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As I meandered along the tree-covered hills and winding roads leading to Rancho Valencia Resort in Rancho Sante Fe, California (U.S. News and World Report’s number-one resort in California,) my anticipation grew. I was not disappointed to see this lavish resort, set on 45 acres of gardens and olive groves. Not only did I get to enjoy this beautiful resort and experience a glorious outdoor terrace breakfast, because on the agenda was a seminar with wine tasting about Washington State wines. How could a day be better!
Just to give you a little background, the United States produces about 8 percent of the global wine production. California, the largest producer in the United States, is followed by Washington State, producing 4 percent of the world’s wine. Planting began in the 1960s, and today there are over 900 wineries in the state, with over 40 varieties of grapes grown. The predominant ones grown are Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
So what makes Washington State wines so unique? While most of us think of Seattle and its abundance of rain, the Cascade Mountain chain running from north to south in the state creates a "rain shadow" effect. The impact on wines is a dry, consistently warm temperature during the growing season, bringing about consistency in the quality. Those warm days provide ripe fruit aromas and flavors. While the days are warm, the nights cool down rapidly, causing what is known as a diurnal shift of 30 to 40 degrees that helps to preserve natural acidity. In addition to the temperature, the basalt bedrock, loess silt and fine sand add to the minerality of the grapes and reduce the chance of phylloxera (the disease that has killed vines around the world.) Because there isn’t the risk of phylloxera, most everything is planted on its own roots, unique to Washington State. In addition, the array of wine growing regions in the state allows growth of numerous varietals.
Nine glasses of wine sat in front of us to sample. The first was a Riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle in the Columbia Valley. The Eroica Riesling comes across as very concentrated with layers of flavor. It speaks to minerality and fruitiness. I discovered this Riesling and many from Washington are not cloyingly sweet but on the drier side with high acidity and can be aged. There are flavors of lime and orange with crisp acidity. The Eroica Riesling sells for $20 and is well worth every drop.
Wine number two was the Avennia Winery Oliane Sauvignon Blanc grown in the Yakima Valley ($28 retail.) The wine was barrel fermented in French Oak. We noticed acidity, minerality, and pink grapefruit with some Meyer lemon notes. There isn’t an overly grassy flavor often found in Sauvignon Blancs, but rather a straw flavor. The cooler nights in the Yakima Valley preserve the acidity and intensity of this wine. This wine can actually last for five to seven years in the cellar.
The third wine sampled was the Celilo Chardonnay from Woodward Canyon ($44 retail), a wine very much in the Burgundian style. The grapes were grown in Walla Walla and the Columbia Gorge. We learned that they're are often picked from a warm site and a cooler site and then blended to create more structure and a lasting flavor on the palate. I noticed flavors of pear and pineapple, as well as minerality and a smooth richness. There was only a slight oak flavor - exactly what the winemaker wanted.
Wine number four, the 2013 L’Ecole Estate Merlot ($36), offers a lot of structure and purity without being too fruity. For this reason, this Merlot tastes more in the Bordeaux style rather than California. The Ferguson Vineyard, where half the grapes grow has a lot of basalt rock where the roots grow so that the roots don’t become too big and plush. The other 50 percent is grown in the Seven Hills Vineyard, adding elegance and old-world structure to the wine. I tasted dark fruit, clove, and plum and well as an earthiness. This is one of the best Merlots I have sampled.
We were ready to sample the fifth wine, a 2013 Pére de Famille Betz Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($75). 2013 was a year where the heat stayed constant through the summer months, a small amount of rainfall, and then a cooling trend right before harvest which brought about rich texture, complexity, and acidity. Because of this change in weather, there is a complexity with layers of fruit and a big mouthfeel. The nose is of red currant, herbs and leather. The taste is cassis, violets, and red plums, a truly delicious wine. You could drink this wine on a special occasion and know you were having a quality wine.
The sixth, the 2009 Côte Bonneville Carriage House Bordeaux blend ($50) from the Yakima Valley, shows off flavors of black cherry, red currant, pepper, and chocolate. The blend is 62 percent Cabernet, 27 percent Merlot, and 11 percent Cab Franc. The diurnal shift in the 45 acres where the grapes are grown creates micro climates that give this wine diversity and more tannins. Again, this is an amazing wine.
The 2014 K Vintners Motor City Kitty Syrah ($40 retail), Wine #7, has been awarded 96 points by Robert Parker. Sustainable farming practices are used where the grapes are grown in the old Walla Walla River bed, soil comprised of lots of rock providing good drainage. This Syrah is smooth and light with dry herbs and earthiness.
We were asked to compare the Motor City Kitty Syrah with Wine number eight, a Hedges Family Estate Syrah ($30), grown in the Red Mountain region of the state. Sarah Hedges Goedhart is the winemaker for Hedges. Syrah is highly sensitive to its origin. Sarah focuses on creating a wine with balance by managing the tannins in an effort to not make such an overblown Syrah but one more in the Old-World style. The color of this wine is a very deep purple, and it has an earthy nose of dried herbs. The flavor is of blackberry, licorice, citrus, and herbs and has a long finish which I enjoy very much. This wine is ready to drink right now but can be shelved for up to 15 years.
Number nine, 2014 Syncline Winery Mourvédre ($35) from the Columbia Valley, is comprised of grapes planted on the shoreline of the great Missoula Floods in Horse Heaven Hills, a steep and stony hillside with southern exposure. Grapes also came from the Red Mountain area, an area of deep bedrock formed by massive lava outflows. The largest floods ever recorded followed in this area, topping the sediment with sand and silt. These layers bring out grapes that produce wines of incredible structure and longevity. This Mourvédre is a lush and rich wine with flavors of plum, cassis, and minerality.
Washington State wines are wines with layers of flavor, not cloyingly fruity, and taste more in the Old-World style. I foresee a trip to this beautiful part of our country and an opportunity to visit a variety of wineries in the near future.