Bill’s Best Bets – November 2017

The red and white of Washington State
by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Washington State was the regional focus at latest edition of La Grande Degustation de Vin held in Montreal at the beginning of November. It gave me another opportunity to taste a large number of wines from this up and coming wine region, and it didn’t disappoint.

Washington State has a lot going for it with its mix of latitude, altitude and heat. The more northerly latitude – it is further north than Montreal – means long summer days filled with sunlight to ripen grapes. Despite summer temperatures which can reach over 35C in many areas, altitude allows for cool nights that allow grapes to keep their acidity. And these same mountains also act as a rain break, keeping the interior dry, while on the coast it is arguably too wet for grape growing. Some sub-regions are technically deserts.

The end result is that there are a number of different terroirs as one moves from north to south, each with its own identity and ability to produce interesting and unique wines with a wide variety of grapes.

My last visit was in 2014. Three years later, I am amazed at the growth and the quality of the wines. My biggest criticism on my last visit was that too many winemakers had Califiornia-itis, and were trying to make red wines that were overly powerful when the growing conditions called for more elegant and finessed wines. That seems to be a thing of the past as I tasted a number of wines which pleased my Euro-centric palate.

In whites, I tasted some exceptional wines. Washington State has made a name for riesling, and can do a number of different styles. On the dry side, Mildebrandt’s under $20 Riesling Tradition is beautifully textured, and a great deal for under $20. On a more Germanic style, Charles Smith’s Kung Fu Girl does an excellent job, full of tropical fruits and despite the 17g/l of residual sugar, stays nicely balanced and dry on the finish.

There were some surprises too. L’ecole 41’s 2016 Chenin Blanc was perhaps the biggest. Aromatic, textured and dry, this was one of my wines of the show. In the “strange blend” department, Hedges’ 2014 CMS brings chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and marsanne together to produce a uniquely aromatic and easy to drink white.

Milbrandt Traditions Riesling 2015Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2015L'école No 41 Walla Walla Valley Chenin Blanc 2016Hedges C.M.S. Sauvignon Blanc / Chardonnay / Marsanne 2014

For reds, I really like what they do with the Rhone varieties, especially syrah. Much like riesling, they offer up a number of styles. If you want it big, the Charles Smith’s 2014 Boom Boom offers up a nice mix of darker fruits with a spicy finish. On a much more elegant side, Sean Boyd’s Rotie Cellars’ blend of syrah and viognier pays hommage to the Northern Rhone with the same floral, red fruited and finely grained tannins that you find in this great grape’s spiritual home. And I was simply blown away by Spring Valley’s 2010 Syrah Nina Lee. So floral and fresh, I thought it was made in the most northern reaches of the Rhone.

Charles Smith Boom Boom! Syrah 2014Rôtie Cellars Northern Blend 2013Spring Valley Vineyards Syrah Nina Lee 2010

But most of the reds are based on Bordeaux varieties, especially cabernet and merlot. At the top of my list were two wines. L’ecole 41’s 2014 Frenchtown is a merlot-driven Bordeaux blend, though with some syrah thrown in for good measure. Beautifully textured and very elegant. Powers’ 2013 Champoux Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon blew me away with its freshness, power and finely grained tannins. Bolgheri lovers will dig this. Powers’ basic cabernet sauvignon is also well worth your interest, and for it’s $20 price tag, it’s a good value as well.

L'ecole No 41 Frenchtown Red 2014Powers Cabernet Sauvignon Champoux Vineyards 2013Powers Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

So it was a very revealing tasting for me, and there were many more wines which I could have recommended though they are not yet available at the SAQ. Congrats Washington State, you are making a believer out of me.


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

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