WINE GUY: Northwest wines well worth attention
While most press and consumer attention is devoted to California wines, there are a great many great wines from Oregon and Washington we all should be seeking out. This article is but a brief introduction to a few of those.
Wine grapes have been grown in Oregon since the mid-1800’s but it really wasn’t until the 1960’s when the seeds, so to speak, were sown for the development of the modern Oregon wine industry. There were little more than a dozen wineries at the time trying to find their way in the wine world. Now there are over 400 and the state has become synonymous with world class Pinot Noir, which is by far the most common wine. Still, the industry is characterized by mostly smaller, family owned operations, certainly in comparison to California and even to some extent Washington. The largest winery in the state makes a little over 250,000 cases, with just about two million produced in the whole state.
Ponzi Vineyards, referring to founders Dick and Nancy Ponzi and now second generation winemaker Louisa Ponzi, was one of the pioneers of modern day winemaking in Oregon when their estate was planted in 1969. Beyond the estate vineyard, the family now owns several vineyards in the nearby Chehalem Mountains and continues its position as a leader in Oregon wine.
Ponzi’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir has long been a reliable example of Oregon Pinot. The 2009 ($35) reflects good balance and length with juicy red fruits and hints of cola, spice and a touch of earth. The entry-level 2010 Tavola ($25), made from younger Ponzi vines and fruit from nearby growers, is a bit lighter but a very good value with its characteristic pinot aromas and flavors, silky palate, and lively acidity.
But Ponzi really showcases what its vineyards can do with its limited production, single vineyard bottlings. The 2010 Aurora Vineyard Pinot Noir benefits from its source’s location atop the Chehalem Mountains, 20-year-old vines, and southeastern exposure. Its ripe cherry and cranberry aromas and flavors are given intrigue with baking spices and the well-delineated frame is balanced with polished tannins. The 2010 Avellana Vineyard’s hillside orientation, younger vines and northwestern exposure yield a fresh and vibrant wine. This is juicy with tart red fruits, a slight herbal note and tea leaf flavors, invigorating acidity and supple tannins. I have to admit I was shocked when I saw these wines price – $100 – but there is no doubting these are excellent Oregon Pinot Noirs.
Dick Erath was another Oregon wine pioneer, having founded Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills in 1968. Today, winemaker Gary Horner produces over a dozen Pinot Noirs for Erath in a variety of price ranges. At a recent tasting of several of Gary’s wines I was especially impressed with the 2009 Prince Hill Vineyard ($45). He told us this vineyard is notable for its temperate climate and multiple slopes and exposures. The wine’s juicy red fruits, earth and spice notes and velvety texture were especially appealing. The 2009 Prince Hill 777 Clone ($50) also was quite nice and actually fuller bodied and firmer but also with succulent fruit. The other wine that really got me was the 2009 Leland Vineyard ($50). This vineyard has a south facing slope and cooler climate than Prince Hill. The wine was more elegant with deep, pure fruit and an enticingly silky texture.
In 1993, Bill and Cathy Stoller (who already were involved in Oregon wine as co-owners of Chehalem) purchased the Stoller family turkey farm and, realizing the potential of the rocky, low yielding soils, converted the property to a vineyard – Stoller Family Estate. The 2009 SV Estate Pinot Noir ($45) opens with enticing cinnamon spice and black cherry. It impacts the palate rather firmly but flows smoothly over the tongue. Although winemaker Melissa Burr crafts several more expensive special selections, this estate wine from “Senior Vines” is the wine that best reflects this unique property.
One of the things that really surprised me in my recent tasting was the high quality of the Oregon Chardonnays that also were included. Although Oregon deservedly has gained attention for Pinot Gris in recent years, this experience has convinced me to give more respect to Oregon’s Chardonnays.
Ponzi’s 2010 Aurora Chardonnay ($60) has a lovely floral nose with citrus, pear, spice and what strikes me as a leesy note. There is similar fruit in the mouth, along with a rich texture yet vibrant acidity. The 2010 Avellana Chardonnay ($60) is tight, focused and appealing, with the pear and citrus flavors rounded by a touch of spicy oak, lingering sweet lemon and apple, and a refreshing juicy finish.
I was really blown away by the 2009 Stoller SV Estate Chardonnay ($28) especially at the price. Scents of pear, apple, and vanilla, with a light baked bread note lead into a vibrant but rich, creamy textured wine. It is bursting with flavor and character. The 2010 Reserve Chardonnay ($28) also is quite nice, with a lush mouthfeel and lively acidity balancing tropical fruit and a hint of spice.
Washington, Oregon's neighbor to the north has an even longer recorded history with wine grapes dating to 1825. But, similar to Oregon, it really wasn’t until the 1960’s and 1970’s when Washington’s wine industry began to show signs of its world class potential. Still, by 1981, there were only nineteen wineries. But by 1996, there were eighty, then 360 in 2005, and 740 in 2011! (SOURCE: Washington Wine Commission) Today, Washington is the second largest premium wine producer in the United States.
Every consideration of Washington’s modern wine history has to begin with Chateau Ste. Michelle, which actually dates to 1934 but really established itself as the most influential pioneer of Washington commercial winemaking in the 1970’s when famed enologist Andre Tchelistcheff spent time consulting with the winery. Today, the wine company encompasses more than two-dozen estates and partnerships around the world. In this column, I highlight three of those projects.
Spring Valley Vineyard produces wine from 100 percent estate-grown fruit in Walla Walla. While Ste. Michelle now owns the label, the original owners, Shari and Dean Derby, continue to own the vineyards. I recommend the two Bordeaux-style blends in this tasting. The 2009 Frederick ($50) is named after Shari Corkrum Derby’s father Frederick Corkrum. This mix of 55 percent cabernet sauvignon and 31 percent merlot, with small amounts of cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec sports cherry and berry on the nose and in the mouth. It is highly focused, with hints of oak and excellent concentration but moderate tannins on the finish. The 2009 Uriah ($50) is named after Shari’s grandfather Uriah Corkrum who farmed in the Walla Walla area in the late 1800’s. Another Bordeaux-style blend, this one is dominated by merlot (54 percent), and cabernet franc (35 percent), with dollops of petit verdot and malbec. It is nicely defined with ripe, cherry and blueberry aromas and flavors. Lively on the palate, it also delivers light touches of herbs and spice and finishes with elegance.
Col Solare, which translates as "shining hill,” is a partnership between Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Tuscany's Marchesi Antinori established in 1995 to produce a world-class Cabernet Sauvignon-based red wine from Columbia Valley fruit. In recent years, the wines have featured more fruit from the Red Mountain sub-appellation and will eventually include fruit from the winery’s Red Mountain estate vineyards. Col Solare quickly established itself as one of the premier Bordeaux-style blends in Washington and the 2008 Col Solare ($70) continues the streak. With 67 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc, and 3 percent syrah, this impressive, complex wine combines intense aromas of cherry, herbs, black currant, plum, and dark berries. There is similar luscious fruit in the elegant, yet full-bodied structure and strong but refined tannins mark the finish.
Col Solare also produces a second wine called understandably “Shining Hill.” But the 2009 Shining Hill Columbia Valley ($45), a blend of 69 percent cabernet sauvignon and 21 percent merlot with pinches petit verdot, cabernet franc, and syrah, sure delivers more than one would expect from that designation. It displays scents of plum and blackberry fruit, with a touch of mocha and tobacco. Ripe fruits in the mouth are joined by nice oak notes, along with hints of brown spices and cedar. Firm but supple tannins balance the elegant finish.
Although now also making other wines, Northstar began in 1994 as and remains a Merlot specialist. Since its founding, Northstar helped put Washington State Merlot on the world wine map and these recent vintages demonstrate the winery is still a leading producer of merlot-based wines. The 2008 Merlot Walla Walla Valley ($50) loads up on black fruits and cherries, tobacco and chocolate, accented with a smoky, woodsy note. Similar intense flavors follow with added oak and spice, a solid structure and strong but accessible tannins. The 2008 Merlot Columbia Valley ($40) is spicier and features more red fruits. It also is more velvety in texture, with fine tannins that make the wine more drinkable now.
Cadaretta is a small, family-owned winery in Walla Walla that continues the agricultural history of the Middleton family that goes back over 110 years. The family began growing grapes just 22 years ago and established the winery just five years ago but already is making its mark. The 2009 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) offers assertive red fruit aromas that meld nicely with mild herbal and earthy notes, while an emerging hint of cocoa adds complexity. Juicy red fruits also spread across the mouth with a supple impression and finishes with smooth tannins.
The Mercer family is now into its fourth generation of farming the Horse Heaven Hills. Mercer Estates is the family-owned winery that emerged in 2005 out of about forty years of grape growing experience, including the original planting of the acclaimed Champoux vineyard. I was really impressed with a couple of white wines from Mercer I tasted recently. The 2010 Riesling Yakima Valley ($15) is dry but enlivened with juicy peach, tropical and citrus flavors and a crisp finish. Just plain delicious. The 2010 Pinot Gris Columbia Valley ($15) also is impressive at the price. Light and juicy melon and pear aromas and flavors are delivered in a glossy, broad textured, even a bit creamy wine.