Washington v. The Rest of the World
I've blogged about the excellent wines being made in Washington a few times now, so it was refreshing to attend a tasting that approached the region in a different way. The tasting was located at Sunset Magazine's new headquarters in Oakland, led by a panel of leading Washington winemakers, Bob Betz of Betz Family Wines, David Rosenthal of Chateau Sainte Michelle, and Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars. They spoke passionately and enthusiastically about Washington's wines, and the geographical, topographical, and climatic characteristics of the state which make it different from other regions.
What made this tasting particularly enlightening was the way it was structured, with three flights of wines each featuring one of Washington's major grape varieties. In each flight, the first of the four wines was a named wine from Washington acting as a template for the other wines. The other three were tasted blind, examples of the same grape variety to act as a comparison without prejudice. This was a great way of focusing on the characteristics of Washington wine, learning about other regions, while really making us think about why each wine tastes like it does.
The best wines from Riesling are made with little interference in the winery, and it's all about the variety and the vineyard or region the grapes come from. I'm still not as excited about Washington's Riesling as some local winemakers are, so it was interesting to taste a couple of wines in comparison to Australia and Germany. The template was Eroica ($22; ✪✪✪✪), a collaboration made since 1999 between Chateau Sainte Michelle, by far the state's largest producer, and Ernst Loosen, one of the iconic winemakers of Germany. It's a pleasant, good-value, medium-dry wine with citrus and stone fruit aromas, but one that seems aimed more at local rather than international tastes.
The three wines tasted blind alongside it were around the same price. The wine from Australia, Yalumba's Pewsey Vale ($20; ✪✪✪✪), is a classic representation of Eden Valley, one often used in educational tastings to demonstrate the intense lime and dry mineral characteristics of Australia's world-class Riesling. The German Riesling was from Mosel, a Kabinett whose sweetness and weight made it feel more like a Spätlese: there's a combination of elegance and richness to the best German wines that no other Riesling-producing region can match. Drink Christoffel's Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett ($27; ✪✪✪✪✪) with spicy food, and have a tongue-twisting competition saying the name.
The other Riesling was an outlier: again from Washington, made by the dramatically named EFESTĒ ($20; ✪✪✪✪✪) and again from Evergreen Vineyard in Ancient Lakes AVA where the Eroica mainly comes from. It was off-dry with an intense texture, which made most people in the room mistake it for Alsace. The wine made me reassess Washington Riesling - that it can compete with, and be mistaken for, Rieslings from around the world, and at a very good price.
Greg Harrington, an MS turned winemaker, described Syrah as a wine for Pinot Noir lovers with sophisticated palates. This brought out a chuckle, but he was making a serious point. He continued that there are Syrah producers who make the wines to be like Cabernet Sauvignon, and there are others who make it like Pinot Noir. He firmly places himself in the latter category - not least because the northern Rhône, geographically and in terms of climate, is so close to Burgundy.
One of the wines we tasted underlined his point, albeit in a roundabout way. Wind Gap are an eclectic producer from California; their Nellessen Vineyard Syrah ($42; ✪✪✪✪), which we tasted blind, was from a cooler area of Sonoma. Fermented in whole clusters it smelt very carbonic, that's to say bubblegum and strawberries. If I hadn't known it was Syrah, I would have guessed the wine to have been from Beaujolais, a region which has the same granite soils as the northern Rhône and a similar climate - and I've read old nineteenth-century textbooks that group Beaujolais and the northern Rhône together. It may be that we should be thinking about the connections between Syrah and Gamay, or the northern Rhône and Beaujolais, much more - even if it takes US producers to point out those connections.
The template wine was called Lagniappe and made by Gramercy ($55; ✪✪✪✪) from Red Willow, one of Washington's first and still leading vineyards. Another of the blind wines, The Psycheledic by Sleight of Hand ($60; ✪✪✪✪), was also from Washington, from the recently-established AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freeman, one of the many Washington regions which excels in Syrah. The two wines highlighted the differences that come from a winemaker's philosophy as well as Washington's terroir: Gramercy's wine was noticeably restrained in comparison to the smoky, meaty qualities of the other wine.
The final wine was the 2014 Côte-Rôtie by Saint-Cosme ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪), a tannic, dry, subdued wine which reminded me of just how French French wine is, showing how expressively Syrah reflects where it comes from.
I often find it hard to write anything interesting about Cabernet Sauvignon, but this was a refreshing line-up. The template was the 2013 Père de Famille from Betz Family Estate ($75; ✪✪✪✪✪), which showed just how well Cabernet works in Washington. The wine has the tannic structure expected of Cabernet, with the ripe black fruits that come in a fairly warm New World climate - a combination which summarises Washington red wine. Another of the blind wines was again from Washington (that was the one predictable aspect of the tasting). The 2014 Cabernet from Abeja, an established producer, tasted like it was from Coonawarra in Australia, minty and herbal ($52; ✪✪✪✪). Napa was featured as a comparison too, the 2012 from Forman was dusty and massively tannic ($115; ✪✪✪✪) - Washington wines are much more approachable when young. Finally, there was a wine from Margaux. It's not often I get to taste expensive Bordeaux, and I certainly wasn't expecting to do so at a Washington tasting. The best Bordeaux needs to be tasted with some age, and the 2009 from Château Rauzan-Ségla ($155; ✪✪✪✪✪✪) was evolving wonderfully, with mature leather aromas, but with fresh acidity and black fruits.
Can the best of Washington age as well as the best of Bordeaux and other established regions? Maybe that could be the subject for another tasting.