A new breed of talented and dedicated winemakers is emerging in the Pacific Northwest and is reminding the French, once again, that the U.S. is still and will always be a dynamic force to be reckoned with in the Global wine market. For decades Washington and Oregon have been synonymous with growing fruit, especially those coveted Fuji apples (I am eating one as I write this article courtesy of my friend, winemaker David Forsythe from Mercer Vineyards) that are primarily exported to Japan. But as of late these “Rhone Rangers” have been producing and growing world class Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Rhone Varietals.
The Yakima Valley in Washington State is nestled just south of Seattle and the Columbia Valley on the west hillside of the Cascade Mountains. Here, producers Owen Roe and Mercer crank out some serious vino. As we know, soil content and weather are very crucial to producing good fruit for wine and the vineyards that Owen Roe and Mercer use for their wine all have favorable growing seasons. The days are long and cool thus allowing the fruit to ripen fully with low pH, hence a grape that is low in acidity. The diversity of soils in this region allows for a massive difference in varietals from vineyard to vineyard giving each wine its own sense of place or “terroir.” In Yakima not only do Bordeaux varietals flourish; a hodge-podge of Rhone Varietals like Syrah, Mouvedre, Cinsault, and Viogner flourish as well. Talking about this AVA makes me want to drink wine, so I will. A 2008 Owen Roe, Red Willow Vineyard, Chapel Block Syrah sounds tantalizing. I love Cult wine producers not only because they seem to have an unprecedented ability to choose the best sites from which to make wine, they make so little (355 cases) that there is plenty of attention to detail. The wine maker essentially knows what every bottle will taste like. The color on this wine is a stunning brilliant ruby with definitive clear edges showing how youthful this wine actually is.
After admiring the beautiful colors typical of this varietal I decide to stick my schnoz right into the glass. Smelling spicy cedar reminds me of my humidor, and the luscious cherry and anise reminds me of my grandma’s house on Sunday. Tasting this wine should be exciting. I taste white pepper and a slight but not overbearing earthiness. Inky blueberry, strawberry and rhubarb fruit with a hint of vanilla on the finish and balanced acidity remind me of fruit of the forest pie. This wine has a nice long finish and is ready to drink alone, with food or your favorite Maduro. A big portion of the Yakima gets its sandy silt-laden soil from the Lake Missoula floods that occurred at the end of the ice age. The Red willow vineyard is situated at about 1200 feet above sea level and does not have this classic Yakima soil. However the soil that the vines do see is significantly poorer and older (pissed off vines make good wines). This gives lower yields and densely concentrates the fruits to produce a wine that has nuances of old world winemaking with a touch of new world finesse.
There is no wine that can match the approachability and complexity of The Yakima Valley for me, the reason being that I love the fruit forward wines in the mountain district of California. Where as sometimes I absolutely crave the earthy spicy tones of Bordeaux and Rhone. Washington State and their Rhone Rangers have been able to seamlessly mesh the styles of old and new world wine-making technology. Recently I sat down with my friend winemaker and general manager of Mercer, David Forsythe, to experience some of his trend-setting wines. They are making Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc I’ll call it “Neo-Bordeaux”, or “Nouveau-Bordeaux” based blends, again matching the fruit and acid balance of the new world and earthy leather of old-world. Our discussion was very insightful as I had questions about what made this stylistically possible. He discussed that the growing season, especially the 2010 was very long and temperate, and is what led to the delectable and approachable Sauv Blanc that I experienced. Low acid is produced in the grape over the long summer months. Generally, for me, Sauv Blanc hailing from New Zealand and Bordeaux is extreme in acid, and smells of cat-pee and herbs. But for me this was perfection. Grapefruit and apricot blended with a peachy stone fruit finish with slight herbal hints, and a touch of sweetness. On the Bouquet I experienced tropical fruits such as guava and lychee. Everything about this wine was layered and complex; imagine sitting on your back porch with your friends and family eating stone crab and smoking a nice Connecticut shade grown corona. The Yakima Valley and Pacific North-West are certainly regions to keep your eyes on, and if you haven’t yet, give them a chance. Because I promise you they will blow your mind away.
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