It was another rough day of wine tasting. But don’t worry, friends, I soldiered through. And I can now confirm something I already knew: Washington State is making GREAT wine.
Washington cabernet sauvignons have been among my favourites ever since I tasted them in my New World Wine course a few years ago. Since then, I have seen them rise through the LCBO ranks. At first, I was happy when these wines occasionally showed up in Vintages, then ecstatic when a couple of bottles became regular selections in the general listing, and finally over-the-moon to see my local LCBO had created its own Pacific Northwest section.
Our event’s main speaker last week was Columbia Crest winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca. Born in Spain, he moved to Argentina as a boy with his family, where he spent his summers harvesting grapes with his grandfather. Immediately, my interest was piqued. I have lived in both Spain and Argentina, so I felt I could already identify with Juan. Instead of wondering what kind of wine knowledge he brings to the table and looking forward to the wine tasting ahead, I was asking myself much more important questions like “I wonder whether he speaks Spanish with a Castilian accent or an Argentine one?” Yup, that is how my language professional’s brain works.
Juan (he won’t mind if I call him Juan, right?) showed us maps, graphs and pictures of the winery and the area to illustrate what makes Washington wines so special. His research showed that in this case, just as in real estate, it is all about location, location, location. The Columbia Valley is protected from rain by two mountain ranges (the Olympics and the Cascades) which create essentially hot and arid desert-like conditions. The soil is light and loose, meaning that it does not really retain what little rain the region gets. As a result, the vines must grow very deep roots and absorb water quickly. Viticultural techniques also come into play here. Juan noticed that stressed vines tend to perform better, so irrigation is severely controlled to optimize the vines. When vines are deprived of water they naturally grow a smaller canopy (i.e. the leaves that grow around the grape clusters), thereby ensuring that the grapes get more sun exposure. The longer the grapes are exposed to the sun, the more they ripen, increasing the amount of sugars in the grape, which will eventually get turned to alcohol during fermentation.
Phew! The science portion of this post is now over. We will now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
COMPARATIVE CHARDONNAY TASTING
We began our tasting with a comparison of three chardonnays, which really typified each of the wineries they came from: Columbia Crest Grand Estates, Columbia Crest H3 and Château Ste Michelle. The Columbia Crest Chardonnay is heavily oaked, medium- to full-bodied and tastes of green apple followed by caramel and butterscotch. These last two oak characteristics are a result of barrel fermentation, which is hand stirred weekly for a number of months. That’s a lot of stirring for 60,000 barrels! Considering the labour that goes into it, this is a great-value wine at $17.95.
The H3 Chardonnay is slightly less oaky and features more citrusy components. It is very refreshing and at the same time smooth. It paired really nicely with the papaya salad rolls, with the creaminess playing off the lemongrass of the dish.
Finally, the Château Ste Michelle (CSM) chardonnay has very subtle aromas of lime, minerality and a hint of butter from sur lie aging (when the wine sits with its dead yeasts – it sounds gross but makes for a delicious chardonnay). The CSM winemaker uses more old-world (namely Burgundian) winemaking techniques, which means less oak influence. Rather than a round mouthfeel, it is bright and acidic, and tastes of green apple and pear. As the wine warms up, the oak nuances start to come out, with sweet spice, butterscotch, and toasted qualities.
All of these chardonnays were great, and the price difference between them is negligible ($17.95-$20.95). So I would recommend making your choice based on how oaky you like your wines. If you like ’em big and bold, go for the Columbia Crest ($17.95, general listing). If you prefer clean and crisp, take the CSM ($20.95, currently in Vintages). If you’re not sure, go middle of the road with the H3 chardonnay, which will be coming to a Vintages near you in September ($20.95).
The Columbia Valley in Washington is perhaps better known for its reds, and with good reason. A combination of deficit winemaking (see the explanation of stressed vines above) and a significant drop in temperatures in October are the secret to the beautiful expression of cabernet sauvignon and merlot in Washington. In fact, 51% of Columbia Crest wines scored 90% or higher in Wine Spectator reviews, if you’re the type to put stock into that sort of thing.
We tasted cabernet sauvignons and merlots from all three wineries, and two really stuck out for me.
This is not the first time I have raved about this wine. Last summer, I had it when we were in Point Roberts, which is actually in Washington State. You can read my original review here. At the event last week, we tasted the same vintage (2013) as the one I had tasted last year. It still had the same gorgeous ripe fruit on the nose (blackberry, black cherry) as well as vanilla, cola, fig, chocolate, and clove. It is medium- to full-bodied, with dark fruit, chocolate and sweet spice on the palate. What a treat! This wine has great acidity and not a lot of tannin, so it works with a wide range of dishes, including the delicious chimichurri beef that was being served at SideDoor, where the event was held.
The Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot was also delicious, and was dubbed “the merlot for non-merlot drinkers”. If you are looking for a juicy merlot, this is the one. Plus it’s available all the time in the general list for $17.95, as is the cabernet sauvignon. These are big, bold wines that showcase ripe fruit and big oak. If that’s not your thing and you prefer more subtle flavour profiles, keep an eye out for the Château Ste Michelle wines that are constantly in and out of Vintages.
Columbia Crest H3 Merlot ($19.95)
My second favourite of the day was from Columbia Crest’s H3 line. While the H3 Cabernet Sauvignon is the best-selling Washington wine in Canada and the one that originally put this wine region on the map for me, the H3 Merlot is the one I enjoyed the most. H3 stands for Horse Heaven Hills, the AVA (i.e. appellation) where wild horses used to roam freely. Contrary to traditional serving order, this merlot was served after the cabernet sauvignon at the tasting. This is because the merlot grown in the Columbia Valley is different from its counterparts grown in other parts of the world. The Valley’s drought-like conditions and extreme sun exposure toughen up the merlot grape, so that it grows a thicker skin, making for a bigger wine. This merlot had all the ripe fruit and chocolate of the oaky Grand Estates version, but firmer tannins from the thick skins to balance it out, plus a tinge of cedar and mint, so that the berriness wasn’t so in your face. I am very excited to see that this one will be back in Vintages with the August 6 release.
I apologize for going on and on, but these wines are delicious and I love them, and they deserve a longer post in their honour. So next time you are at the liquor store and looking for something new to try, check out the newly set up Pacific Northwest general listing section for a great alternative to the often over-priced Californian selection. You won’t be disappointed.
Oh, and if you were also curious about Juan’s Spanish accent, the answer to that burning language-nerd question was Argentine. Obvio.
P.S. Big shout-out to Natalie MacLean for inviting me to this wine tasting and to SideDoor for providing the location and fantastic eats!