Monday, October 26, 2009

Washington State

After my foray with Maryhill Winery, I jealously read K2's "Washington Wine road trip." The state's been pretty good to me lately, so I thought I might as well take a little closer look at the place, especially since a broader variety keep showing up in the wine stores around and about.

On the world wine stage, Washington's a relative newcomer. Not long after settlers started moving to the Pacific Northwest in great numbers in the late 1880's...along came Prohibition to throw a big ol' monkey wrench into the works. Once the Dark Ages were over, Washington started producing some wines -- but most of them were of the sweet, jug variety. "Actual" wine production really got moving in the 60's and 70's, and some of the more recognizable labels (Columbia Winery, Chateau St. Michele) started showing up.

Washington wines were largely a curiosity nationwide until the merlot boom of the 1990's. Washington's soil and cooler climate were perfect, it turned out, for cranking out large quantities of relatively inexpensive, approachable merlot. This gave the state a real foothold in the American market and it's been solid ever since.

My image of the Pacific Northwest didn’t exactly match up with "perfect grape growing environment." When I think of Washington, I think of snow-capped mountains, gorgeous rivers, Pearl Jam, and lots of rain. Grapes like to grow in dry soil -- and dry is not the first thing most people think of regarding Washington climate. What kind of amphibious grapes are they growing out there?

The answer lies, as it usually does, in geography.All but one of the viticultural (WineSpeak for "wine grape growing") regions lie to the east of the Cascade Mountains. While western Washington is very wet, the Cascades form enough of a tall, solid wall that the clouds end up dropping all their moisture on the west side of the mountains, leaving the eastern side extremely arid, but with irrigation water available. Couple this with sandy, volcanic soil, and you've got a dreamy place for a vinifera grape vine to drop roots.

You'll see a lot of similar varietals from both California and Washington. If you try them side-by-side, though, you'll probably notice a pretty sharp difference. Especially among the reds, Washington wines tend to be "softer" wines. Cooler climates allow grapes to ripen more slowly. The fruit and tannin tend to be more subtle. I've rarely run into a fruit bomby merlot from Washington, especially among inexpensive ones -- whereas if you try a merlot from California at the same price point, you'll get a big, fat dark berry in the face.

A nice example I found lately was the Dusted Valley 2006 "Boomtown" Merlot. At first sip, I noted how much lighter this wine tasted. It also started off almost tart, so I decanted it, and the flavors balanced pretty well. The tartness eases a bit as some air gets to it. The nose is raspberryish and tasty. The flavor isn't overly fruity, sliding more towards an easy smokiness. By itself, I thought it was OK -- but we put next to a somewhat complicated-spice meal and it performed beautifully. On the menu: roasted pork chops in a Moroccan (read: nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon-heavy) spice blend, sautéed pears in a sauce of apricots, onions, honey, and more of that spice blend. The spices, being largely bases, cut the tartness in the wine -- allowing more of the cherry and berry fruit character to show through -- and it smoothed out the spices as well. This one was around $15 for a spice-friendly, light meat answering wine.

Washington also produces a fair number of other Bordeaux-type grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon is fairly common, and Bordeaux blends of Cabernet and Merlot are easy to find. I popped open a Washington blend and found some interesting iterations. The Kiona 2003 Cabernet/Merlot was a fascinating blend, especially for $9. The wine had an interesting "French funk" on the nose that I would not have expected. The body had some muted fruit and earthiness that could easily have passed for a young Bordeaux. The finish was slightly fruity, and definitely a major value if you're into some more Francophilic selections. This one also demonstrates the aging potential of some of those wines -- since it's held up flawlessly for six years in a low price point.

There are a number of good pinot noirs as well, although they can sometimes be a little hard to track down. (Oregon is usually the better bet for pinot.)

Among whites, Washington is known widely for some very good Rieslings and Gewurztraminers. They're made in a wide variety of styles, and I've tried a couple of examples lately. The other day, I had the Chateau St. Michele Cold Creek Vineyard 2006 Riesling -- CSM is one of the best-known Washington wineries and, along with Hogue, always produces a bottle that I know I can count on. I've thought their regular Riesling is always a little too sweet and slightly sharp, but this "single vineyard" version still comes in at around $13 and is a significant improvement. It's got a slightly "oily" nose with plenty of apple and melon scents. The body is very smooth. It's nicely balanced -- it reminds me a lot of a German Kabinett. The fruit holds firm and doesn't get lost in some of the sharpness that some Rieslings have on the end. The finish is soft and pleasant. It was an absolutely exceptional pairing with a potato, leek, and fennel soup topped with smoked salmon.

I also cracked the Barnard Griffin 2008 Columbia Valley Riesling. Quite a contrast. It's very light for a Riesling -- almost Chardonnayish in feel-- with a flint and lemon nose. The flavor was very crisp and minerally. Some tasty green apples at first, but it mellows a little to a creamy lemon. The citrusy finish is a little tingly, almost like there's a little spice or carbonation. Good acidity. There are few Rieslings I'd consider "refreshing," but this one fills that bill. It also matched up well with a chicken & chickpea curry.

Washington wines, for me, have always been good, reliable choices. Many of my "go to" inexpensive bottles have been from there -- and as I'm trying more wines from there, I'm realizing just how much depth this region has. The winemakers up there do experiment quite a bit, so I'm looking forward to seeing what the next "big thing" from there will be.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Maryhill Winery

When I attended the Cincinnati International Wine Festival, I noted that Maryhill Wineries in Goldendale, Washington, was one of the labels with which I was the most intrigued. While my palate was somewhat blunted by the cacophony of flavors that I'd been working with that day, I found myself really drawn to Maryhill. They were priced right, seemed tasty and straightforward, and were easy to quaff.

They grow a broad variety of grapes, which can sometimes give pause, but they manage to keep the quality fairly consistent. Most of their wines are in the $10-20 range, which makes them quite attractive. Since the festival, Maryhill's done pretty well for itself. They were recently named the 2009 Washington Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest. Their production has expanded greatly over the last few years, and their wines are becoming much more available.

I was understandably pleased when a case and a half of the wine showed up on our doorstep to review. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I were up to the challenge, so over the period of a few weeks, we cobbled together some notes:

Maryhill Winery 2006 Cabernet Franc -- Because of a story too long to relate here that involved a Sangiovese that"missing" from our cellar, a rosé that ended up being too sweet, and a football game we needed to watch -- I ended up popping this wine on a night when we were having a more "Italian Friendly" meal. (I also ended up pulling a little trickeration on the SPinC...) This is definitely a more fruit-forward, "New World" Cab Franc. A plummy, slightly minty nose with a full mouthfeel. The flavor is quite fruity, with a nice blueberry and smoke undertone. I might have mistaken it for a Cabernet Sauvignon, except the tannins were much softer and the acidity level considerably higher. The finish is acidic and a bit smoky. We had a grilled salmon with roasted tomatoes and tomato risotto for dinner that evening. The pairing worked really well. The grilled flavor of the fish accentuated the smoke behind the fruit in the wine. The acidity tamed the oil in the fish, and the tomatoes didn't overwhelm it, as they could have. I opened another bottle of this with friends Danny and Ryan. We got to this one after a couple of other bottles and some tastes of old scotch. Surprisingly, the fruit still made it to our scorched tongues. ($18)

Maryhill Winery 2008 Rose of Sangiovese -- For folks who like slightly sweet rosés, this will be a favorite. I'd be interested to know how this wine came about. It's somewhat heavy in the mouth for a rosé, since it's got a fair amount of residual sugar. There's enough acidity to keep it from becoming cloyingly sweet, but I can't say that it was my favorite. It's actually the rosé I mentioned in the Cab Franc writeup. I think it would have been better if it were either made in a fruitier style or allowed to dry out a bit more. The sweetness made it neither fish nor fowl. (Although it might be reasonably tasty with either -- $14.)

Maryhill Winery 2007 Pinot Gris -- "Simple and uncomplicated" is about as apt a description as you'll find for this wine. It's a straightforward, summery wine. The nose is extremely light and lemony. The flavor is much like the bouquet, light and citrusy with some pear and lemon flavors. The finish is quick and acidic, with a bit of a lingering astringency -- almost like a little bit of oak crept through -- but not enough to really be a strong part of the flavor. There's also a little peppery hint as well. It's a decent enough wine. Not my favorite pinot gris, but certainly one that works well enough on a hot day to relax with. ($15)

Maryhill Winery 2006 Zinfandel -- We first tried this as a "second bottle" of the evening. We'd had dinner and had a bottle of pinot noir with it. We were having post-meal chocolate, and the SPinC asked, "Do we have anything that's good with chocolate?" After surveying the scene, I cracked this open. After it opened up a bit -- the nose is big and bold with blueberries and bubblegum. The palate is uncomplicated, but nicely jammy with more blueberry and raspberry flavors. This slides smoothly into a finish with balanced tannins and great flavors of dark chocolate and coffee. And yes, it went remarkably well with dark chocolate and brownies. We had to try both with know, for science's sake. ($22)

Maryhill Winery 2008 Viognier -- We were putting together a salad of our garden veggies, some grilled chicken, and a balsamic vinaigrette and hadn't opened a wine for it yet. I took a shot in the dark here, and it paid off. The nose of this wine is less floral than many viogniers, nosing more of light wood and minerals than of flowers. The flavor is a medium bodied mix of pear and pineapple with a touch of the traditional viognier oiliness. Vanilla dominated the finish. Quite tasty. The salad had a number of strong flavors -- citrus, smoke from the grilled chicken, fresh lemon basil, earth from mushrooms, and this wine stood right up next to it all. It didn't overwhelm the salad's flavors, but it didn't turn either insipid or astringent. A great wine to pair with the salad. The longer the wine sat, the more pronounced the smokiness and vanilla became. I'd really consider letting this sit open for a half hour before diving in. We confirmed the pair's quality at the end when the SPinC reached for the bottle and said, "Hey...well...this sure didn't last long...." One of the highlights and a steal at $15.

Maryhill Winery 2006 Proprietor's Reserve Malbec -- We cracked this on a night where we'd both had a long week and wanted to put together a nice meal. We'd watched a few episodes of some old Julia Child shows from Netflix and we decided to try our hand at some green beans and stuffed mushrooms. For a main course, we marinated up a London broil in some vinaigrette and lime juice and tossed it on the grill. Grilled food & Malbec. We figured we couldn't lose. Nice nose of vanilla and dark fruit. I might have mistaken it for a good Merlot. Nice smooth, balanced fruit on the palate that slides easily towards a finish full of vanilla, pepper, and coffee. It's a very balanced Malbec without some of the really harsh tannins that some of them can have. It's also not quite as spicy, so if that's what you're focusing on, that's probably not going to ring a bell for you. But if you're looking for more of a balanced flavor, it's nice. I get the sense, also, that this is somewhat of an "experimental," limited production wine. It's about $30, so I might wait a couple of years on this one, unless you want to lay it up for a few years, which could prove interesting.

Maryhill Winery 2006 Syrah -- I'm very glad we had a spare bottle of this one from the shipment. We opened the first one and it drank easily enough that we went through the whole thing without writing a note! Second time through, we had it with what started as fajitas and turned into a "lots of beef, peppers, garlic and onions over black beans" meal. Yeah, so it might not have been the "perfect pairing," but it worked nonetheless. Really nice nose on this wine -- plenty of vanilla and soft wood scents. It's medium-bodied for a syrah, slightly jammy -- good blackberry flavor and some pepperiness. Good, easy finish with some lasting clove and coffee flavors. We made the meal with more of a smoky heat than a spicy one (Tabasco Chipotle sauce is great stuff...), and the peppery notes complemented those spices nicely. Again, dangerously easy to drink, but we held off a little for chocolate, and we were glad we did. ($20)

Maryhill Winery 2006 "Winemaker's Red" -- The Maryhill "Bordeaux Blend with a twist" is their most popular wine. It's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, with the "twist" being some Syrah thrown in for good measure. It's got an interestingly plummy, funky nose -- very earthy for a wine from the Northwest. Like a Bordeaux, it's lighter on the palate than many of the California meritages, so they've got the body right. The finish is where the wine was a tad disappointing. Initially, the finish seemed a little watery, smoky and clipped. After some serious swirling (and drinking about half a glass), some coffee notes come forth and the balance improves. Not the most complicated wine, but very drinkable. I wonder what it would be like with another year in bottle. A decent value at $14.

Maryhill Winery 2006 Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon -- The few cabs that I've had from the Pacific Northwest have tended to be mellow, "drink me now" concoctions. The cooler climate tends to make more subtle wines. Maryhill's Cab is certainly subtle, but it carries a little muscle with it. It's not as powerful as many of the California versions, but it is a full wine just the same. The nose simply wasn't there at first, but after an hour of breathing and quite a bit of swirling, I got rewarded with a very smooth, licorice and berry nose. The palate is fruity once the wine opens. At first, it's a wall of tannin, but the fruit does emerge. Once it does, lots of dark fruit and coffee. The finish is long and a bit heavy on the tannin. With the steak we had for dinner, though, that tannin was a bonus -- allowing the wine's fruit to show up and balance the meat, the mushrooms, and even the wilted spinach. With the mandatory chocolate and cabernet pairing, we were a bit underwhelmed. It was good -- but the flavors didn't quite marry. The reserve is $36. (Their "normal" cab is $20.) Would be a good one to grab a few bottles of and stick in the cellar for 3-4 years. Once the tannins have calmed, this'll be a rock star.

To sum up, with the exception of the pinot gris, I'd recommend most of these. (Warm weather whites like pinot gris generally don't do as well in the Northwest, in my experience.) The price is right for most of them and they've all got some depth for wines at these price points. If you can find these in your local store, give them a go.