Monday, June 16, 2014
Guild of Sommeliers Master Class: Washington State
I love master classes hosted by the Guild of Sommeliers - they’re really informative and the opportunity to taste through plenty of wines from different regions is fantastic.
This time, I finally got to attend a class on American wines - from what might be my favorite major wine producing state (don’t judge me, fellow New Yorkers, please!) - Washington State. I’ve tasted a bunch of Washington wines already and I like how they seem to reflect the natural characteristics of the grapes without much tampering and without the over-concentration that we see sometimes in the bigger style wines of California. So when I learned that the Guild was offering a master class on Washington, I was all in.
I think when most people think of WA, they think of a cool, rainy place - now, I’ve never been to WA, but from what I hear, Seattle and the surrounding areas are just that - rain, clouds, cool temperatures of the Pacific Northwest. But there’s a part of WA, farther east on the other side of the mountain range, where the climate is far more conducive to growing wine grapes, and while, comparatively speaking, the region is relatively young, there is still history in the area and significant experimenting is going on with regard to more esoteric grapes, or at least grapes that we might not have thought of when thinking of WA. And after tasting through the lineup - 3 flights - I can assure you, it’s not all just Riesling, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet. And it certainly is not all just Chateau Ste. Michelle. And guess what else - it’s all a lot more affordable than its California counterparts, wines of equal quality at a fraction of the price. Suffice it to say, I was very impressed - and as always, I learned a lot and enjoyed the lecture by MS Matt Stamp and MS Scott Carney.
I’m going to list the wines tasted and mention which were my favorites, and then I’ll tell you a bit more about them.
Long Shadows “Poet’s Leap” Riesling, Columbia Valley, 2013
W.T. Vintners Gruner Veltliner, Columbia Gorge, 2013
Amavi Cellars Semillon, Walla Walla Valley, 2012
Efeste “Feral” Sauvignon Blanc, Ancient Lakes, 2012 (favorite)
aMaurice “Sparrow Estate” Viognier, Walla Walla Valley 2013 (major favorite)
Analemma Wines “Oak Ridge” Pinot Noir, Columbia Gorge, 2011
Memaloose “Mistral Ranch” Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2011
Gramercy Cellars “Lagniappe” Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, 2011 (favorite)
Va Piano “Les Collines Black Label” Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, 2012 (major favorite)
Syncline Carignan-Grenache, Columbia Valley, 2012
Rotie Cellars “Southern Red,” Washington, 2011
Idilico Monastrell, Snipes Mountain, 2011 (major favorite)
Cor Cellars Cabernet Franc, Horse Heaven Hills, 2010
Fall Line “Red Willow Vineyard,” Yakima Valley, 2010 (favorite)
Leonetti Cellar Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, 2012 (major favorite)
Andrew Will “Champoux,” Horse Heaven Hills, 2010
Cadence “Ciel du Cheval,” Red Mountain, 2010
Col Solare Red Wine, Columbia Valley, 2001
So as you can see, the first flight was pretty much a variety of whites, most of which were not what I expected (in a good way!), plus a Pinot Noir. The second flight was mostly Rhone grapes, and the third flight was mostly Bordeaux grapes.
Beginning with the whites - the Riesling was very good, and I know WA is well known for its Riesling. It had plenty of weight to it, for a Riesling, with a lovely nose and a nice flavor, but for me, I prefer Rieslings a little lighter and this one seemed a little “hot” for a halb-trocken style. Again, that’s just my style, but I felt there was a bit too much heat for a grape I prefer either on the sweeter side with an acidic follow up, or austere and lean with slightly higher alcohol once the sugar has been converted. I liked it but didn’t love it. The Gruner was cool - clean, easy, uncomplicated, and not overly acidic. (Please remember - yes, I’m a certified sommelier and a major wine geek, and while I like my cool climate wines best, I’m no “acid freak” in that I need these crazy amounts of acid coming at me from the wines - I want them to be fun and delicious while also being clean and lively, but I also realize that many American palates will be turned off by excessive acidity and so I’m more reasonable about acid - unlike many modern young sommeliers who take the acid overload like rays on a tanning bed. Sorry, I seek balance - nothing should be overpowering, including [read: especially] acidity.) The Semillon was also very good - kind of funky and geeky, especially on the palate, and slightly stinky on the nose, which I’m cool with. The texture was on the luscious for a dry style Semillon, with an almost waxy feel and a hint of bitter nut toward the finish, and some “fume” as I like to call it - white smoke with some fuel characteristics. I liked it. And then there was Sauvignon Blanc. Wow. I loved it! It’s more like a Bordeaux style Sauvignon (as opposed to New Zealand or Loire) in that it has a “main course” sort of capability - it can stand up to somewhat richer dishes. With words like “substantial,” “love,” and “standout” written next to it in my notes, I was very impressed. The acidity was bright, the balance was excellent, it’s very food friendly, and - as I like them - a quirky wine that I can identify with, showing garden weed notes, tart white fruit, cumquat, bitter citrus, lemon, crab apple, and dry soil - the unpredictable nature of this wine landed its name as first on the list of favorites of the day. And then the Viognier came along, and I was blown away. Another standout, with “wow” and some other words not fit for a proper wine blog written next to it to remind me how it made me feel, I was in love. On the nose, there was no telltale sign that says “hi, I’m Viognier” at all, as most Northern Rhone examples would. Instead, it had an air of mystery about it. But on the palate, there it was - Viognier - gorgeous on the palate (as well as in the glass!), full, satisfying, borderline stunning, and voluptuous without being too big. Showing notes of tropical and orchard fruit, white and yellow blossoms, and dry soil (with just a touch of Fruit Loops cereal on the nose), it was amazing, and full of personality and expression and uniqueness. Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed a bit by the Pinot Noir - yes, it was sort of Old World style, with plenty of acidity, but perhaps too much tartness, green notes, brine, but otherwise not bad - a touch of bacon fat and smoked wood, cinnamon, barely ripened cherry. Just not what I was hoping for after being completely enchanted by those whites.
Next up were Rhone grape based wines. As you may know, WA Syrah has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years. Several of the wines in this flight were Syrah based, but there were some surprises as well. We started off with the Memaloose “Mistral Ranch” which was nice and I liked it - it showed characteristics of raspberry jam/liqueur, dry soil, and lots of black pepper - clearly it’s mostly Syrah, with Counoise and Grenache. It seemed to beg for some meat with it. Next up was the Gramercy Cellars “Lagniappe” 100% Syrah, which I wrote next to it “wonderful,” and interestingly I called it a “standout in a subtle way” - in that it gently shows beautifully and makes a statement. It’s very minerally and expressive with a cool characteristic (probably reflecting a cool vintage in 2011), both red and dark fruit, raspberry, plum, soft black pepper notes, chocolate, herbs, and flower petals, with a clean feel, fine tannin, and overall balance. That one obviously made the favorites list. And then a surprise - the next 100% Syrah, in my opinion, managed to outshine that last one. The Va Piano “Les Collines Vineyard Black Label” - while seemingly ideal for the American palate who enjoys Syrah, I called this one a “standout with lots of presence” and made mention that food should be there alongside this wine. It’s textured, with nice acidity and balance with the tannin. It shows darker fruit, chocolate, dark herbs and spices, and purple blossoms - it’s delicious, rich, big, young, and dark. Wonderful. Next up was another surprise - usually I don’t connect well at all with Carignan based wines (for my own reasons, I just never really cared for them) - well anyway, the Syncline Carignan-Grenache was a pleasant change as it didn’t have that strange sweaty and rubbery smell. Rather, it shows mostly red fruit with a touch of bell pepper, a lovely nose, and a clear red color. I mentioned in my notes that it’s ready to be enjoyed now, and I also noted that it’s probably the first time that I was not offended by a Carignan based wine. The next wine was a bit of a problem for me - the Rotie Cellars “Southern Red” had that thing that disturbs me on some southern French reds (usually from Languedoc actually) - a hot feel and too much “black” spice. The rusticity of it I did enjoy as I like honest wines that show earthiness and I liked the finish that cooled off and showed smooth fruit and softer spices, but up front it was a little intense for me. Finally, we wrapped up the second flight with the Idilico Monastrell, and I was in love. I do enjoy a well made, properly executed Monastrell (I believe this winery’s maker is Spanish so it’s right to call it Monastrell, otherwise French would call it Mourvedre) - anyway, I included words such as “outrageous,” “harmonious,” “standout,” “wonderful,” and “love” - it shows wonderfully soft fruit notes (both red and dark), sage, thyme, other herbal notes, gorgeous floral notes of young blossoms, and a seemingly perfect balance. For me, this Spanish-influenced wine was an ideal finish to the flight.
Finally we moved on to the Bordeaux grape third flight. I liked this flight, but for some reason I was expecting more - so there were a couple of amazing wines in the flight, but the others didn’t impress me the way I thought they would - I’m suspicious that the wines needed more time, some age to them, and perhaps then they’d show far better, because they are from very reputable producers. Forst was the Cor Cellars Cabernet Franc, made in a Loire style and very bright and tart with red fruit, but as green or peppery as some Loire examples though, but it seemed up tight for me. Next up was the Fall Line “Red Willow Vineyard” which I enjoyed and called it “lovely,” “fun,” “happy,” and noted the characteristics of raspberry and strawberry preserves, fresh herbs, and dry soil, plenty of acidity but what seemed like just the right amount - very dry and clean, young, satisfying, overall delicious and nicely made. Next was one of the best New World wines I’ve tasted in a very long time - the Leonetti Cellar Merlot. Leonetti is considered by many to be among the better producers in WA, and after tasting and experiencing this wine, I concur wholeheartedly. It’s a little on the pricey side, but as MS Stamp pointed out, imagine if the wine came from Napa, it would be several times the price. It’s a very delicious and satisfying wine, dark in color with notes of rich, ripe cherry and chocolate, berry, jam, purple blossoms, and dry soil, with a slight sweetness to the fruit characteristics - suffice it to say, I loved this wine very much, which is saying a lot, considering I generally don’t go for the bigger ripe wines like that. But it had such wonderful presence, expression, and fruit, it was hard to resist it. Impossible, in fact. I was then disappointed a bit by the next two wines. We tasted the Andrew Will “Champoux” which seemed a bit too young to be experienced right now. It’s got plenty of fruit, acid, and tannin, but oddly, while all seemed to have equal presence, instead of coexisting harmoniously, those components seemed to be in a fight with each other. Maybe give it some time and see how they settle in together. I had the same issue with the next wine, the Cadence Cellars “Ciel du Cheval,” in that the fruit, acid, and tannin seemed to be fighting and might just need some more time in the bottle. The final wine of the class was meant to show whether the WA wines are ageworthy - now, as we know, just because one can age does not mean another can, but if this wine, the Col Solare Red Wine from 2001, is any indication, then age is no issue. In fact, I think the wine, while showing gloriously at this time, could stand another five years at least. The rim is beginning to turn a brickish hue, but the core is still dark and borderline opaque, telling us to open another bottle after some time has passed. And in terms of tasting notes, it’s a rich wine with plenty of texture and reminiscent of an older Bordeaux, lovely, showing dark fruit mostly (but softening), smooth baking spices, dry herbs and flower petals and leaves, and stone. Wonderful.
So I found some amazing wines in the lineup, I learned about terroir and climate and soil and even history of WA wine growing regions, and I enjoyed experiencing some fantastic New World wines, which is something of a rarity for me. I have another master class coming up soon - Alto Adige in just two weeks, and I can’t wait!