Friday, 1 March 2013

USA: beyond the Golden State

California is the leviathan of US wine, accounting for 90% of production and, despite exporting seemingly limitless quantities of Blossom Hill and Gallo here, making 3 out of every 4 bottles sold within the US.  The state basks in the reflected glory of its nickname, The Golden State, a name that betokens glamour, riches, sunshine and the good life.   However, there are plenty of other wine-making parts of the US, including California’s more northern West coast neighbours :  Washington and Oregon. 

Washington State is perhaps a surprise runner up in the wine production states, though it’s a distant second and hardly clipping at California’s heels, with only 5% of the total.  Its nickname is the rather more homely The Evergreen State – fair do’s, the name evokes the expansive wilderness of conifer forests nurtured by the plentiful rain that falls here (we’ve all seen Frasier, right?).  The state’s highest peak is even called Mount Rainier.

The Columbia River, Washington State

However, if you’ve visited the area around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula and experienced the mile upon mile of forest, including one of the world’s rare areas of temperate rain forest, you might be surprised to find that the state produces any wine at all – it’s too cool and damp, surely?

Vines in arid Washington State

The answer to the conundrum is the Cascade Mountains:  these stand between Seattle and the interior and act as a barrier to the cool, wet conditions that prevail on the coast, sheltering the Columbia Valley, where most wine is made.  They do such a good job that the Columbia Valley has rainfall levels that class it as desert (only 150-250mm annually, compared with just under 800mm in southern England).  The plentiful sunshine means that warm climate varieties thrive here, including Syrah, and Bordeaux stalwarts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Sandwiched in between California and Washington, Oregon is known as The Beaver State.  I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by saying any more on that topic.

On the subject of wine, Oregon is, counter-intuitively, the coolest and wettest of the three west coast wine producing states.  While the Cascades continue south into Oregon from Washington, most winegrowing areas sit between them and the lower Coastal Range, which provides only slight protection from the prevailing weather.  The vineyards are correspondingly cooler, cloudier and wetter than their more northerly neighbours.

Mist in cool climate Oregon

Oregon is largely synonymous with a single variety – Pinot Noir, which represents a staggering 66% of plantings, ahead of Pinot Gris in second place at 14%.  Pinot Noir is renowned as a cool climate variety, so it makes sense that it should find a home here, but it is also a tricky grape to nurture and in these marginal areas vintage variation is marked.

Autumn colour at Sokol Blosser estate, Oregon

Neither of these regions provides the kind of cheap wine thrills that California can, whose size bestows the ability to mass produce branded wine.  Both Oregon and Washington are more boutique-y in feel and the prices of their wines (especially once they’ve been exported here) are more like high end California.  The small scale of producers, especially those from Oregon, means that they generally won’t pitch up on the supermarket shelves and a visit to a specialist independent merchant will be in order if you want to taste them.

Wines from Washingon

Eroica Riesling 2011 – Slurp and Winedirect both have the 2010 for £17.95, Fareham Wine Cellar stocks the 2008 for £19.10
Eroica is a joint venture between Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington’s largest wine producer, and German Ernie Loosen, master of the Mosel and Riesling guru.  Riesling has a bit of a problem, apart from the main one of its unfair image as a low quality variety.  Off-dry Rieslings tend to have bags of fruit, balanced by crisp acidity, but are terribly unfashionable.  Dry Rieslings can sometimes sacrifice the exuberant fruit, leaving searing acidity that sets the teeth on edge.  This wine happily manages to combine the incisive and linear acidity of a dry Riesling, without sacrificing charm and peachy fruit.
L’Ecole 41 Columbia Valley Syrah 2009 – older vintages available from Noel Young Wines (based in Cambridge or online), Winedirect has the 2008 for £23
Columbia Valley is the powerhouse of Washington wine growing, with surprisingly warm and dry conditions that favour heat-loving varieties such as Syrah.  L’Ecole 41 have a well-deserved reputation for quality reds.  This Syrah has beautifully pure blackcurranty fruit with a peppery kick and enough acidity to balance the richness of the fruit.  Beware:  its elegance belies its 15.5% alcohol.

Wines from Oregon

Bergström Old Stones Chardonnay 2010 - £25.95 from Roberson Wine (shop in Kensington or order online)
A classy Chardonnay whose inviting nose promises ripe fruit with its wisp of honey and aroma of yellow Mirabelle plums.  The palate delivers this and more, with savoury, flinty lees character and wonderful freshness.

Bergström also have a delicious range of Pinot Noirs, available from Roberson and Noel Young Wines.

Firesteed Oregon Pinot Gris 2011 - £15.79 from Christopher Piper Wines; Slurp has the 2010 for £14.30
Chardonnay undoubtedly has more cachet than Pinot Gris, but well-made examples like this give plenty of food friendly enjoyment.  And if buying Oregon wines is starting to look like a rich person’s past-time, then this is a relative bargain.  Crisp, juicy tropical fruit with a hint of peach, melon and the variety’s trademark gentle spice.

Sokol Blosser Estate Pinot Noir 2009 – Guildford’s own Caves de Pyrène has the 2008 for £30.36; Noel Young Wines has the 2008 for £25.64 or the 2007 for £35.10; Winedirect stocks the 2009 for £32.50
Oregon’s Willamette Valley (one of my favourite regions in the world to say: it’s WillAMette, to rhyme with dammit) does have variable weather from year to year, so the other vintages may not display the same seductive fruit as I found in the beguiling 2009.  There’s plenty of oak drapery too, but the quality of the fruit shines through.

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