- Written by Rand Sealey
How I Pick the "Best Buys"
During the sixteen months that I have been writing the Review of Washington Wines, I have found one of the hardest parts to be picking wines for the "Best Buy" section. Selecting wines that get 18.5 points or more is relatively easy. Wines that are exceptional make themselves apparent by their complexity and flavor interest. But finding wines that make the 17.5-18 point "cut" is not so easy.
There is a lot of decent Washington state juice out there, but not much of it is of enough interest for readers of the Review. I know all of my subscribers are sophisticated enough to demand wines, even "everyday" ones, that provide a modicum of flavor interest.
The under $20 reds us the trickiest bill to fill. Buying wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah is not cheap. The prices for grapes range from $1200 to $3000 per ton depending on quality. I have found most under $10 reds to be mediocre and many from $10 to $15 to be "standard quality" (16-17 points). My cut-off point is 17.5 points (which equals about 88/100 points). Lately, I have found few interesting reds for under $20.
Whites are easier as there is more of a glut of white wine (the price range being $800 to $1200 per ton) especially with less prized varietals such as Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Semillon. Even Chardonnay and Viognier can be fine values.
But there are still good sources of great values. Take a look at the following:
2008 Airfield Semillon, Yakima Valley ($16) 18/20 points - April issue
2008 Barrage Cellars Riesling, Yakima Valley, Dineen Vineyard ($15) 18/20 points - April
2008 McKinley Springs Viognier, Horse Heaven Hills ($15) 18+/20 points - April
2008 Syncline Subduction Red ($18) 18/20 points - April
2007 Columbia Crest H3 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills ($13-14) 18+/20 points - March
Also, look for exceptional wines, rated 18.5 points in the $20 - $25 range. There can be some pretty fine and complicated wines. Some examples:
2008 L'Ecole No. 41 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley ($20-23) 18.5/20 points - March
2007 Waterbrook Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley ($22) 18.5/20 points - March
2008 Maison Bleue Grenache, "Le Midi," Yakima Valley ($25) 18.5+/20 points - April
2008 Maison Bleue Syrah, "La Roque," Yakima Valley ($25) 18.5/20 points - April
2008 El Corazon "With Love" Syrah, Columbia Valley ($23) 19/20 points - December (I tasted this recently and it has evolved to the point where it advances from 18.5+ points. It is a terrific value. Buy it.)
- Written by Rand Sealey
The Limited Production Washington Varietals
A few days ago, I was looking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2009 Washington State wine grape production figures, and was struck by how limited the production of red varietals other than Cabernet Sauvignon (27,600 tons) Merlot (24,800 tons) and Syrah (10,000 tons). Cabernet Franc comes in fourth at 2,600 tons, followed by Malbec at 1,000 tons and Sangiovese at 900 tons. All the rest are under 500 tons each.
So I thought I'd give you a rundown on those varietals producing 1,000 tons or less, and what they represent, including those wineries that specialize in them.
Malbec - This varietal originated in France. A small amount is grown in Bordeaux, but it is Cahors in the Lot Valley that produces most of France's Malbec. A large amount is produced in Argentina. Washington Malbec is typically aromatic and dark fruited (ranging from red to blue to black). The best areas for growing Malbec in Washington are the Wahluke Slope, the Horse Heaven Hills and the southern part of the Walla Walla Valley. Specialists: Flying Trout, aMaurice (Ashley Trout and Anna Schafer b oth spend part of the year in Argentina making wine there) Beresan and El Corazon.
Sangiovese - This is the principal grape of Tuscany, and is used to make Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese Grosso). Washington winemakers like to call it "Sangio" and use it to make gracefully-styled, aromatic, medium-bodied wines. Some is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon for "Super Tuscan" style wines. Specialists: Walla Walla Vintners (varietal and "Bello Rosso" Sangiovese-Cabernet blend) Columbia Winery (Red Willow Vineyard) Flying Trout.
Petit Verdot - This varietal is generally used for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc both in Bordeaux and the U.S. to add aroma and texture. Petit Verdot requires warm growing sites in order to yield ripe grapes. Little is produced as a varietal wine. When done so in Washington, the result is a highly aromatic, fleshy wine with much flavor interest. Specialists: Januik Winery, Seven Hills Winery (McClellan Estate) Five Star Cellars (Petit Verdot/Cabernet Franc blend) and Saviah Cellars.
Grenache - Principally used for blending with Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault in the South Rhone Valley, Grenache generally produces well-textured, ripe, medium-bodied wines. In Washington, it is usually used for "Rhone style" blends such as Rotie Cellars' "Southern Blend." Only a few wineries make it as a varietal. Specialists: Maison Bleue ("La Montagnette," "Le Midi") Isenhower Cellars ("Rara Avis").
Barbera - Originating in the Pedmont region of Italy, this grape produces robust, cherry-like reds. In the early days of California and Washington winemaking much Barbera was planted by Italian-Americans. Now only limited plantings exist in Washington state, but they make tasty pasta wines. Specialists: CAVU Cellars, Forgeron, Woodward Canyon (this winery also makes a juicy, robust Dolcetto from an even more limited production varietal).
Tempranillo - This is the principal grape of Spain, grown in the Rioja and Ribera del Duero districts, producing elegant, aromatic medium to full bodied reds. It is used to a similar effect in limited quantities in Washington. Specialists: Castillo de Feliciana, Thurston-Wolfe, Gramercy Cellars. Waterbrook makes a fine one that is only available at the Walla Walla Wine Works tasting room on Main Street.
Carmenere - This is the "lost" grape of Bordeaux, wiped out by the Phyloxera devastation of the 1870's and not replanted. Much is grown in Chile today and in small quantities in Washington state. Typically is a robust, aromatic, "peppery" wine that has possess much elegance. Specialists: El Corazon ("Tiger's Blood") Beresan, Otis Kenyon, Tertulia Cellars, Reininger.
Petite Sirah - This is called Durif in France and is considered a common varietal there. A fair amount is planted in California and only a small quantity in Washington where it produces a robust, dark, berry-like and somewhat peppery wines. Specialists: Thurston-Wolfe (Zephyr Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills) and Bunnell Family Cellar (varietal, and in blends) Milbrandt (Wahluke Slope).
Roussanne - There is one limited production white varietal worth noting, and that is Roussanne which originates in the north Rhone Valley. It is an aromatic white, but less floral and tropical than Viognier. There are some fine examples produced in Washington. Specialists: SuLei, Maison Bleue, Forgeron Cellars.
- Written by Rand Sealey
How I Rated the Adams Bench 2007 Red Willow Cabernet Sauvignon 20 Points
When I finished tasting the 2007 Adams Bench Red Willow Cabernet Sauvignon at Erica and Tim Blue's winery in Woodinville, I knew that it was a wine that merited 20 out of a possible 20 points. It was flawless and highly complex. I use the U. C. Davis 20 Point System for rating wines (for more information about the 20 point system, see my 07 September blog). From my copious tasting notes, I filled out a score sheet with the system's criteria. Here's how the Red Willow Cabernet scored:
Clarity (2 points) - Brilliant, near sparkly, clear with no haze or particulates.
Color (2 points) - Appropriate color fort varietal/type and age.
Bouquet (4 points) - Distinct varietal characteristics, balanced bouquet.
Total Acidity (1 point) - Proper balance, appropriate for varietal/type.
Sweetness (1 point) - Appropriate sweetness, well enhanced/well balanced.
Body/Texture (2 points) - Appropriate body for varietal/type and age.
Flavor/Taste (2 points) - Complex flavors, appropriate for varietal/type and age.
Acescensy (Bitterness) (1 point) - Well balanced, no perceptible bitterness.
Astringency (1 point) - Appropriate levels of tannin for the varietal/type and age.
Overall Quality (4 points) - Wines of "noble" quality with distinct and distinguishing character.
This adds up to a perfect 20 points. It is with the "Overall Quality" that the Red Willow earns a perfect score. Not just technically flawless, it is a complex, highly nuanced wine, more than outstanding (which would get 19 or 19.5 points). Since I started the Review of Washington Wines, I have not seen a wine as complex and compelling as this one.
Will there be another 20 point wine in the Review? Most likely, yes. I believe Washington state has the potential to produce other perfect wines. I already has a couple of candidates in mind, but it is too early to tell; both are 2008's, and still young, underdeveloped wines. Time will tell.
In sum, the Adams Bench 2007 Red Willow Cabernet Sauvignon is, in my opinion, a "must buy" wine. More than half of the 70 cases made have already been sold (I have already reserved mine) and I am sure it will sell out quickly. It is being released at the winery on Saturday, March 6th. And be sure to buy some of the 2007 Reckoning (18.5+ points) and the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon "the V" (19+) points, both reviewed in the February issue of the Review. Both are highly recommended.
- Written by Rand Sealey
Coming Up in the March Review of Washington Wine Issue
On next Wednesday, on the third day of the month, the March issue of the Review of Washington Wines will go on line. In it, you will see the the first wine ever to be awarded 20 out of a possible 20 points in this publication. The identity of the wine remains secret until then.
Accompanying this issue will be next week's Blog which will elaborate on how the 20 points came to be awarded.
The March issue of the Review has also been revamped. The profile of the Maison Bleue Winery and its exceptional 2008 reds has been postponed until April, by which time the winery's website should be up and running. The March issue will review new releases including the outstanding 2007 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill, and the fine 2008 reds from Rotie Cellars. Also, there are two Highly Recommended Cabernets from O'Shea Scarborough. Plus, I have discovered some excellent values from Columbia Crest, Ch. Ste. Michelle and Precept Brands, including new releases from Waterbrook.
So, watch for this special double issue of the Review and the Blog!
Washington Wine Grape Production Up 8 Percent
U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics released February 9th, states:
"Washington's 2009 wine grape production totaled 156,000 tons, a record high level, and is up 8 percent from 2008. Of the top four varieties, Chardonnay showed the largest increase and was up 19 percent from last year. Of the major varieties, Malbec received the highest average price per ton at $1,473. Growers received an average of $989 per ton for all varieties in 2009, down $41 from last year's record high of $1,040."
For more statistics, go to www.washingtonwine.org, and then click PRESS ROOM.
- Written by Rand Sealey
Valentine's Release Weekend in Woodinville
Yesterday (Saturday, February 13), we drove over to Woodinville to visit a few wineries which were releasing new vintages. It was Valentine's Day weekend, so there was a festive lovers' holiday atmosphere, with some wineries offering red wine and chocolate pairings. Here are some highlights:
Our first stop was at DeLille Cellars where the 2007 Chaleur Estate and Harrison Hill Reds were being released. The Harrison Hill (19.5 points - to be reviewed in the March issue) was a classic, complex, terroir-driven wine. Tasting it alongside the Chaleur Estate (reviewed in February - 19.5 points) revealed two stylistically different wines even though the blend compositions are closely matched. The Chaleur Estate seemed a bit less fruit-driven and a bit more smoky and minerally. Qualitatively, I found the two a tossup.
Then we went to Barrage Cellars which we visited for the first time. There, owner-winemaker Kevin Correll took us through a collection of wines with names like "Trifecta" (100% Merlot from three vineyards) "Outcast" (100% Cabernet Franc) and "Secret Weapon" (100% Boushey Vineyard Syrah). All were striking wines. I will report on them in the April issue.
Next, we went over to William Church where a mobile bottling line was bottling the winery's 2009 Viognier and 2008 Reds. The day's bottling was being offered for immediate "adoption." Customers bought the wines on the spot and took them home for either immediate consumption or to lay away for at least a couple of months to recover from bottle shock. The Viognier was lovely, and the reds highly promising.
After that, we crossed North Woodinville Way to a loop that passed through a townhouse complex down to some more warehouse wineries. At Covington Cellars, we found David and Cindy Lawson who have an attractive tasting room where they do winemaker dinners as well. We tasted some lovely wines which will be reviewed in the next (March) Review issue.
Our last stop of the day was at JM Cellars on "Bramble Bump," a knoll overlooking the Sammamish Valley. The tasting room was hopping, as guests sampled the new 2007 releases. Paige Leighton and the rest of the crew were busy pouring wine and ringing up sales. All four new '07's were exceptional (to be reviewed in March). Also released was the 2008 Bramble Bump Red which, though just bottled, was delicious.
Watch for the March and April issues of the Review of Washington Wines to learn more about these wines!
Winery News: Precept Wine Brands Acquires Corus Estates and Vineyards
On January 1st, Seattle-based Precept Wine Brands acquired Corus Estates and Vineyards. Corus was owned and operated by the Dan Baty family. Dan Baty is co-owner of Precept Brands, so this represents a consolidation that will better coordinate the marketing and distribution of the new entity's products. The newly acquired brands include Alder Ridge, 6 Prong, Zefina as well as other Oregon and Idaho (Sawtooth) brands. As part of this marketing expansion, an Alder Ridge tasting room has been opened in Woodinville to present Horse Heaven Hills AVA wines, including Zefina, produced by winemaker Rob Chowanantiez. The tasting room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday from 11 to 6, with extended hours to begin in May.
Note: Back in January, I visited Precept Brands' tasting rooms in Walla Walla: the Waterbrook Winery on Highway 12 and Walla Walla Wine Works on Downtown's Main Street. I found some exceptional values which will be reviewed in the March issue.