What made this tasting particularly enlightening was the way it was structured, with three flights of wines each featuring one of Washington's major grape varieties. In each flight, the first of the four wines was a named wine from Washington acting as a template for the other wines. The other three were tasted blind, examples of the same grape variety to act as a comparison without prejudice. This was a great way of focusing on the characteristics of Washington wine, learning about other regions, while really making us think about why each wine tastes like it does.
RieslingThe best wines from Riesling are made with little interference in the winery, and it's all about the variety and the vineyard or region the grapes come from. I'm still not as excited about Washington's Riesling as some local winemakers are, so it was interesting to taste a couple of wines in comparison to Australia and Germany. The template was Eroica ($22; ✪✪✪✪), a collaboration made since 1999 between Chateau Sainte Michelle, by far the state's largest producer, and Ernst Loosen, one of the iconic winemakers of Germany. It's a pleasant, good-value, medium-dry wine with citrus and stone fruit aromas, but one that seems aimed more at local rather than international tastes.
The three wines tasted blind alongside it were around the same price. The wine from Australia, Yalumba's Pewsey Vale ($20; ✪✪✪✪), is a classic representation of Eden Valley, one often used in educational tastings to demonstrate the intense lime and dry mineral characteristics of Australia's world-class Riesling. The German Riesling was from Mosel, a Kabinett whose sweetness and weight made it feel more like a Spätlese: there's a combination of elegance and richness to the best German wines that no other Riesling-producing region can match. Drink Christoffel's Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett ($27; ✪✪✪✪✪) with spicy food, and have a tongue-twisting competition saying the name.
The other Riesling was an outlier: again from Washington, made by the dramatically named EFESTĒ ($20; ✪✪✪✪✪) and again from Evergreen Vineyard in Ancient Lakes AVA where the Eroica mainly comes from. It was off-dry with an intense texture, which made most people in the room mistake it for Alsace. The wine made me reassess Washington Riesling - that it can compete with, and be mistaken for, Rieslings from around the world, and at a very good price.
SyrahGreg Harrington, an MS turned winemaker, described Syrah as a wine for Pinot Noir lovers with sophisticated palates. This brought out a chuckle, but he was making a serious point. He continued that there are Syrah producers who make the wines to be like Cabernet Sauvignon, and there are others who make it like Pinot Noir. He firmly places himself in the latter category - not least because the northern Rhône, geographically and in terms of climate, is so close to Burgundy.
One of the wines we tasted underlined his point, albeit in a roundabout way. Wind Gap are an eclectic producer from California; their Nellessen Vineyard Syrah ($42; ✪✪✪✪), which we tasted blind, was from a cooler area of Sonoma. Fermented in whole clusters it smelt very carbonic, that's to say bubblegum and strawberries. If I hadn't known it was Syrah, I would have guessed the wine to have been from Beaujolais, a region which has the same granite soils as the northern Rhône and a similar climate - and I've read old nineteenth-century textbooks that group Beaujolais and the northern Rhône together. It may be that we should be thinking about the connections between Syrah and Gamay, or the northern Rhône and Beaujolais, much more - even if it takes US producers to point out those connections.
|The Rocks District|
The final wine was the 2014 Côte-Rôtie by Saint-Cosme ($65; ✪✪✪✪✪), a tannic, dry, subdued wine which reminded me of just how French French wine is, showing how expressively Syrah reflects where it comes from.
|Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Willow Vineyard|
Can the best of Washington age as well as the best of Bordeaux and other established regions? Maybe that could be the subject for another tasting.