It's hard to imagine Washington as a premier wine-growing region, given what popular culture has to say about the place—rainy Seattle, birthplace of grunge music, home of denizens whose thirst for something to take off the chill is so powerful it transformed local roaster Starbucks into a brand nearly as ubiquitous as McDonald's.
In truth, Washington is a tale of two climates—rain forest to the west of the mountains, near desert to the east. And that arid dryness is where wine grapes love to be.
Washington excels at whites made from semillon and sauvignon blanc, and reds constructed from merlot and cabernet sauvignon. But there are also delightful Rieslings to be found, and syrah has made quite a splash.
A couple of giant companies operate in Washington that have achieved nationwide popularity, notably Chateau Ste. Michelle and Hogue. These wines are readily available, and I urge you to check them out as an introduction to the region. But the marketing folks for these wines need no extra help from me; this month, I went in search of wines that may be harder to find, but promise plenty of pleasure.
I've always enjoyed the wines of J. Bookwalter for their combination of finesse and value, and I wasn't disappointed by the J. Bookwalter Riesling Columbia Valley 2005 (Mondo Vino, $16). This wine is loaded with cool peach and pear notes common in light German-style Rieslings, but carries some of the tangerine-tinged richness of Alsatian offerings, too.
This is really a mouth-filling Riesling, with thrilling acidity and only a dash of
residual sugar. I understand the market will be moving into 2006 soon; as good as the 2005 is, the 2006 can only be better. You can't go wrong with either, in my view.
Another delicious Columbia Valley bottling comes to us from the Hedges Family Estate in the form of their CMS Red 2005 (The Henry Wine Group, $12.99). The "CMS" refers to the blend—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah. A bit closed up when first opened, this wine eventually blossoms into an engaging amalgam of ripe cherries, pipe tobacco aromas, and a hint of polished oak. It also rumbles with an earthy darkness typical of Washington wines, which makes it a natural for cold-weather fare like braises or maybe a steaming serving of French onion soup.
Initial shyness is a trait shared by the Andrew Will Winery Sheridan Vineyard 2003 (Bacchus Importers, $50). The Sheridan vineyard is located in the
Yakima Valley, composed of classic Bordeaux varietals—cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc.
This was another wine that needed to get acquainted with oxygen for a few minutes before unwrapping itself. When it did, it turned out to be a monster red wine. Dark and almost obtuse, it showed wonderful depth and viscosity, brimming with dark fruit notes, a crack of black pepper spice, and a healthy dose of dry tannin. It continued to show well over the course of almost three days, eventually mellowing into a softer wine that indicates great long-term aging potential.