Vino & Veritas: The rainy Northwest

BY JOSH SOLOMON

I’m not quite ready yet. When I wrote about Italian wine a few weeks back, I did so in part to avoid French wine, my usual favorite topic. I thought that my silly little protest — refusal to buy or promote French wine — would last about until that column went to print. But at the wine store in preparation for this column, I still could not get myself to buy French wine. My original plan thus aborted, I opted for a region about which I knew little: the Pacific Northwest. And I’m glad I did, for beyond the knowledge that my money (that is, the RECORD’s money) will not end up in France, my ongoing boycott had the benefit of better acquainting me with an interesting region and interesting wines.

For wine purposes, the Northwest formally includes Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Idaho contributes very little, however, with most of the action coming from Washington and Oregon. These two states have emerged as notable wine producers only within the last quarter of a century or so. Their wine industries grew out of, and have remained largely faithful to, a desire to counterbalance California’s dominance of American winemaking. In general terms, whereas California is known for its very new-world style wines, dominated by fruit, oak, and the chardonnay grape, Northwest winemaking efforts have attempted to take a more European approach, downplaying sweet fruitiness and emphasizing such grapes as pinot noir and merlot. Beyond their desire to be different from California, however, Washington and Oregon have surprisingly little in common with one another from a wine perspective.

Most wine from Washington comes from east of the Cascade Mountains. I have seen this area described in several places as desert (who knew there was a desert in Washington?) — having a very dry climate, with vineyards made possible only through a combination of artificial irrigation and the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. More specifically, the vast majority of Washingtonian wine comes from grapes grown in the Columbia Valley, a geographic designation that will usually appear on the wine’s label. Other designations include Yakima Valley and Walla Walla Valley, both of which are actually sub-regions of the Columbia Valley.

Befitting this dry, relatively warm region is the dominance of merlot and cabernet sauvignon among the reds. Other red grapes from Washington include cabernet franc, syrah, and sangiovese. The most common white wines from Washington are chardonnay, semillon, sauvignon blanc, and riesling. In addition to dry wines from all these grapes, Washington also produces fine dessert wines, using late-harvest or ice-wine techniques.

In contrast to Washington’s wine, Oregonian wine comes principally from vineyards west of the Cascades. The largest and most important area within wine-growing Oregon is the Willamette Valley — also a designation that will usually appear on the wine’s label. The climate in the Willamette Valley is maritime, meaning cooler, wetter weather that is the antithesis of the Columbia Valley’s dry growing conditions.

These very different growing conditions make for very different wines. Oregon is most famous for its pinot noir, the Burgundy specialty that requires cool, wet weather. Also like Burgundy’s, Oregon’s pinot noir tends to be more expensive, reflecting the difficulty of growing what has come to be known as the “fickle grape.” Other red varieties include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and zinfandel. For whites, Oregon features chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, riesling and some gew├╝rztraminer.

On the whole, if you get tired of the typical cheap or mid-priced California style — think fruity, oaky, buttery, and young — you may want to try a wine or two from the Pacific Northwest. While the selection will not be as extensive as that from California, any wine shop should have at least a few from which to choose.

I chose riesling from Washington and pinot noir from Oregon, and compared two of each:

2001 Columbia Crest Johannisberg Riesling ($6.99) — If you tend to like your wine on the sweet side, you will probably like this one. This was pretty good for a very cheap wine (riesling, lacking the trendiness of other varietals, tends to cost a bit less). Its nose had a slight spiciness, as well as floral aromas and a touch of grass that reminded me of a sauvignon blanc. It had a chewy mouth feel with gingerbread and citrus flavors. Overall, though, the sweetness dominated, overpowering all else.

2002 Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling ($9.99) — Surprisingly, this riesling had very light bubbles, which I could actually feel when I drank it. Its nose was less powerful than the Columbia Crest, with less flowers and more spice. To taste, it was much drier and lighter. It was slightly more bitter and had higher acid. I got grapefruit, flowers, and maybe a touch of orange from it. Mostly because it lacked the overpowering sweetness, it was more interesting and subtle than the Columbia Crest.

2000 St. Innocent, Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir ($22.99) — Holy gunpowder! Smelling this pinot noir reminded me of lighting firecrackers at the beach on Fourth of July. I can’t remember ever having a wine with such a powerful gunpowder smell. It was kinda cool. To taste, it was acidic and light bodied. The only flavor I could pull from it was a hint of blueberries.

1997 King Estate Pinot Noir ($18.99) — I liked the nose on this one, but that’s about it. It had a wet stone/wet brick smell, with a little bit of cherry. Unfortunately, I think it had really passed its peak, as it tasted completely dead. They say that all but the best pinot noirs do not last more than a few years. This wine supports them. It was very bitter, with little flavor and an almost chemically aftertaste. If you are going to try a King Estate pinot, buy a younger one.

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