Finding love in a beautiful crowd

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photo: Suzi Pratt Photography

Trending varietals seduce from across the room while new vintages of tried and true favorites beckon. It’s time again for the nation’s largest single-region wine and food event, and with more than 200 participating wineries, Taste Washington begs for a strategy to navigate the tantalizing offerings. A few years ago, my one-day plan was elegant in its simplicity: Cabernet Franc. Focusing on wineries making single varietal vintages from this traditional blending grape allowed me to compare winemakers’ styles and unique characteristics of AVAs back-to-back, grounded in a touch point. Cab Franc’s food friendliness was a plus when sampling Taste WA restaurant fare, too.

The deep dive led to abiding love and curiosity. Washington winemakers are so adept at crafting well balanced, distinctive Cab Francs, why isn’t this a ‘thing’? Back in 2013, the Seattle Times declared Washington State Cabernet Franc a “hidden treasure”. Perhaps aficionados want to keep it a dark, lovely secret, though it’s becoming harder to do. More than a dozen winemakers will be showcasing single varietal Cabernet Franc at this year’s Taste WA. If you’re playing the field, I humbly suggest seeking out a few of these under-the-radar gems first. It’ll bring an added dimension when sipping those delightfully layered Bordeaux style blends later.

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photo: Suzi Pratt Photography

This year, evangelistic fervor for Washington Carménère has sparked my interest. A focused exploration of Washington Malbec is tempting my palate, and the number of wineries highlighting Viognier demands my attention. And what’s this? At least three Albariños are on the program. Single varietal rosés are tugging at my sleeve, too, vying to be this year’s target of my affection.

The only thing I know for sure at this point is, no matter where I set my wine compass in the search for new love this year, the journey will be worth it.

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This Valentine’s, I’ll have what she’s having: Syrah

The breadth and depth of Washington Syrah is a delicious wonder.  At a recent Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance tasting, this dark, handsome varietal stole my heart. I didn’t have time to taste them all, but if you’re heading to the event in Portland on February 26, may I suggest you…

..start with Five Stars Cellars 2013 Syrah – 53% Les Collines / 47% Blue Mountain vineyards to set your Syrah compass to true northwest…

…then head over to ‘Drink WA State’ for a beauty of an unfiltered beast, Eternal “Darkness”. Grab a palate refresher  before experiencing…

…the difference a vineyard makes. At Saviah Cellars – get an extra glass and taste the two Syrah offerings back to back. One is 100% from the Stones district, the other is half Stones/half Lewis Family Vineyard. The unique terroir of each linger on your palate.

Next hit The Walls to sample the funky “Cheys” named for the historic walls of Côte-Rôtie next to the smokey “Gaspard”.

Dusted Valley “Tooth Stainer” is a dark, earthy gem, while Amavi Cellars uses 4% Grenache for it’s floral aromatics in place of the usual kiss of Viognier. Trust Cellars seduces with blueberries and plums.

Before you circle back to Eternal Wines for a Syrah in a port style, sip a bit of Long Shadows Vintners “Sequel”. This vintage brought an enthusiastic “Wow!” from the woman next to me, followed by an embarrassed blush at the unexpected outburst.

Yes, Valentine, Syrah can do that.

 

Whoops… this is good.

The fledgling tendril poking out of the small root ball was supposed to be Merlot.

Planted in Nachez Heights, nurtured biodynamically and tended with great expectation, the vines proved three years later to be interlopers. Instead of the anticipated noble varietal, clusters of Zweigelt grapes appeared, eager as puppies to find their potential.

Zweigelt, which grows on the foothills of the Alps, apparently feels at home on the foothills of the Cascades, too. The resulting wine also seems comfortable nestled between organic offerings at local farmer’s markets.

Wilridge wine at Ballard Sunday Market

Wilridge wine at Ballard Farmer’s Market

2014 Wilridge Estate Zweigelt expresses a medium body, a dark amethyst color and lively red fruit. The winemaker says biodynamic techniques make the wine more connected to the Washington State terroir, which may explain why it pairs so tastily with local cheese and meats.

 

 

2014 WilRidge Estate Zweigert, Naches Heights

2014 WilRidge Estate Zweigert, Naches Heights

This Zweigelt is scrumptious with roasted pork shoulder. Perfectly balanced and only 13.5 % alcohol, it makes a great dinner party wine. Crowd pleasing, with a good story to match.

2014 Wilridge Estate Zweigelt, $38 available at the winery and farmer’s markets around the state.

How to love your wine even more

Think of one of your favorite wines. Ever. The way it sings with a steak off the grill. The deep color in your glass when you’re toasting friends. The wistful joy of the last sip.

Now imagine the unbelievable chance to actually pitch in and make that magic happen – in a very, very, very small way, but still…

Many thanks to Andy, Frank and Tim at Eight Bells Winery for letting me help de-stem the last of the 2015 harvest. Volunteering with small urban wineries gives you a unique perspective into winemaking and a new appreciation for the ruby happiness swirling in your stemware.  It also helps keep small volume winery costs managable. A win-win.

2010_Cabernet_Sauvignon_David's_Block_front_COLAI enjoyed  David’s Block with the first taste. I fell in love when I learned how it is made. The grapes come from an old world “field blend block” designed by Mike Sauer and David Lake in WA state’s Red Willow Vineyard.  The goal is to manage this vineyard block  so that all the fruit can be harvested at the same time, allowing the winery to co-ferment it for an integrated blend. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot grow side-by-side, destined for a pleasant harmony.

Elbow deep in grapes, you can ask all the questions that pop into your head;

a. what difference does a cool or warm year make?

b. Can you tell what a wine will be like just by tasting the grapes?

c. Um…what’s that moth doing in there?

a. A warm year usually produces a pronounced fruit, but a winemaker often has to rush. A cooler year gives the winemaker time to work with the specific character of that particular year’s yield.

b. Some folks claim they can taste the vintage in the grape. Eight Bells winemakers aren’t among those folks. They know when a grape tastes good and it informs the path they’ll take to make the wine they want.

c. According to Andy (deadpan): moths “go in the special reserve, over there”.

To love a bottle of wine even more, go to see how it’s made, meet the people who craft it and maybe even roll up your sleeves, grab a pitchfork and toss stems into the compost pile.

For the record, the moth was fished out and flew free.

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Eight Bells Winery David’s Block  Alc: 14.2%. Retail price: $35/bottle. 

Read more about what makes Eight Bells Winery “David’s Block” on their website: http://www.8bellswinery.com/…/winep…/_/19/2011/Davids-Block/

…and now for something (deliciously) different…

Beef, chicken, pork, pasta, *sigh*

“Hmmm” says T, “how about lamb chops?”

Cab, Merlot, Bordeaux blend…”Wait, where’s that bottle of Cabernet Franc?”

Medium rare, two-bite lamb chops are a decadent departure from everyday eating, and something this decidedly divergent deserves a deliciously different wine: Spring Valley Katherine Corkram Cabernet Franc.

KatherineWe discovered this pairing at last May’s Taste Washington event. Already fans of Spring Valley’s Bordeaux blend Frederick, we politely sampled the Cab Franc on offer. The heady violet scent was intriguing, but it was the sweet spice on the palette and long blueberry finish that had me racing back to the Hoist House table for another bite of shaved leg of lamb with huckleberry reduction. Cab Franc and lamb. Who knew?

And what a lovely Cab Franc Katherine Corkram is, showcasing deep layers of fruit and beautiful balance. The tannins are perfect for the silky, baby-fat lamb chops.

Washington state growers plant less than a thousand acres of Cabernet Franc compared to more than 10,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Spring Valley makes the most of the grape – usually a blending component – as a varietal.

Katherine is a Walla Walla beauty that graces meat dishes, but absolutely sings with lamb. A tasty departure from steak and Cab.

Katherine Corkram Cabernet Franc List $50.00

Dinner guests might enjoy a bit of Spring Valley history. There’s a nice one here:

http://palatepress.com/2012/05/wine/a-history-of-washington-wine/

 

 

 

Playing the percentages

“75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Malbec”

Wait. 2% Malbec? 2%?

It’s perplexing for a new vinophile (oenophile if you’re being fancy) to imagine that 2% Malbec or 1% Petit Verdot can possibly make enough of a difference to change the character of a wine. 1% …really?

Ah, but this is where you get to the heart of a winemaker’s goal.

First, let’s look at that 1-2%  Can you really taste a difference? Well, try squeezing a bit of lemon juice in water, probably less than 1%, but surely you pick up on a freshness that wasn’t there before. How about that pinch of salt in tomato juice? Brings out the flavor doesn’t it? My favorite recipe for Daube du Bouef calls for 1/8 teaspoon of capers. That’s right, 1/8 teaspoon in a big old dutch oven full of meat, vegetables and spices. When an ingredient has a certain quality, it can go a long way.

So what do stalwart mixing grapes bring to the party?

Petit Verdot adds a small amount of tannin, color and flavor to a blend. It can also boost the mid palate of a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Malbec brings a luxurious color and robust tannins. If you are playing by the old rules, Malbec is one of the six grapes allowed in a blend of red Bordeaux wine.

In whites, Semillon gifts a soft, smooth flavor and some herbal spiciness. You may see this blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.

Blending is an art, the alchemy of certain varietals that reveals subtle nuance and grace. Winemakers seek to bring balance, express particular notes, or layer character in their philters. A few percent of just the right this or that can conjure up gold in a glass.

One of my new year’s resolutions is to explore new wines. Experiencing traditional blending grapes as varietals seems a good place to start.

Some favorite Malbecs. Sensuously dark with seductive tannins :

Domanico Cellars 2012 Alder Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills
Sparkman Cellars 2012 Preposterous Kipsun Vineyard, Red Mountain
Capataz (Darioush) 2011, Mendoza, Argentina

Some favorite Petit Verdots. An irresistable, shadowy Maltese Falcom in your glass:

Domanico Cellars 2012 Alder Ridge Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills
Northstar 2010 Stone Tree Vineyard, Wahluke Slope

2011 Big reds not ready…are they?

T is sorting hickory chunks to grill a couple of two inch, bone-in ribeyes. We’re talking two, forty-four once slabs of seriously marbled meat, calling for a seriously big wine.

Perusing the cellar, T’s eyes fall on a couple bottles of a certain Syrah. Okay, ‘cellar’ is a generous term for the small wine fridge where we stash special wines. We are not collectors and T is not one to postpone joy. But we’ve learned to snatch up vintages we like from small wineries before they sell out. Which brings us back to those special bottles.

Should we tap the 2010 Sparkman Darkness – so young – or choose juice with a little more bottle age?

As luck would have it, Sparkman Cellars was having a release party for select 2011 varietals this weekend. A sip of the new stuff should give us a clue as to what’s waiting under the corks back home.

Plus, who can resist a Sparkman release party? These folks welcome you like a favorite long-lost cousin at an extended family reunion. Today was no exception. Sitting in the shade outdoors, scarfing stuffed pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, (topped with perfect slaw) sipping a 2011 Darkness, we had our answer.

Back home, we popped open one of each. Both are 100% Syrah from Yakima Valley’s Boushey and Olsen vineyards. But, surprise, while both are deep, rich, spicy and aromatic, the 2011 opened up earlier than the 2010.

Fortunately we still have a few delicious bottles of each to sample next to the 2012.