Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tasting Notes from the West Coast Correspondent!

Being an oenophile has its advantages, namely friends who are willing to drink for you and send you notes! My very talented friend James Bassett lives in Seattle and does sculpting, Qi-Gong instruction, and freelance writing and editing when he's not drinking wine. You can see his website here. Everything below is his wonderfully detailed guest post.

2007 Columbia Valley Syrah
Waters Winery
Columbia Valley, WA

Tremendously aromatic, this fine Syrah is “made of 100% Syrah from select ‘cool climate’ sites in Washington State.” Which means it is a blend, rather than being made from grapes all from a single vineyard. Which means that it is half the price of Waters’ impressive single-origin Syrahs -- yet it is nearly as good, in my opinion!

Black and red cherry, black pepper, cola, licorice, vanilla, even olive and watermelon swirl on the tongue, along with smoke, black tea, and subtle hints of a mushroomy muskiness that strengthens as the finish lengthens and lingers. The complexity on the tongue, along with an acidity that sneaks from the front of the mouth to the back as of the palate develops, though, will have you taking another sip long before that finish is finished. This is what Syrah at all about -- and it comes at a great price.

Hedges CMS Red 2009
Hedges Family Estate
Columbia Valley, WA
39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, and 16% Syrah.

Wine is a fascinating, sometimes baffling substance. It is so easily affected by so many factors, so dependent on both weather and winemaker, and can change drastically from year to year. Take the Hedges CMS, for instance. Two years ago I called the 2007 vintage one of the best wines in Washington -- in fact, one of my favorite wines, period. When your lovely hostess and her equally lovely husband visited the PNW last summer, I provided a sampling of several of my favorite local wines for them, picked from my guest reviews here on Cecilia’s site; the 2007 Hedges CMS was no longer available, so I got the 2008 instead.

The consensus: Meh.

For a number of reasons, 2007 was a truly spectacular year for wine across the state of Washington -- pretty much every grape in every region produced great wines. And 2008 seems to have been just as uniformly unspectacular. We were all completely unimpressed with the 2006 Hedges. It wasn’t at all *bad,* just completely and unremittingly *bland* from weak start to pale finish -- and a huge letdown after the 2007 (especially considering Cecilia and husband’s anticipation after my review). It was so unremarkable that neither Cecilia nor I bothered to review the wine at all. (Though perhaps we at least should have warned you, her valued readers, to Save Your Money. Well, better late than never: consider yourselves warned. . . . )

But now we have the Hedges Family’s effort for 2009. And the pendulum has swung away from the disappointment of 2008 and back toward flavor -- we can only hope that this is indicative of 2009 for Washington in general.

Now, before you get too excited, I have to say that the 2009 is not nearly as wonderful as the 2007. It is far less aromatic, and attacks with a disconcertingly acerbic bite on the tip of the tongue, almost as if this wine is trying to be sparkling. Hopefully that will soften as this wine ages. In any case, once you recover from that surprise, this settles down to a very enjoyable and well-behaved wine, grapey and peppery/herby with undertones of slate, cedar, tobacco, and tar. While it lacks the richness and character of 2007, it is nicely balanced (perhaps a bit on the hot side at the moment, but that should also fade with age) with a medium body and just enough tannin that it should pair well with most foods.

A to Z Pinot Noir 2008
A to Z Wineworks
Newburg, OR

Above and beyond the earth and spice we expect of any Pinot Noir, this medium-bodied wine sourced from across the state (hence “A to Z”) pretty well typifies *Oregon* Pinot Noir -- not much aroma, but in the mouth a strong minerality cuts the bright sweetness of red cherries, blueberries, even a hint of strawberries. Fruit dominates, but the palate has enough layers of flavor that it maintains its strength all the way to the end of the very long finish. Keeping in mind that 2008 wasn’t a very good year out here overall, you can certainly find better Pinot Noirs from the PNW (especially from Washington, but I may be biased. . . .), but it would be hard to find an easier-drinking wine appropriate for any occasion with any group, from connoisseurs to those friends who think that any wine that comes in a glass bottle is fancy (you know who I mean. . . .).

2007 Cabernet-Merlot
San Juan Vineyards
50% Merlot, 25% Cab Franc, 25% Cab Sauv

Very small vineyard on rustic, scenic San Juan Island -- closer to Victoria BC than to mainland Washington. When I saw small, I mean they have just seven acres planted -- mostly Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe, with one acre of Pinot Noir (the San Juans don’t get hot enough to grow reds). So 70% of their output is sourced from other Washington AVAs.

With Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the Yakima Valley and Cabernet Franc is from Horse Heaven Hills, this beautiful, ripe hand-crafted vintage spent 20 months in French, Hungarian, and American oak barrels, and that extra care is apparent as soona s you pull the cork.

The beautiful deep plum color, complimented by a very dusty aroma full of tannins, let you know just what to expect from this bold wine: cola and cocoa and smoke (oh my!) leap onto the palate with the first taste followed immediately by a perfusion of blueberry, cherry, cassis, and cedar. The high fruit is perfectly balanced with earthy, foresty bottom notes that carry through into a long, strong tannic/mineral finish. Wow!

They don’t make much of this -- or any of their wines -- but they do ship, so I’d suggest ordering some. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to get my grubby little mitts on some of their other products. And, say -- a good friend of mine just so happens to live on San Juan Island. Maybe it’s time I pay her a visit. . . .

Flying Fish Merlot 2008
Wahluke Wine Company
Columbia Valley, WA

Cherries (red and black), plums (very purple), chocolate and caramel, with touches of pomegranate and blueberry leading into silky vanilla-draped tannins in the long, subtle finish. This should pair quite nicely with just about anything as long as it’s not *too* spicy.

And if the wine itself doesn’t make you feel good enough about drinking it and you need even more reason, Wahluke donates a portion of the profits to Ocean Conservancy to protect wild healthy oceans “in honor of the waters that are home to the great salmon that travel thousands of miles from the ocean up the Columbia River past several of our vineyards.” So what are you waiting for?

Shooting Star Blue Franc 2008
Steele Wines, Lake County, CA
100% Yakima Valley (WA) Lemberger

Made in California, this surprising wine is made from Lemberger grapes grown in Washington’s Yakima Valley AVA. Lemberger is the American name for the Austrian Blaufränkisch -- or “blue grape from France.” Confused yet?

Well, don’t worry about it. All you have to know is that this crisp, medium-bodied wine starts out cinnamon-hot (from the alcohol showing through) and peppery, with coffee and plum swirling through, but that quickly gives way to big Merlot-y fruit. That, too, fades quickly, leaving soft tannins to carry that transparent alcohol heat An odd assortment of flavors, perhaps, but a good one. This wine is fine by itself, but you could also try pairing it with the hearty flavors of its Austrian (not French!) homeland

And as long as we’re immersed in geographic confusion, let’s go even more international and pop a cork on some bubbly (yes, French this time!):

Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Champagne NV

Okay, you may be asking yourself “Why is the West Coast wine correspondent reviewing French champagne? Especially when he doesn’t really even care for champagne?” Well, let’s just call this the special International Edition of my guest blogging. I was introduced to this particular French champagne in Miami by a dear English ballet-dancer friend of mine who lives in Las Vegas and is married to a Russian pyrotechnics expert. International, indeed!

Brighter and more floral (what some snobby types might call “unrefined”) than what you would expect from champagne, this wine is rich with hay, honey, green peppers and olives, grass, and melon/citrus flavors. This is not your typical champagne, and I say that’s a good thing -- and for only around $35, this from now on will be my go-to choice for those situations that absolutely call for champagne.

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