Fight to the Finish
One of Washington's master oenophiles puts local wines to the taste test.
WASHINGTON WINE FANS OFTEN WONDER how their favorite varietals stack up against the big boys. Our state produces delicious cabs, but nothing seems to beat Napa’s big reds. Local rieslings have a fruity finish, but would they hold up against the German heavyweights? Joel Butler, director of wine education at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and one of Washington’s three certified Masters of Wine—the highest certification in the vino world—says wines here have the “intensity and ripeness” of New World wines, but with the “brighter fruit, acidity, and structure found in classic regions.” Here he puts local wines to the ultimate test: a head-to-head taste-off with the varietal standard-setters that inspired them.
Round 1: Pinot Gris
Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris 2006 ($13) vs. Italy’s Abbazia di Novacella Valle Isarco Pinot Grigio 2006 ($22)
Pinot grigios are produced in Eastern Washington’s cooler wine regions like Yakima Valley, which creates complex vintages with ripe honeydew and kiwi notes. This Italian pinot hails from the northeastern region of Alto Adige in the Alps, where a similarly cool climate leads to aromatic, sleek wines with mineral, floral, and tart fruit flavors.
AND THE WINNER IS It’s (basically) a tie. “The pinot from Washington is a little more rounded but still maintains those mineral and floral notes,” says Butler.
Round 2: Riesling
Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling 2006 ($22) vs. Germany’s Gunderloch Jean Baptiste Riesling Kabinett 2006 ($20)
Riesling put Washington on the wine map in 1974, when Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 1972 Johannisburg beat 19 competitors in a blind tasting conducted by the Los Angeles Times. “That was Washington’s first big hit,” says Butler. Rieslings from Germany’s largest viticulture region, the Rheinhessen, are crisp off-dry wines with lemon and green-apple flavors. Local ones have a comparable clean finish but are laced with pear and tropical fruit flavors.
AND THE WINNER IS Another tie, but one that feels like a victory. “We can make riesling every bit as good as, and sometimes better than, Germany” declares Butler.
Round 3: Chardonnay
Snoqualmie Naked Chardonnay 2006 ($12) vs. France’s Joseph Drouhin Pouilly Fuissé 2006 ($21)
Born in Burgundy, this grape is now grown in every wine region from France to Peru. Often big, buttery, and oaky or supple, light, and fruity, local chardonnays are more akin to vintages from southern Burgundy’s Pouilly-Fuissé appellation, which lies on the same latitude as Horse Heaven Hills in Eastern Washington.
AND THE WINNER IS Burgundy is this varietal’s victor. The wines “are less fruit forward with a mineral character and an almost nutty flavor,” Butler says. Meanwhile local chards suffer from “an obvious intense fruit flavor of pear, green apple, and citrus with a slight minerality streak.”
Round 4: Syrah
Columbia Crest Syrah Columbia Valley Reserve 2004 ($30) vs. France’s E. Guigal Saint-Joseph Lieu-Dit 2004 ($47)
The northern Rhône valley in France sets the benchmark for the varietal. In the Saint-Joseph appellation the cooler climate, granite soils, and steep hillside vineyards produce wines with raspberry, blackberry and gamey flavors, the region’s signature green olive and smoky bacon aromas, and a focused finish. Columbia Valley’s thin and porous volcanic soils, Butler says, “give wines herbal, meaty, and black fruit flavors similar in quality to the northern Rhône.”
AND THE WINNER IS The Rhône wins, but Washington wines beat out other New World syrahs. “They don’t display that overripe or jammy fruit character of California or southerly latitude syrahs,” says Butler.
Round 5: Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Cold Creek Vineyard 2004 ($26) vs. Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2004 ($45)
Though Napa currently reigns over other cabernet-growing regions, Butler foresees big things for cabs in Washington. “We have lower temperatures during the ripening season, which preserves acidity and produces wines that are more graceful, fresher and have more nuances,” he says. Napa’s powerhouse cabernets burst with currant, black cherry, and wild berry flavors. Washington’s taste more like the Bordeaux cabs, with undertones of black olive.
AND THE WINNER IS Napa cabs still rule, but Washington’s are a close second.
Buy Chateau Ste. Michelle varietals directly from the company at 800-866-6276 or www.stemichelle.com. You’ll find all other wines mentioned in this article at Esquin Wine Merchants, 2700 Fourth Ave S, SoDo, 206-682-7374; www.esquin.com.