Monday, October 15, 2012

Checking Up on Pacific Northwest Wines

Life is all about friends. And wine, being a microcosm of life, is also all about friends. Luckily I’ve got friends like Brett and Alyssa, a husband and wife duo whose generosity and humor are rivaled only by their encyclopedic knowledge of wines from Oregon and Washington State.

Over the weekend Brett pulled together a bunch of wines from his cellar and invited a group of us over to see how they were progressing in their evolution. Alyssa cooked up some incredible food to go with the wines, and we had ourselves a good ol’ Pacific Northwest throwdown. Bottle variation and faulty wines are a factor in every cellar tasting but each wine in this tasting showed well and not one displayed cork taint, oxidization or any other fault. I guess you could call it luck, but I call it Brett’s awesomeness in tracking down the best wines from the Pacific Northwest.

I’m a huge fan of wines from Oregon and Washington State. Northern California regions like Sonoma and Mendocino are my default for New World wines, and far too often I forget about the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, because, as this tasting proves, wines from Oregon and Washington deserve serious respect. Luckily, Brett was around to tell us all about the different vintage characteristics and share stories about his visits with the winemakers or strolls through the vineyard. His knowledge of Oregon and Washington is unrivaled and his love for the region’s wines is contagious.

Quick note: I generally don’t give much thought to the 100-point scoring system. I employ it because it’s useful in placing wines along a continuum of quality, but a score is never the final word on what’s inside the bottle. Having said that, this tasting was one of those rare occasions when I gave every wine a 90+ score. I can get picky about wines, and even bored with wines of a similar style, but I couldn’t find one wine in this tasting to dislike if I tried. In fact, I can’t imagine someone who uses the 100-point system giving any bottle we tasted a score of less than 90 points. They were just that damn good.

I still can’t believe I’ve never visited Oregon or Washington. After this tasting, it’s getting closer and closer to the top of my list.

2001 Argyle Extended Tirage Brut Oregon, Willamette Valley
Argyle, probably one of the most well-known producers in Oregon, has been crafting chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wines since 1987. This sparkler is a classic Champagne blend of 52% chardonnay, 45% pinot noir and 3% pinot meunier that spends an additional seven years aging on the lees. Pretty golden color. It’s got heavenly aromas of golden apples, honeycomb and freshly baked rolls. On the palate, this wine is focused and pure with shining acid. All kinds of apples on the palate, along with honey, caramel and potpourri. There’s a great blend of creaminess and freshness in this wine that makes it one of the best domestic sparklers I’ve had in a long time. 92 points

2006 Soter Brut Rosé Oregon, Yamhill County
Soter might not be a household name, but they’ve got to be doing something right when the Wine Advocate says: “It would be a fascinating experiment to place [Soter Brut Rosé] in a blind tasting with Louis Roederer Cristal rosé and Dom Perignon rosé.” I can’t think of a better compliment for a pink sparkler than being compared to the two best rosé Champagnes. This wine is a blend of 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir and a bright copper-strawberry color in the glass. Fresh cranberries and strawberries on the nose with hints of toast and peanut shell. It’s big on the palate, almost toasty, like it was barrel-fermented. Flavors of strawberry pie, white pepper and a hint of tobacco. I love the cut of the acid and the fine tingle of the bubbles. Long finish. I’m a little less excited about this wine than the Wine Advocate, but it’s still an excellent rosé sparkler. 90 points

2011 Gramercy Cellars Rosé Olsen Vineyard Washington, Columbia Valley
I tasted this wine in May along with a medley of other rosé wines and it stood head and shoulders above a lot of other high quality wines. Simply put, I didn’t realize a Washington State winemaker could put out such a fantastic pink. Aromas of roses, wild strawberries and Provencal herbs. Tangy acid on the palate leads the way to flavors of strawberry, cherry blossoms and a medley of spices. This wine is so focused and pure, and a great accompaniment to mixed cheeses and charcuterie. Provence, meet Washington State. 90 points

Cameron of the Willamette Valley makes some of my favorite domestic chardonnay.
Willamette Valley Chardonnay
Welcome to the Burgundy of the United States. There are some serious chards coming out of this part of Oregon.

Abbey Ridge is one of the highest vineyards in Oregon’s Dundee Hills (500-700 feet). This wine comes from a single clone of 35-year-old vines, some of the oldest in all of Oregon. The chardonnay vines produce very low yields and the grapes are usually harvested during mid to late October. This is truly a hand-crafted wine, as only a single barrel was produced in 2008. Complex and layered aromas of lemon peel, dried pineapple, hazelnut and a hint of cheese rind. The palate is full of gorgeous acid, equally matched by vibrant melon, white peach, honeysuckle and caramel. It’s creamy but not toasty, and the absence of new oak lets the purity of flavors shine trough. Minerals linger on the long finish. I’d love to try this again in three years. 93 points

This was the first Cameron wine I tasted back in 2010, the wine that made me fall for Cameron. I’m happy to report this wine is still going strong. Aromas of lemon zest, apricot and guava with hints of peanut shell. The palate is rich and pure, with flavors of honey, orange rind and cotton candy. There’s a powerful streak of minerality in this wine which gives it a lot of depth. Delicious stuff, and it could age for another few years easily. 92+ points

I tasted this wine in December of 2011 and loved it. I still love it, but I was a little less excited than last time. Maybe it’s because I drank this wine alongside the Cameron chardonnays, which are much brighter and leaner. Golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of goldenrod, dandelion, honeydew and apricot. It’s really rich and bold on the palate, with toasted coconut, lemon, marshmallow and buttered pear flavors. Definitely hedonistic, but it maintains a sense of balance. 92 points

Oregon Pinot Noir
Pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a beautiful thing indeed. Four wines, three different producers, three different vintages… it was a Willamette pinot noir appreciation fest.

The oldest pinot of the tasting showed very well. Some stink on the nose, like farmyards and tobacco smoke, sits atop aromas of sour cherry, rhubarb and graphite. The palate gushes with wild cherry fruit, mixed in with flavors of bacon and rhubarb. Plush and velvety, this wine’s tannins have been refined with age. A very elegant wine that seems close to its peak drinking window. 90 points

This wine's aromatics are ridiculous. You can practically smell it from across the room. Endless waves of cassis, black cherry, tree bark, tilled soil, savory spices... wow. Chewy tannins, bright acid and a medley of seamless flavors: sour cherry, plum, topsoil, black tea. I love the tangy approach this wine takes, leaving the palate refreshed. That said, I think this could use another three or five years to calm down a bit more. This was my first wine from Brick House, and I was very impressed. 91 points

Aromas of cassis, black cherry, rose petals and incense sticks. The nose is warm, inviting and endlessly complex. Bright fruit and acid on the palate with fine-grained tannins. Gushing cherry fruit is matched with flavors of bacon, scorched earth and smoke. This wine is all about elegance and purity of flavors. No one flavor dominates, instead they all play off of each other. Acid and a hint of soy sauce linger on the finish. I've never had a Cameron Abbey Ridge pinot before, but this wine sang beautifully. 92 points

Clos Electrique, Cameron’s estate vineyard, is home to 2 acres of pinot noir, 2 acres of chardonnay, a half-acre of Italian white varieties and a half-acre of nebbiolo. Most of the pinot vines were planted in 1984, most of the chardonnay in 1987. One of the warmer sites in the Dundee Hills, the pinot grapes are usually harvested in mid to late September. Cameron's 2008 Clos Electrique is simply stunning. I think this vintage is my favorite wine since the 2004. Aromas of cassis, smoke, lamb meat, black pepper, lavender. It's intoxicating. The wine is pure silk on the palate, framed by a hefty dose of acid. Flavors of cherry pits, cranberry, potting soil, beef jerky and smoke bounce around like crazy. This is pure pinot goodness. Cameron has to be my favorite domestic pinot noir producer, and its wines like this that make me even more convinced. Drinking beautifully, but I'd love to try this again in five years. 94 points

Washington State Syrah
Two vintages of The Contender syrah, both knock-outs. 
All four of these wines are made from grapes grown in Washington State’s Walla Walla Valley appellation. Tasting these four wines together is a serious embarrassment of riches. Each wine deserves a decanter and a whole evening of attention, but drinking them all together is an eperiment in hedonism that leads to a state of fruit-induced zen.

This wine is made from syrah co-fermented with some marsanne, a white grape. Aromas of cherry pancake syrup and cranberry sauce mix with a distinct aroma of olive and beef. Some swirling really helped the aromatics get bigger and brighter. Believe it or not, there’s some significant acid on the palate, which keeps the wine together. Silky drink-me-now tannins frame the cherry and cassis fruit. Flavors of olive brine and roast beef linger. A serious syrah with a lot of complexity. I really like how easy this wine was to drink, not overbearing at all. 92 points

2009 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah The Contender
For my palate this falls just a bit behind the 2008. This wine shows much darker aromas: figs, raisins, black licorice and chocolate shavings. This is a really big wine on the palate, with a bit less acid than the 2008. Flavors of prune, caramel-coated raisins, teriyaki beef and mocha. Delicious stuff, but I think it could benefit from a few years of cellaring or at least a solid decant. 91 points

This syrah may have Manhattan on the label, but it’s Walla Walla through and through. Jay Miller gave this a 96-99 point score, if that means anything. I've heard a lot of hype about this wine, and I confess: it is well deserved. I was surprised by how expressive this wine was, as I assumed it would be a tight ball of black and blue fruit. Nope. Aromas of fig paste, plum skins, rose petals, caramelized sugar... and the list goes on. Very vibrant on the palate with fine tannins and a velvety mouthfeel. The acid provides structure and balance, keeping this wine well outside of the goopy or flabby category. The flavors glide over the palate like silk: fig, fresh black cherries, charcoal, chocolate-covered coffee beans... and the list goes on. This wine is aged in barrel for two years, which gives it a plush and silky feel. This wine is incredibly well-made and I imagine in three to five years this wine will be even more complex. Thanks, Brett, for turning me on to Gramercy! If I tasted this wine alone and had time to give it more attention, I’m sure I’d like it even more. 94 points

And the wine of the night: Cayuse. No big surprise.
2004 Cayuse Syrah En Cerise Vineyard
En Cerise means “cherry,” which is fitting because this 10-acre vineyard used to be a cherry orchard. This is the way to top off an evening of incredible wines from the Pacific Northwest. The aromas are simply divine: plum sauce, caramel, rose petals, olive brine and forest floor. Fruity and rich on the palate, to say the least. I like the red fruit profile of this wine, mostly cherries and raspberries. The fruit is backed up by savory spices, peppered steak, soy sauce and coffee grinds. It's rare that I find a wine this ripe and hedonistic that still keeps its balance, not to mention all this non-fruit flavors that are kicking serious ass. This is my first time tasting this wine but it appears to be in an ideal state right now. Poetry in a bottle, my friends. Poetry. 95 points

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