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Wines of the Pacific Northwest

by Tom Cannavan, 06/01

A coalition of winemakers from the Pacific Northwest - Oregon, Washington and Idaho - brought their wines to London for a press tasting event. This was a great opportunity to taste these wines in depth, given that most UK supermarkets and multiple wine chains sell so few wines from this region. The reasons for this revolve around the relative scarcity of the wines on these shores, and the fact that they seem to be priced at a premium to much of what would seem to be their direct competition.

In some ways there are parallels with say Alsace or New Zealand, where there is no lake of 'basic' wine production that can be shipped in bulk and sold at low prices to supermarket shoppers. These 'entry level' high-volume wines can serve a very useful purpose of introducing the 'average' wine consumer to a region or style previously unfamiliar, and the volumes at the lower end support the whole local industry and allow certain economies of scale.

Like Alsace and New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest has a unique and very high quality growing conditions, and the wines show real clarity of fruit, good acidity and balance. The way the wine industry works appears most unlike Alsace and New Zealand however. Washington wineries in particular seem to be owned by well-heeled business people who have made their money in other industries - often high tech and high finance - and have pursued a dream of the perfect golden lifestyle making wine on the US West Coast. I was generously invited to dinner after the tasting with the vine growers and wine makers (the two seem to be more or less mutually exclusive, with most wineries buying in grapes from farmers). They seemed a sun-burnished, affluent, urbane and charming lot by and large, who were confident about their wines, had their ambitions set only on the highest levels, and were determined that Pacific Northwest wines would maintain their premium position. The key question, of course, is are the wines intrinsically good enough to command the premium, or will their lofty ambitions fall upon stony ground. The UK's relatively hard-nosed wine drinkers are spoiled for choice with wines from around the globe.

Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Merlot are seen as the 'hottest' varieties in the region, though there are varied plantings from Riesling to Sangiovese. My notes on what I found follow, but I would have to conclude that some of the wines do seem a couple of pounds overpriced on the UK market. Strangely, I felt this most at around the £8 to £10 level; the premium priced wines at £20 plus seemed pitched rather better by and large. Having said that, these are wines of a generally very high quality with some absolutely stunning examples, and the price to a certain extent reflects strong demand in the USA.

Oregon

Amity Vineyards Willamette Valley pinot Noir 1998 - £15-20
Very attractive nose. Soft, damp, woodland aromas and nice warm strawberry fruit. The palate is fairly restrained with quite high acidity and modest, though juicy, fresh fruit. Moderately long finish. Good/very good. (for UK stockists contact Pimlico Dozen 020 7834 3647)

Amity Vineyards Winemaker's Reserve Pinot Noir 1996 - £20+
This has a nicely developed nose displaying soft, smoky red fruits and just a little gamy, animal edge that adds interest. A little disappointing on the palate, where there is a slight astringency in the finish after reasonable fruit. Could be slightly out of condition?

Firesteed Pinot Gris 1999 - £9-10
Nice herbal and greengage fruit on the nose, with ripe, confected nuances and hints of pear and pear-drop sweets. This shows good richness and medium body with lots of creamy, mouthfilling pear and apple fruit and bright citrus acidity. Quite straightforward in style, but very good (for UK stockists contact Liberty Wines 020 7720 5350).

Firesteed Pinot Noir 1999 - £10-15
A wine I've tasted in several vintages, and which I thought was good value a few years ago at £7.99 or so. This has a lovely, gently earthy nose with an undergrowth and bracken quality of Pinot fruit. Good mouth-feel with quite rich fruit that is sweet without being jammy and has a nice herbal edge. Low-key tannins but decent acidity sharpen the finish and keep it very savoury. Delicious Pinot and very good indeed.

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 1997
The Washington outpost of famous Burgundy house of Drouhin has been making Pinot Noir and latterly Chardonnay for over 10 years, and is overseen by Robert Drouhin and his daughter Véronique Boss-Drouhin. This has a lovely light ruby colour and good nose showing subdued oak and creamy strawberry and blackcurrant fruit. The palate has a fine texture and plenty of sweet fruit with raspberry fresh acidity and fine, sweet tannins. Drinking really well and very good indeed (for UK stockists contact Morris & Verdin 020 7357 8866).

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 1998
A touch more vegetal on the nose with a light, delicate fruitiness and strawberry cheesecake quality. Good fruit on the palate and again fine tannins and integrated acidity give a very stylish character and there's good length. Very good indeed/Excellent.

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Cuvée Laurène 1997
Quite a high, cherry cola and sarsaparilla character to finely-wrought, elegant fruit. Light, with creamy raspberry fruit that carries through onto the palate. Lovely silky texture again (a hallmark of these wines) and again lipsmacking, fresh tannins and acidity. Very good length. Excellent.

Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir Cuvée Laurène 1996
Shows lots of development with truffle and woodland notes, fine spice-box aromatics and subtle oak. The fruit is slightly darker, glossy and truffly. Very classy palate with fine integration of components and beautifully silky fruit. Perfumed and long, this is excellent.

Duck Pond Pinot Noir 1998 - £10-15
Quite bright, crisp, up-front fruit on the nose with sweet cherry and a touch of menthol, a little nuance of toffeed oak. The palate is rather dull by comparison; there is quite a nice quality of cherry and raspberry fruit, but it somehow seems just a little tired. Quite Good (for UK stockists contact The Wine Treasury 020 7793 9999).

King Estate Lorane Valley Pinot Gris 1999 - £8-10
Good, sweet, rich and unctuous confectionery fruit. Simple, just off-dry palate with plenty of uncomplicated juicy fruit and nice texture. Good. (for UK stockists contact Southern Wine Brands 01484 608 898)

King Estate Pinot Gris 1999 - £10-15
Lovely fruit quality on the nose again and a little more complexity with honeysuckle nuances and limpid, clear, peach fruit. Fine ripeness on the palate with a pure quality of pear fruit and lush mouthfeel. Quite long. Very good.

Rex Hill Vineyards Kings Ridge Pinot Noir 1999 - £10-15
Plenty of toast and high, charry French oak over ripe, sweet berry fruit. Palate is surprisingly simple and a little flat - suspect a slightly corked bottle. (for UK stockists contact Moreno Wine Importers 020 8960 7161)

Rex Hill Vineyards Pinot Noir 1998 - £20+
This has very clean, crunchy, open and welcoming berry fruit on the nose with much less obvious supporting oak that still has a toasty richness. Quite subtle on the palate, but nice complexity and structure with a silky mouthfeel and an earthy darkness to cherry and raspberry fruit. Good length and boosted by gentle tannins and acidity into the finish. Very good indeed.

Silvan Ridge Early Muscat 1999 - £8-10
Well I loved this. At only 6.5% alcohol, it's in the style of the best Moscatos from northern Italy with a light sparkle and lovely sweetness. Loaded with muscaty, grape and floral aromas onto a palate flooded with ripe peach fruit and foamy richness. No great length and a bit over-priced, but lovely stuff. Very good (for UK stockists of this and following two wines contact Artina Wines 01280 824 120). P> Hinman Vineyards Pinot Noir 1998 - £8-10
Sweet, jammy cherry fruit though crisp and fresh. Nice notes of violets and liquorice. Sour cherry fruit on the palate and highish acidity, medium body and some drying tannins. Good.

Hinman Vineyards Pinot Noir 1998 - £8-10
Sweet again, slightly more rounded, fat fruit character and more obvious creamy oak. More flesh on the palate too, with a fuller mid-palate and good fruit. Nice balance and moderately long finish. Very good.

Washington

Covey Run Fumé Blanc 1999 - £9-10
Nice ripe, juicy, greengage fruit on the nose; lots of crunchy fruit with gooseberry and leafy, herbal aromas. Not too much oak influence. Cool and crisply fruity on the palate with nice lemon and lime flavours backed up with a suggestion of tropicality. Fine purity and good length. Very good indeed (not available in UK currently)

Covey Run Barrel Select Merlot 1998 - £10-15
Peppery nose with rich red fruit quality, quite light and bright. Creamy red fruits on the palate too, but slightly hollow in the mid-palate with grippy tannins and acidity biting down to shorten the finish. Quite Good.

Chateau Ste Michelle Eroica Riesling 1999 - £15-20
This is a much talked-about wine made in partnership with Dr Loosen, the famous Riesling exponent of Germany's Mosel valley. It is very highly sought after, and recently won an award as North America's best Riesling. It has a beautifully light, flowery nose with Springtime character, some sweet pear and apple fruit and just a hint of mineral structure. On the palate it is off-dry in style, and flooded with ripe, sweet pear apple fruit. Very racy and fresh, it finishes well and lingers on the palate. I have to say it seems awfully expensive for what it is; it is similar to a Mosel Kabinett in style - most of which cost much less - but it is very good indeed (for UK stockists contact Caxton Wines 020 8538 4500).

Chateau Ste Michelle Johannesburg Riesling 1999 - £5-8
Again a sweetly-fruited Riesling nose showing more sherbet character as well as ripe apple and pear. Good weight on the palate, off-dry and well-balanced, with nice acidity running through to the finish. A third of the price of the wine above - I confess I'd rather have three of these! Very good.

I'll confess I don't see where the money is in the Eroica. I know Ernie Loosen and am a huge fan of his wines, and the Eroica is very good, but if the price is set at the thick end of £20/$30 I cannot see the value compared to Rieslings of the Mosel, or even Chateau Ste Michelle's own version.

Chateau Ste Michelle Canoe Ridge Merlot 1998 - £15-20
Bright, juicy, focused peppered-berry fruit . Creamy red berries dominate. The palate is sweet and reveals a plummy depth of fruit and dry, chocolaty density underpinned by a framework of spicy oak and fine tannin. Very good indeed

L'Ecole No 41 Columbia Valley Merlot 1998 - £15-20
More obvious toasty, charry French oak nose, full of burnt toast aromas but over a menthol-sweet blackcurrant fruitiness. The palate is powerful with dense, meaty structure and big powerful tannins, layers of richness and full body. Very impressive, but not overblown thanks to well-balanced acidity and grip in the finish. Very good indeed/excellent (for UK stockists contact Pimlico Dozen 020 7834 3647).

Hedges Cellars Fumé Chardonnay 1999 - £8-10
Sauvignon Blanc makes up 27% of the blend for this wine, which has a very attractive nose, bursting with fresh tropical fruit and with tell-tale leafy, gooseberry aromatics beneath. Pear and white peach fruit dominate the palate, as well as a lovely orangy note, with lots of crisp, crunchy appeal and a broadening note of creamy nuttiness in the finish. Good length and a very nice wine. Very good indeed (for UK stockists contact Berkmann Cellars 020 7609 4711).

Hedges Cellars Red Mountain Reserve 1997 - £20+
sat beside owner Tom Hedges and his wife Anne-Marie at dinner and had a second chance to taste this wine with good food. It is lovely stuff with a fine cigar-box elegance on the nose, with notes of tobacco and olive against rich blackcurrant and cherry fruit. Savoury and structured on the palate, it has good balance of fruit against quite grippy tannins and moderate acidity. Long, and very good indeed.

Andrew Will Klipsun Vineyard Merlot 1999 - £20+
Winemaker Chris Camarda was here to show his wines. Unbelievably, Chris cannot drink wine for medical reasons, so these wines are crafted though his knowledge, sense of smell and obvious passion. Andrew Will (actually the names of his two sons) was arguably the top estate of the tasting for me. This glorious merlot displays a silky, hedonistic depth of summer berry fruits that are bright and focused, but meld into a plummy depth. A leafy, vegetal note adds interest. Ripe, chewy and beautifully refined tannins grip the palate, but there is fine weight of crunchy, ripe fruit and a nice core of firm minerality and balanced acidity. Long and very impressive. Excellent (for UK stockists contact Morris & Verdin 020 7357 8866).

Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval Merlot 1999 - £20+
plush, rich, spicy nose with plenty of fruit and a nice tobacco and liquorice depth. Plenty of stuffing on the palate, this has a smooth texture and sweet, rich berry fruit with a leafy, vegetal edge and firm but ripe tannic underpinning. Balanced and fresh into the finish thanks to good acidity, another fine Pinot. Very good indeed.

Andrew Will Pepper Bridge Sangiovese 1999 - £15-20
There's a lovely peppery zest to the cherry fruit on the nose of this wine. It is joined by briary wood and a nice old, polished mahogany character. The palate is creamy and rich, with lots ripe, creamy cherry fruit and softer spice and tobacco beneath. Lovely balance and good length. Very good indeed.

Andrew Will Seven Hills Cabernet 1998 - £20+
Creamy, sweet, lush blackcurrant and cassis nose, though a dense, leathery quality too and some cedary oak. On the palate this continues with seamless, soft, dry blackcurranty fruit and fine, drying tannins and good length. Very good indeed.

Andrew Will Sorella 1998 - £20+
Bordeaux-like blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc. Very concentrated nose of blue/black fruits, liquorice and deep, black plum bittersweet notes. Nicely bittersweet on the palate too, savoury and fine with chocolaty tannins coating the mouth and a lovely quality of fruit. Excellent balance again and some real structure which suggests this would age very nicely. Very good indeed/excellent.