Barnard Griffin: Consistently Good Washington Wines

September 9th, 2014

In 15 years of writing about wines I don’t believe I’ve dedicated an entire column to Barnard Griffin Winery, one of Washington State’s oldest wineries.

nullI not quite sure what I’ve been thinking, because it’s fair to say that if there was such a thing as royalty among Washington winemakers, Rob Griffin would be on the short list for coronation. Together with his wife, Deborah Barnard, he’s been producing consistently good wine since the winery was established in Richland in 1983.

To get an idea of how consistently good Barnard Griffin wines have been, consider their Rosé of Sangiovese. This wine has earned gold medal honors or better from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition for an amazing eight consecutive years.

Griffin also produces a number of solid red wines, with current releases including merlot, pinot noir, syrah, and a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend. Bottled under the “signature series” designation, these wines are incredibly well priced at under $20 each.

But today’s focus is on two white wines from the 2013 vintage that I recently tried and felt deserved special notice. As an added bonus, they’re currently available at prices that almost seem too good to be true.

First up is the 2013 Fumé Blanc (about $12). This blend of 76-percent sauvignon blanc and 24-percent semillon drinks like a world-class white Bordeaux with an unmistakable Washington pedigree.

There’s a lovely layered flavor profile to this wine, with an herbal note to lead off and then a suggestion of luscious tropical fruits with melon-like flavors on the second tier. The finish hints at ripe peach, with plenty of steely acidity to complete the package. This is a completely over-the-top white wine that practically demands a case purchase.

nullAlso worth considering is the 2013 Chardonnay (about $14), sourced from six different Washington vineyards including Crawford, Gunkel and Conner Lee.

Despite the warm vintage, this chardonnay leans a bit towards the lighter side with pleasant citrus and green pear flavors. Surprisingly bright and vibrant, a gentle touch of French oak beautifully softens the edges near the finish.

One final note: the Fumé Blanc was bottled with the iconic red and yellow tulip label with which well-seasoned Washington wine drinkers have long been familiar. But the Chardonnay comes with a brand new label that only features an enlarged griffin with dark copper and gold accents. It’s regal, tastefully done and exactly what you’d expect from Barnard Griffin.

Barnard Griffin wines are well distributed throughout Washington in wine shops and grocers and can also be enjoyed at the Richland facility that now includes a tasting room, wine bar, restaurant and studio/gallery. For more information: barnardgriffin.com

Swiftwater’s Three Labels Display Impeccably Balanced Wines

September 2nd, 2014

Swiftwater Cellars, located off Interstate 90 near the towns of Roslyn and Cle Elum may well be the state’s quintessential destination winery.

With first-class accommodations, recreational activities, restaurants, and, oh yes, an excellent winery, this is a location worth searching out for a relaxing getaway.

The winery features three labels: the entry level No. 9 (in reference to the nearby long abandoned Roslyn No. 9 mine), Zephyr Ridge, and the top-of-the-line Swiftwater Cellars.

Today I’ll conclude my two-part series by focusing on some of the “best of the best” wines I sampled with winemaker Linda Trotta during a recent visit.

Trotta’s philosophy about winemaking: “I like acidity and like tannins, but I don’t want them to insult you. I think of (my wines) as an ‘Evita’ style: powerful but with finesse.”

nullWith a relatively small production of about 4,500 cases annually, her deft touch and focus on producing flawlessly balanced wines is evident in everything I tasted.

If you press me to choose an all-around favorite I’d have to lean towards the No. 9 2013 Riesling (about $18). This wine rocked my world with explosive, mouth-watering cantaloupe and green melon flavors up front and a sassy splash of orange zest. The .9-percent residual sugar content is nicely steadied by bracing, steely acidity. This riesling-lover’s dream is perfect for sipping or pairing with spicy Asian cuisine.

Three distinctly different chardonnays are also currently available, which gives them broad-ranging wineophile appeal.

An unoaked No. 9 2012 Chardonnay (about $20) opens with gorgeous stone fruit aromas, gentle citrus flavors and a kiss of ruby red grapefruit; the Zephyr Ridge 2012 Chardonnay (about $22) offers sublime baked apple flavors with a round, slightly creamy finish and a perfectly measured touch of toasted oak; and the Swiftwater 2011 Chardonnay (about $28) drinks like a fine French Chablis, with a fragrant hint of ash on the nose, bright apple and green pear on the mid-palate and a slightly buttery trailing note.

In addition to two pinot noirs there are a bevy of reds to choose from. I enjoyed the No. 9 2010 Red (about $28), a blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and malbec with spicy black plum flavors and great acidity. It begs for a pairing with medium-rare steak or roast duck.

The Zephyr Ridge 2011 Merlot (about $35) is another winner and its dusty, earthy cherry flavor profile reminded me of something from Zillah’s Two Mountain Winery.

There are also two Swiftwater Proprietary Reds (a 2009 and 2010 vintage, at $50 each and both superb); and the crown jewel, the Swiftwater 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (about $85). The red cherry fruit, acidity, tannins and oak are impeccably balanced, easily meeting the high expectations for a wine at this price point.
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Can’t visit Swiftwater Cellars firsthand? You’ll find their wines locally at Seifert and Jones Wine Merchants in Bellingham.

Lost River Winery Continues to Improve With These Excellent Current Releases

July 29th, 2014

The old adage, “a good bottle of wine gets better with age,” can also apply to a number of time-honored Washington wineries.

If you’ve followed my column on a regular basis you already know that Lost River Winery, established in 2002, easily falls into this category.

Husband-and-wife John Morgan and Barbara House, along with Barb’s son Liam Doyle comprise a team that produces, promotes, and distributes a number of wines that just seem to get better every year.

nullThe winery’s initial tasting room and production facility located in Winthrop makes a welcome stopping point for those heading east on the North Cascades Highway. For a closer-to-home option for Whatcom County residents, a second tasting room in Seattle also makes a great diversion if you’re in the downtown area near the Pike Place Market.

And for those who just don’t have the time to make a firsthand visit, Lost River Winery wines are well distributed in local grocers and wine shops…and at very reasonable prices, I might add.

Here are some current releases I’ve tried as of late that were an absolute pleasure to taste.

2013 Pinot Gris (about $15) – This particular vintage seemed a bit more herbaceous than those of the past, with pleasant notes of lemongrass to accompany the bright, green apple and citrus flavors. The brisk, clean finish allows it to pair perfectly with oysters on the half-shell.

2013 Rosé (about $15) – This blend of cabernet franc, merlot and syrah is pretty heady stuff and serving it too cold would be like putting it under the cloak of invisibility. Pop this in the refrigerator for no more than an hour and you’ll find the flavor complexities of pie cherry, red currant, Red Delicious apple and crabapple really shine through.

Non-Vintage Nooksack Redd (about $20) – Instantly enjoyable dark berry and cherry flavors come to the forefront, while raspberry fruit, a dusting of chalky tannins and some nice earthy finishing notes wrap up the package. This is a very nice red wine blend that over-delivers at this price.

2011 Merlot (about $24) – Dark plum and black currant flavors lead off, with a good splash of acidity and touches of bittersweet chocolate and espresso on the extreme finish. I’ve tasted my share of merlots from this vintage and this is one of the finest to date. Excellent!

2010 Syrah (about $25) – Gentle aromatics of rose petals fill the glass, while leaner red fruits of pomegranate and red plum initially hit the palate. The finish is underscored with a darker layer of black currant, Ligurian cherry and smoky blackberry. It’s bright to start, sultry to finish and overall, a gorgeous syrah.

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.

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