the finish, spicy accents of cinnamon and clove complete the package on a wine that hits all the right notes.

Both wineries have tasting rooms that are conveniently located in downtown Walla Walla. More information: rollat.com and otiskenyonwine.com.

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