What’s new and exciting here in Washington state?
High on the list has to be the explosion of interesting varietals – many from southern France and Italy – being grown in small blocks at top vineyards. Most end up in blends; a Cotes du Rhone or super Tuscan style wine.
But you also can find them as varietals – sometimes 100 percent varietal from a single vineyard. That is where the clearest expression of varietal and site typicity will emerge.
Doug McCrea at McCrea Cellars was one of the first in Washington to explore Rhone varietals, and he continues to delve into some obscure and interesting Rhone grapes. He works closely with Dick Boushey at Boushey vineyards, Jim Holmes at Ciel du Cheval, and Joe Hattrup at Elephant Mountain, all growers with an itch to try something new.
Among the newest releases from McCrea are a gorgeous 2007 Grenache ($28) from Ciel du Cheval. Small amounts of mourvèdre, syrah, counoise and cinsault add complexity. It’s supple and aromatic, with ripe, sweet strawberry and black cherry fruit, whiffs of pepper and pencil lead, and a full-bodied mid-palate that continues cleanly through a lingering finish.
McCrea also has a varietal 2007 Mourvèdre ($28) that blends fruit from both Ciel du Cheval and Elephant Mountain. It’s velvety and loaded with red fruits, with just a hint of smoke and nonfunky leather. Also interesting are some of the 2008 wines still in the barrel. They include single vineyard lots of picpoul, grenache blanc, marsanne, counoise and cinsault. Not all will emerge as varietal bottlings, but the picpoul will for certain – the first in Washington.
Another first – this one from the Columbia Gorge AVA – is Syncline’s 2008 Underwood Mountain Grüner Veltliner ($20). Barely 12 percent alcohol, this is searingly tart, with sharp lime, barely ripe pineapple, green apple flavors, and a hint of white pepper in the nose. These are young vines, so don’t take my words as criticism; this is an encouraging start, displaying some youthful varietal character.
Syncline also makes small amounts of that rare creature, a Washington state pinot noir. Their 2007 Celilo Vineyard Pinot Noir comes from vines planted in 1972. Delicate and high in acid, it’s a pretty wine, relatively pale in color, with scents of tart cranberry, mineral and pomegranate. Despite the lightness, it has a lovely presence in the mouth, and no unwelcome herbal/tomato leaf flavors.
Walla Walla’s Otis Kenyon winery is one of a handful in this state offering a varietal carmenère ($36). This grape is most closely identified with the red wines of Chile, where it seems to thrive, but it shows some unique character in Washington also. Here it’s been blended with 12 percent cabernet sauvignon and 12 percent merlot, yet it still displays a lot of peppery spice, along with blackberry and black cherry fruit. It’s got a full mid-palate, and it doesn’t fade; it lengthens and leaves a detailed impression of leaf and herb and spice and fruit.
Seven Hills is another winery bottling a few cases of carmenère; theirs is 100 percent varietal, with hints of dried herb under wild berry fruit. Winemaker Casey McClellan usually blends these grapes into his high-end Pentad red; but he made a few cases of the 2006 as a pure varietal for his wine club. Another successful experiment has been the Seven Hills Tempranillo ($20), now in its fifth (2006) vintage. “I’m set on keeping this 100 percent varietal until I really understand what tempranillo does in Washington,” Casey says. “I’m really pursuing this; the 2007 vintage is the best yet, the most concentrated.”
Although I have not tasted it, I know that Kristina van Loben Sels at Arbor Crest is making a little bit of petite sirah – 100 percent varietal – from the Wahluke Slope vineyard. This rich and tannic grape is rarely found in Washington, but may well become a niche favorite, as has happened with zinfandel.
Is every experiment a home run? Of course not. I’ve slogged through some pretty dismal barbera, petit verdot, tempranillo, etc. on the way to finding the ones that shine. But remember, we’re still in the early going, the vines are young, the winemakers are experimenting. Consumers should be willing to experiment also, and try new wines with an open mind and a curiosity about where this industry is taking us.
All of the wines listed above, and many more like them, are offered in very small quantities. They most often are sold only in tasting rooms or through mailing lists and wine clubs.
A big part of what makes wine touring fun is that you will almost always make discoveries that are not available in wine shops. Time to start exploring.