Monday, August 18, 2014

Four Types of Washington Wine you Have to Experience

By Liza B. Zimmerman


Washington State is home to a huge number of microclimates and may be best known for its off-dry Rieslings and red blends. However I just returned from the three-day auction of Washington Wines and a visit to Walla Walla in Eastern Washington and had a chance to retaste old favorites and discover new ones.

Some of the state’s cooler-climate regions are making some stellar sparkling wines. The Grand Dame and the state’s largest producer Chateau Ste. Michelle has long made great, and well-priced, bubblies from both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Treveri is the state’s only just-sparkling wine house and is making some stunning rosés and a yeasty and food-friendly Müller-Thurgau (thanks to the family’s German heritage).

Other esoteric, and often Germanic varietals, are popping up across the state. I had a Grüner Veltliner from W.T. Vintners, and was told that some growers are even producing Bläufrankisch.

Terroir-focused varietal wines are also cropping up. Hedges made a special auction Magnum of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon from Red Mountain that has the funk and dust of a Syrah. This flavor profile, according to family member Christophe Hedges, shows how the some of the growing areas of Eastern Washington have terroir that trumps varietals. It also may show how many producers in Washington are still figuring out what grows best in many areas of the state.

Rhône red blends from Washington have also been astounding. Avennia’s 2011 “Justine” Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend was smoky, rich intense and superb with meat.  Other red Rhônes to try include DeLille Cellars 2008 Chaleur Estate Rouge. It is a pity so few of these wines are available outside the state boundaries.

Other Wildcards and Trends for Which to Watch
A handful of vintners are even growing Pinot Noir to pair with the local salmon in hopes to complete with Oregon Pinot Noir. A handful of producers are also making some great White Bordeaux-style wines that are a blend of Chardonnay and Sémillon. Many of these run dry and food friendly.

One of the biggest challenges most of the hotter regions in Washington is facing is growing alcohol levels. I tasted a Zinfandel that hit 17 percent alcohol-by-volume and its producer was proud that it smelled like a Port. 

Part of this is natural given the hot, arid growing conditions in much of the state but much of it seems like a growing trend to “Napaize,” the Washington State production. I had a handful of roses that had alcohol levels topping 14 to 15 percent and tasted like dessert wines. Wine writer Paul Gregutt, who also produces the decidedly low-alcohol Waitsburg Cellars brand, says that alcohol levels are chosen by winemakers and not dictated by climate.

Another unfortunate occurrence seems to be the increased residual sugar levels in many of the state’s off-dry wines, particularly its stunning Rieslings. While it is completely true that sweeter wines are going to pair better with spicy food and have a wider appeal, I see no need to amp up the sugar quite this much.

The one hundred-percent varietal Syrahs that I have long thought of as the calling card of this state were less interesting to me this visit than in the past. They seem to have lost some of their fetid animal notes—which make them pair so well with meat—and also many have skyrocketed in alcohol levels.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.

Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.

She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.

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